Editor’s note: this is a very early version of my “schizophrenia” recovery story. Now I think I just had an existential crisis, a spiritual emergency, and bad marriage, and drug use. Now I think maybe I never needed a mental health diagnosis at all. But in our country today many of these things get people needlessly labeled and medicated. I’m posting this schizophrenia recovery story hoping that people with some of those labels will get some hope from the way I escaped the mental health system.
Taking Back the Dreams
by Corinna West (around 2008)
1. Looking for a cure
When I was young I was a dreamer. I wanted to win the Olympics. I found out what I had to do, and worked at it every day for years. Eventually I made the Olympic team but came home without a medal. I got older and decided that I was going to be a great scientist and a caring wife, raise a great family and live happily ever after. I was working on the scientist part, earning a Masters degree and working on my Ph.D., when I was labeled with a mental illness. It eventually was schizophrenia, among 11 other labels I was given. So I had to come up with a schizophrenia recovery story.
I figured that I would take the meds, do what the doctors said, and everything would be back on track. I could just grit out the problems I was having at work. But that never happened. I simply couldn’t do the sequential intricacies of lab work. My marriage wasn’t working out, and the attempt to get out of science and try teaching hadn’t worked either. At that point I decided that there was “nothing left”, no way at all to create a schizophrenia recovery story and I ended up back in the mental hospital.
Every day in the hospital I talked to those doctors, and asked for help. They tried all their treatments, but nothing seemed to work. I thought I didn’t have anything to go back for, and they didn’t want to let me out. They just kept adding medications. After a month I was on six medications at the same time, and they had given me seven ECT treatments. My problems weren’t any closer to being solved and my family came to sign me out against medical advice because they were worried about brain damage from the shock, which turns out to be a pretty significant risk they hadn’t warned me about.
I thought, “Well, if traditional medicine doesn’t work, I can try the alternative route. I’ll let them fix me.” After Chinese medicine, depossesions, faith healings, and something called plant spirit medicine, I still didn’t have a miraculous schizophrenia recovery story. I was back in the mental hospital. I didn’t know why I thought the doctors would help me this time, why it would be different, but I was just still trying to get better somehow, waiting for someone to save me.
2. The turning point
The most important moment in my schizophrenia recovery story came during my fourth hospitalization. I had earned smoking privileges and I came back in from a smoke break and told the staff I was still having suicidal thoughts. I gave them details, and the person in charge said, “Are you sure you want to be telling me this? Because I’ll have to tell the doctors and they’ll take away your privileges.”
I said, “No, what about that weather outside anyway?”
But the next day they took away my privileges, for being honest with them. I think at that moment I realized, “That’s all they can do.” All of the doctors, and all I got was locked up and put on medication. There wasn’t going to be another result, like going to the hospital and coming out free of symptoms with a real life in front of me. There wasn’t going to be one specific medication that would solve my problems. The answer wasn’t going to be found by some special psychiatrist. I had enough hospitalizations to know what would happen, and the same search for help kept getting the same result: locked up, put on meds, and shock treatments. There’s only so many tools in any given toolbag, and I had already seen them all. “They” had no new way at all to create my schizophrenia recovery story.
3. Job hunting
I would like to say that once I realized that the doctors couldn’t fix me, then I just fixed myself. It didn’t happen that way. Instead, I got out of the hospital, came home and tried to get a job. I was so doped up from the meds that I fell asleep halfway through the job interview. It was so bad that the people interviewing me brought me coffee and kept cutting the interview shorter and shorter. Afterward my thinking was so skewed that I was surprised when I didn’t get the job. That’s one reason that medications ended up finally not being a big part of my schizophrenia recovery story.
There was quite a while when I had a hard time getting any kind of work. I have a lot of ego tied into working – I have always been a hard worker, and it bothered me a lot to be unemployed. The lucky thing for me is that I never considered myself unemployable – just without a job. There are some people who were told they wouldn’t be able to work, and luckily I never heard that. I got fired enough times that I started to believe that I couldn’t work in my field, but I lost hope on my own without any outside discouragement.
The hardest thing for me was taking the dreams I started with – working in science, being an athlete, and having a family – and watching them all seem impossible. I was sickest when those dreams all dribbled away, and what made me better was finding new dreams – working with animals, trying new sports, and finding friends. I don’t know how to tell someone how to build up new dreams. I don’t know when old dreams are really impossible or when it would just take more work to reach them. I don’t know if I could have built up new dreams if my symptoms weren’t managed well.
The big thing was finding new work. I had a friend who offered to sign me up as an apprentice in a completely new line of work, dog grooming. Some days I made only $20 a day, but I was bringing home money, and the work got me out of the house as my marriage finished crumbling. Finding a job I could do, a possible career field, gave me more hope than any doctor or medicine ever had.
4. The road to recovery
Now I am not sure what the future holds, but I am willing to keep working and accept it. Even when I have trouble at work, instead of thinking that I will be fired and there’s “nothing else” I can do, I am willing to work through the difficulty. That “nothing” place only exists if I believe it does.
It is possible to drive from Miami to California and not see a single sign for most of the journey that you are on your way to California. That’s the way it felt for me. I just kept grinding and grinding and not feeling like I was getting better. Then one day I looked up and it was spring and I hadn’t had hallucinations for a whole week and I could read again and I hadn’t been reprimanded at work. Here’s my poem about this exact moment.
Another thing that makes a difference for me is exercise. For many years of my life I used to exercise two or three times a day. When I was first put on psych meds I gained fifty pounds and exercise was much less enjoyable. I found that getting out and being active is just part of who I am, and the more I do, better I feel. Now I try to ride my bike to work during the day or have some fun with my dog in the afternoon.
Some of the other things that helped me were going back to church, where I could make some sense out of life and meet new people. I have been involved in a group therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy that has taught me a lot of useful skills. I have enjoyed going to a group called Recovery, Inc., where I’ve learned that symptoms are distressing but not dangerous, and that fearful and angry temper are to be avoided. I’ve gotten more involved in my hobbies, trying to stay busy instead of just napping all day. I’ve read a lot about mental illness and used the information to help me plan what I can do to help myself, instead of being limited by some kind of prognosis. Who knows – the most important thing for me might have been the depossession that the alternative healers had performed. I think it was probably a combination of all of these things that got me back to work, and I think each person will need to find their own path to recovery.
5. Finding hope – a schizophrenia recovery story completely graduating a need for mental health care
It was a doctor who had asked me when I felt most myself, and I realized that it had been back when I worked out so much. However, there hadn’t been much other help than that from the traditional mental health community. I was never officially given the party line about being on medications forever and not working, but it inherent in the way I was always treated. No one ever told me that I could recover and take back that life in the middle class with the family and the happily ever after that I always wanted. I had to build that dream back up for myself. There was a serious lack of encouragement in the health care system. I found my own courage by taking small steps each day that built up into bigger dreams with time.
I think that true dreams always have to come from within yourself, and part of what makes a dream precious is the work done for it despite the opposition. There were a lot of people that thought I was crazy to want to win the Olympics, but I did my best to get as far as I could. There are not many people out there who believe that mental illness is both real and also possible to overcome. There are people out there that believe in rehabilitation, that a diagnosis is always going to be an obstacle, but full recovery is a different goal.
I have accepted that for me medication is part of reaching my goals. For me, I have basically no side effects from my current meds, so it’s an easy calculation on the cost/benefits. For many people that calculation doesn’t work out the same way. When I was on birth control pills, I just took the pill each morning without a lot of emotional baggage. I wasn’t more or less of a person, I was just choosing not to be pregnant at the time. Right now I am choosing not to have so many hallucinations or be manic, and there’s no “forever” because I can always make a different choice later on. I don’t choose any kind of label to go along with the meds.
Editors note – keep in mind this essay was written in 2008. Later I learned the drugs were ineffective, they were messing with my sleep, and my hallucination came from trauma and not so-called schizophrenia. I found life completely off medications much better.
For a long time I was worried about labels. I learned a lot when I thought I had narcolepsy because I was sleepy all the time. I was convinced I had the label, and I checked the DSM criteria for narcolepsy and thought I could fit. After about $6000 worth of medical testing, the doctors decided I didn’t have any sleep problem at all. In the meantime, I had gone off the stimulants, and found that beyond the initial withdrawal, I did fine without them. I realized that criteria like the DSM are only a guess anyway, and people can be shoehorned into many labels. I’d been given eight psychiatric labels at that point.
In conclusion, I think learning about recovery is like quitting smoking. There is a lot of information out there about quitting smoking, including timetables of how you’ll feel, lists of coping strategies, even toll-free 24 hour numbers where you can talk to a live counselor who will tell you not to smoke. Yet I found that the more I looked at this information, the more I wanted to smoke. At some point I just had to get on with my life. The years I spent thinking I was too sick to dream were definitely the low point of my life. Letting someone else limit my dreams has never worked for me. I have chosen to get well despite the artificial limits placed on me by the mental health community.