The error of science when it comes to schizophrenia

This is an essay I wrote for the M.O.M.S Movement, a sponsor.

My son’s story is not nearly as dramatic as some of the other mother’s stories here on this website. He has not been incarcerated in prison due to his behavior, nor has he spent years on a cocktail of powerful antipsychotic medication prescribed in too high doses. My son’s story is typical of what often happens to sensitive, intelligent young men who leave the family nest for the first time and are not prepared to do so. This leaving home period often occurs around the age of 18 when the individual attends university or enters the military.

My son left home at 18 to begin university. His increasingly odd behaviour began to raise concerns for his father and me during his last year of high school. Like many other parents, we were worried and perplexed, but hoped for the best — that he would find his footing at university and return to being the sensitive, intelligent son we thought we knew. But, of course, life doesn’t work that way. My son ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Toronto during the first term of his second year at university. He had barely managed to survive the first year, and was put on academic probation. The psychiatrists at the hospital said he had “schizophrenia” and my husband and I took them at their word. The diagnosis was devastating, and negatively informed the way we interacted with my son for the next few years. After all, he had a damaged brain, according to the doctors, he was most likely a chronic case, and the drugs were the best way to manage this “disease.” For the record, my son did not smoke pot or indulge in other recreational drugs. His was a classic case of young man’s schizophrenia that is not drug related.

Back home in Europe, we enrolled my son in a two year psychiatric day program that he reluctantly attended every day from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. At first, my husband and I thought a medically-supervised program was a great idea, but then the cracks began to show when I decided to learn more about the “disease” of schizophrenia.

Here’s what I learned from the author Hermann Hesse, for example:

The mistaken and unhappy notion that a man is an enduring unity is known to you. It is also known to you that a man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves. The separation of the unity of the personality into these numerous pieces passes for madness. Science has invented the name schizomania for it.

Rather than treating my son as encompassing a multitude of souls, or numerous selves that needed to come together into some sort of coherent whole, the program attacked him with the zeal of all that the Western medical/pharmaceutical industrial complex could offer. This superficial treatment included cooking classes, movement classes, acting classes, group therapy, and of course, medications. There was a large staff of social workers, psychiatrists, nurses and occupational therapists to oversee the activities. The program’s approach sounds very good (money is being spent on the problem!), but I began to feel that my son as an individual was being sacrificed to the goals of program overseeing his treatment. My son surely must have had good reasons for going “mad” and the staff at the day program didn’t seem very interested in finding out why his personality had come unravelled in the first place. After all, there is no reason to investigate individual cases if “schizophrenia” is a known biochemical imbalance and your salary is dependent on promoting the disease model, is there? He left the day program after twenty-two months, as much of a mystery to the psychiatrists when he left as when he entered. Though he was marginally better he was still not able to interact socially and was grossly overweight due to the medications.

The rest is history. My research told me that my son could be put back together again with time, with empathy, and by finding therapies for him that helped his body reconnect with his mind. I learned to focus on the person, not the disease. Remember — the original diagnosis stops many people in their tracks and they don’t look further for help because they have “bought” the invalid disease model. I started a blog, Holistic Recovery from Schizophrenia: A Mother and Son Journey and am hoping to publish a mother’s memoir where I discuss the many unusual and highly interesting alternative therapies that my son and I embarked on.

My son is now 27 and is not the person my husband and I hoped we would get back when he was 18 and this ordeal was just beginning. That person wasn’t a real person. My son is becoming an authentic personality. He started out in university thinking (but without passion) that he was headed for a career in science, and in the intervening years he has rediscovered a talent that he was ignoring in himself and that is music. I’ll end this discourse with the remainder of the above quote from Hermann Hesse that explains the error of the scientific model of this so-called disease.

This error of science has many unpleasant consequences, and the single advantage of simplifying the work of the state-appointed pastors and masters and saving them the labors of original thought. In consequence of this error many persons pass for normal, and indeed for highly valuable members of society, who are incurably mad; and many, on the other hand, are looked upon as mad who are geniuses…This is the art of life. You may yourself as an artist develop the game of your life and lend it animation. You may complicate and enrich it as you please. It lies in your hands. Just as madness, in a higher sense, is the beginning of all wisdom, so is schizomania the beginning of all art and all fantasy.

― Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Scientific research begins to catch up with writers

The New York Times ran an article this week How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The study cited shows that new research is beginning to corroborate what I have long believed – that I have become more intelligent from my son’s schizophrenia. The research also reassures me that Chris began looking for meaning when his familiar habits of thought came under pressure. Schizophrenia is a creative response to crisis, if you allow it to be. This is what writers like Hermann Hesse have been saying for years. As R.D. Laing says: “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.”

The Times article is not about schizophrenia, but it could be. The article talks about experiences that violate all logic and expectation. Kierkegaard called it “a sensation of the absurd.” The article goes on to say that “at best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy….. Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.”

According to the article, “the brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.”

The previous sentence should give anyone hope that schizophrenia (or autism or OCD), properly understood and handled, is a quest for growth and that recovery is indeed likely. A caring individual can help the person with the diagnosis to find that pattern by understanding and appreciating that what is taking place is something quite extraordinary.

The study involved twenty college students who read a short story by Franz Kafka, wherein many strange and unexplainable things happened. Afterwards, they and a group of students who had read a different more coherent short story took a test of what researchers call “implicit learning” or knowledge gained without awareness. The test involved studying a series of “45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” The students later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.

The Kafka readers outperformed the control group by 30% to 50%.

My own Kafkaesque experience went like this: After we got the “diagnosis” and as I struggled to stop panicking and remain calm, I started to do a lot of research about schizophrenia. The experience of schizophrenia in my son was so bizarre for me, so out of the ordinary, that in itself sharpened my intellect. I had to resort to more creative thinking after being confronted by nonsense talk and spooky behavior. I read up on and questioned everything I saw and heard. I began downing megadoses of the recommended niacin cure for schizophrenia. As a result, I found myself becoming even more focused and energetic, which allowed me to read and observe even more, putting me on a vicious cycle of intellect improvement. By observing my son and looking outward and inward, I began to see connections where previously I would not have seen any. I began to understand synchronicity as I began to understand schizophrenia better. I began to dimly perceive how the universe is connected. I took up writing. I am studying German.

The Kafkaesque journey of schizophrenia provides many side benefits.

The observer

An important concept in quantum physics is the role of the observer. There is a famous hypothesis called “Everett’s many worlds theory” that builds on Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen theory that an action seen by an observer has more than one possible outcome. Everett’s theory holds that the universe splits when that action is taken (or even when an action is not taken).

Physicist David Z. Albert has put a slightly different spin on Everett’s theory, which I believe is very important to the understanding of schizophrenia. Albert maintains that the term “many worlds” is actually incorrect and that a description that leads to a better understanding is to call it “many viewpoints.” This is in essence the schizophrenic problem of ambivalence: holding two (or possibly) more opposing views in which the center cannot hold. It offers one explanation for Chris’s lifelong aversion to making a choice.

As a university undergraduate, I was an art history major, not a physics major. Physics is hard for me, as it is for most people, to wrap my mind around. The implications of quantum physics are still not well understood, even by quantum physicists. What I can say with some conviction is that an appreciation of schizophrenia will emerge in future from a further understanding of quantum physics and lead to new methodologies in treatment. For the compassionate observer, schizophrenia brings us closer to the knowledge that we are all subject to a supreme power in the universe, but a spark of that divinity is also within us.

To quote Hermann Hesse once more, modern science is in the Stone Age compared to the teachings of ancient Indian mythology. Ancient and indigenous peoples seem to have a better appreciation of multiple realities than modern people do. Indigenous people, such as the Toltec civilization from which Don Juan came, know that hallucinogens can deliver you to an altered dimension where extraordinary things can happen. Although he did not know the physics of the assemblage point, he knew what moving it could do.

It made perfect sense to me that Chris began experiencing altered realities or parallel universes at the time that his assemblage point was breaking up. The assemblage point is assembled in the womb in part by the vibrational energy of the outside universe. Altered states of awareness such as in schizophrenia and lucid dreaming may be indications that there are universes parallel to our own.

(See also “The Akashic field and synchronicity,” April 22, 2009)

The trouble with institutions, Part II

Modern science, according to German writer Hermann Hesse, is in the Stone Age compared to the teachings of ancient Indian mythology. I’m sure he’s right.

Dr. Vandemaele, Chris’s psychiatrist at the time, felt that Chris was on the upturn and would be ready to be released from the hospital in early March, 2004. Based on Chris’s reported symptoms and the doctor’s clinical observations, Dr. Vandemaele was of the opinion that Chris had schizophrenia, with a secondary depression, the two together not uncommon in the first presentation of the illness. Dr. Vandemaele assured us that there are effective treatments for both conditions and we could expect Chris to continue to improve with the initiation of the antidepressant. I did not disagree with Dr. Vandemaele’s assessment that Chris had schizophrenia and was also depressed, but to me it was situational depression, prompted by being forced to drop out of university while residing in a mental hospital. To Dr. Vandemaele, depression was a medical thing that could be treated with drugs.

To a doctor working in a psychiatric institution effective treatments mean medication. The institutional doctor does not convincingly project to the patient or the relatives a belief that the patient will eventually be capable of functioning in normal society, probably because the doctor does not work with normal society. His belief system comes from a conservative medical training and what he sees on the psychiatric wards. He only sees the breakdown within the walls of the institution.

For decades, psychotherapy has been downgraded as an effective treatment for schizophrenia in favor of drug treatment. Many people did not benefit from this treatment because it was considered of little therapeutic value when it came to schizophrenia. Dr. Vandemaele spoke of effective medications and did not speak of psychotherapy except to turn that job over to Chris’s priest.

R.D. Laing was one psychiatrist who understood. “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.” This sentiment may have been echoed by Dr. Vandemaele, but if it was, he never shared it with me. I could have used the encouragement and the hope in this very dark period. Instead, the language of the institution and the staff was psychosis, comorbid symptoms, prodromal symptoms, effexor, respiradone, etc. These words are terrifying.