An Excerpt From My Memoir: My First Few Days with Schizophrenia

Robin Cunningham Health Guide
  • The perspectives on schizophrenia I can provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with schizophrenia has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you. I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience. Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.
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    In my first five blogs I have endeavored to illustrate the extent and severity of my illness; the benefits of early intervention; the fact that the treatment I received from the very beginning of my illness anticipated by many years what is today widely regarded as best practice treatment (medications combined with appropriate therapy); and the importance of compliance coupled with the development of effective coping skills. It is my intent to delve more deeply into all these issues in future blogs.

    However, before we return to the issues cited above, I want to share, in a series of blogs, the reactions on the part of others to my mental illness and the illnesses of my family members and how these have evolved over the sixty years that I have been a consumer and a family member. These will include the responses of my immediate family, other relatives, psychiatrists, other doctors, educators, employers, peers, and other consumers, as well as the people I have met and worked with on a daily basis.

    While I will be referring to my own specific experiences in this mini-series, many readers, family members and consumers alike, may well find similarities in the incidents of their own lives.

    To set the stage for the series, in this blog I have included an abridged excerpt from my upcoming memoir which involves an argument between my parents, a discussion I accidentally overheard. It occurred in 1956, just two days after the demonstrative symptoms of my schizophrenia first appeared and one year after the development of the first medication for treating this brain disease. At this point in my illness I believed I was under assault by Satan.

    The italicized text represents my thoughts as I listen.


    * * *

    Deciding I needed a glass of milk, I climbed out of bed. Much to my surprise, the kitchen lights were on. I heard my parents talking. The tone in their voices made me approach cautiously. The swinging doors leading from the dining room into the kitchen were closed, but there was a gap where the doors should have come together that I could see through.

    “Like I just said, it would be a terrible mistake,” Father exclaimed. “Give him a little time to work it out on his own. He’ll probably be just fine.”

    Work what out? Satan is assaulting me. I need spiritual help.

    Father sat at the kitchen table, his tall, thin frame hunched over as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

  • “What do you mean ‘he’ll be just fine’,” Mother protested. “Your family has always pretended there’s no problem, as if that would make it all go away. You’ve never faced the facts.”

    What facts? Make what go away?

    “How can you say I’ve never faced the facts?”

    “Keep your voice down, Bob!”

    My parents never fight. Father always leaves the room whenever mother tries to talk about their disagreements.

    “How can you say I’ve never faced the facts?” Father repeated, a bitter edge on his voice.

    Father never talks to Mother this way. Are these really my parents? Has Satan gotten to them too?
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    “Your whole family has never accepted the fact that it carries a susceptibility to mental illness. You’ve all been in denial. You avoid each other so you won’t have to face it. You’ve drifted apart.”

    What mental illness? I knew about my aunt Mildred. There were others?

    “Denial! Ever since my father committed suicide, ever since I was eight years old, I’ve gone to bed every night not knowing if I’d awaken in the morning in a private hell like the one that killed him.”

    What “private hell?” Killed my grandfather? Was he mentally ill? They must think that I’m sick too!

    I hadn’t known my grandfather had killed himself. The possibility of getting sick like him disturbed me greatly.

    Had Satan talked directly to my Grandfather? Did he tell my Grandfather to kill himself? What is Satan going to tell me? Will I be able to resist his suggestions?

    I stared at my parents in disbelief. Their anger and anguish made them look like complete strangers.

    “What good would it do to deny it?” Father said. “Will denial help if I get sick? The mental illness in my family has always been obvious enough to those who are close. We’ve just never advertised.”

    “But your family waited to seek help for Walt and Mildred until it was too late, until they were too far gone.”

    Uncle Walt! He died when I was five. He was mentally ill too?

    “Since you’ve brought up Walt and Mildred, let’s talk about what happened to them. Of course we tried to hide the fact they were mentally ill. But you know full well we also took them to more than one doctor. And look what it got them. The shrinks couldn’t do anything and people found out. They were ostracized. Friends suddenly began to treat them like lepers, like idiots. Walt couldn’t get a job to save his soul. If you take Robin to a psychiatrist the same thing will happen to him.”

    Father picked up his cup to drink, but he spilled more coffee than he drank. Without comment, my mother wiped it up with her sponge.

    “The doctors might be able to help,” Mother persisted.

    “Like the doctors helped Walt and Mildred?” Father shot back.

    “Bob, keep your voice down!”

    “They said the brain surgery, the prefrontal lobotomies, would help,” Father said quietly, his voice breaking.

    Was this the operation Mildred had? Uncle Walt had one too? My mother wants me to have brain surgery!

  • “But they didn’t really know what they were doing. Do you really want them to experiment on our son? The doctors ruined the prospects of my brother and sister. They may not have had much in life, but the doctors managed to destroy even that. I’ll not let that happen to Robin.”
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    This can’t be my parents. They would never let someone experiment on me.

    My father’s head was bowed. His voice had become strained.

    “And you think mental illness won’t destroy Robin’s life?” my mother continued.

    “If you take him to a psychiatrist, you’ll be taking a terrible chance. He’s a bright boy, but people will conclude he is weak or lacking in character. They’ll never give him a chance. He’ll start life with two strikes against him.”

    I couldn’t have imagined life without my parents’ love and support. Now their conversation terrified me almost as much as Satan.

    “We may not have a choice,” Mother said.

    “There’s always a choice,” Father countered. “The difficult things in life build character. Robin’s problems will make him all the stronger if he can work it out in his own way. Then he’ll bear no stigma.”

    My parents are playing into Satan’s hands. I don’t need medical attention. And I can’t fight off Satan by myself.

    My heart was beating out of control. My head felt hot, as if I were running a fever. Breathing slowly and evenly, I tried to calm myself.

    Struggling to regain his composure, Father sat up straight and wiped his eyes.

    “Are you really worried about Robin’s quality of life,” my mother asked, “or that others might discover you are the source of his problems?”

    My father recoiled as if he had been slapped in the face. His coffee cup fell from his hand to the floor where it broke into a hundred pieces.

    “That’s not fair. No matter what happens, Robin is my son and I will always stand by him.”

    My mother ignored the broken cup and looked directly at my father.

    “That’s what scares me. You’ll stand by him but do nothing. Hoping for the best you’ll just watch as he sinks. With or without your permission, if he doesn’t show real signs of improvement in the next couple of days, if he doesn’t seem to be working it out on his own, I’m taking him to see a psychiatrist.”

    I vowed I would never go willingly.

    * * *

    I did not go willingly to that first visit with Dr. Levy. After all, I knew that I was not mentally ill. But that visit turned out to be the beginning step on my road to recovery.

Published On: January 02, 2007