Living Heroes

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    In the next week or two, I will resume my series of blogs called Choices in Recovery.

    In one of his recent interviews, John McCain talked about the effect on his life of having endured six years of torture and isolation, of living in a 4' x 6' North Vietnamese prison cell.  He said he matured during this period when he came to realize that life was not all about John McCain.


    Once the nightmare of being a prisoner of war had ended, with its isolation and torture, John McCain spent many months in painful physical therapy, but never fully regained his physical functionality.  He explained that to this day, he can't raise his arms above the level of his shoulders.

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    John McCain also spoke briefly about the difficulty of his re-assimilation into a society that had changed in dramatic ways during his absence.  He spoke about the stigma and discrimination against veterans of the Vietnam War.  Finally he talked about the disintegration of his first marriage.  His first wife said that she needed a 40 year old husband, but that John wanted to be 25.


    As we know, over the ensuing years John McCain rose above it all.  The lessons he learned in his 4' x 6' prison cell have driven him to seek the highest political office in the land, indeed the world.  He'd truly learned the meaning of patriotism, of the love of country.  He added that it was in his prison cell that he had earned the trust of the American people.

    What a minute!"  I thought.  Change a few words, a bit of nuance, and John McCain's story begins to sound like the perfect metaphor for living with schizophrenia.


    Individuals with schizophrenia ("we" or "us") are tortured both mentally and emotionally, and without cessation, by the symptoms of our illness.  The pain and suffering we experience are of a different type, but are no less severe.


    The symptoms of schizophrenia almost always result in isolation simply because others do not understand the nature of our agony.  It is easier for most people to imagine the physical pain that John McCain endured than the effects of hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and social anxiety.


    We all know about therapy.  We are familiar with the pain of aggravating our wounds repeatedly, in stretching ourselves to the limit, in an attempt to prevent, lessen or recapture losses of functionality   And, we also understand how such losses can be permanent.  We, too, often find it difficult to "raise our arms above our shoulders."

    We also face the daunting task of re-assimilation into society.  This is one of the reasons we enter into therapy.  And, in an attempt re-assimilate, we are hurt and frustrated by stigma and discrimination, by being treated by all (including providers) as if we are somehow inferior because of our illness.


    Like John McCain, after an "absence," we often experience the loss of friends and loved ones.  Many families are destroyed by mental illness.  We, too, would like to return to the way things were before our war with schizophrenia began; we want to recapture the lost years, we want to be "25" again.


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    Unlike wars between nations, our war with schizophrenia never ends.  There are no peace treaties to memorialize the end of hostilities.  There is no going home.  Although there is great promise in current research, those of us alive today will probably take our struggle with schizophrenia to the grave.


    But, with the medications and therapy available, we can enter into recovery.  Recovery is not the end of hostilities for us.  It's gaining and keeping the upper hand.  And oddly enough, recovery can be even better that "going home."  Like John McCain we can overcome.  And like John McCain's prison cell, our illness can teach us sorely needed lessons for a better life.  John learned about "love for country."  We continue to learn about understanding and compassion, about the love of all mankind.  We already know it's not all about ourselves.


    John McCain is a national hero.  He most certainly deserves our honor and respect.


    I have others heroes.  My unsung heroes are all those that struggle with mental illness everyday to make a life for themselves and their loves ones.


    We don't need recognition, but it would be nice if we had a secret handshake.

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    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions.  If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.


Published On: September 07, 2008