The first time I heard someone labeled schizophrenic I was in Prospect Park, on a walk with my mom. I was about 10 years old. A man was talking to himself and appeared to be house-less and perhaps on drugs. My mom, a very good teacher and explainer of things to me, said, “That man is schizophrenic. That means he can’t tell the difference between what’s inside of himself and what’s outside.” In retrospect, as were many of the things my mom said to me as a child, this seems like a relatively sophisticated and sensitive explanation. I can appreciate her intention, looking back.
My mom studied psychology in the 70’s and gave me a version of the description she had learned. She, like many, assumed herself qualified to diagnose someone schizophrenic after less than a minute of observation. There is no blood test, brain scan or any other reliable diagnostic procedure to diagnose what we call “schizophrenia.” While, of course, anyone who sets foot into a psychiatrist’s office is likely to be suffering in extreme ways, schizophrenia, in fact, does not exist. Meanwhile, it is the mental health label that many people, even skeptics, think is the only real one.
Often times when I mention that it does not exist, I see the light bulbs go on in people’s minds and they become visibly awakened. Their eyes light up, they look relieved, and they have a lot to say! The truth about the man we saw in the park 20 years ago: if he had been given a home, good food and help sobering up, he likely could have seemed “normal.” The truth about getting an actual schizophrenia diagnosis from a psychiatrist is that many people get it either after or during a recreational drug experience, spiritual breakthrough/psychic opening or as a result of stressful and traumatic experiences.
People who tell a psychiatrist they “hear voices” can get the label, regardless of what hearing voices means to them. Prophets, religious people, mediums, and ordinary folk have been hearing voices from beyond since the beginning of recorded history. Nearly all religions document these experiences. Hearing threatening voices is often a result of trauma. In either/any case, there is no cookie cutter “schizophrenia”- everyone who gets the label has a different experience and needs to be seen as an individual; not as a category. This is obvious for nearly every other diagnosis, so why does society, even those radically inclined, have a blind spot about this one?
Since there is no uniform physical basis for this label, giving everyone who receives it a similar class of brain-damaging drugs – neuroleptics – is wrong, and fails to help most people. What it does do, if someone identifies with the label, and their community identifies them with it, is make them a lifelong outcast and sick person – both from the debilitating effects of the drug, and the identification with a label that scares people.
Please, for the sake of humanity, don’t use the word schizophrenic to describe anyone. Tell us what you mean instead – and if you don’t know enough about someone to say what you mean, please just admit it. If you had a bad drug experience or a trauma or heard a voice from beyond, would you want to be ostracized as a schizophrenic? Would you want to be made sick for life?
If we go back to my mother’s definition (which is one of many vague definitions of schizophrenia) – not knowing the difference between what’s inside of ourselves and what’s outside – and look at the things that make life worth living, they all put us in that category. Falling in love, hearing music that enters our heart, having children/giving birth, connecting powerfully with another person in a meeting of the minds, feeling empathy, deeply caring about something, experiencing oneness with nature, are all examples of times when the line between inner and outer reality is blurred. This is how we achieve what we value most in life; connection.
There are extreme cases where the blur between external and internal reality can be torturous, or so strong that one may shut down and disconnect. Let’s remember, though, that everything starts as an impulse to connect – which requires inner and outer realities to merge in our hearts.
Hearing voices from beyond is a cornerstone in my life and is the source of nearly every success I’ve ever had!
Another question that arises is this: Why do we often glorify recreational drugs use but not what we call “schizophrenia?” People often take recreational drugs, whether occasionally or regularly, to experience a more extreme version of merging inner and outer realities – and sometimes receive profound insights from these experiences. I’d venture to guess that we view the “schizophrenic” as alone, dysfunctional, and unable to relate with others. We see how s/he has been ostracized, yet the ostracizing takes place mostly after the diagnosis is given. The diagnosis, in essence, creates the disease. It allows us to simplify the questions in someone’s life and say, “Now we know what’s wrong with them.” Recreational drug use, on the other hand is more likely to be associated with social life, community and togetherness.
But when we use the label schizophrenic, do we know any more than before? If curiosity about a person closes off, we know less. We also have no potential to learn more. Intelligence is a responsibility and a gift. Using mental health labels puts a dam in the flow of that river and its power to heal and transform us all.
Without these labels we are left in an abyss at times. We must acknowledge that life is a mystery and our experiences have meaning, even if we don’t know what it is right away. We must create entirely new language and ways of relating with one another. This gives us plenty of real work to do in understanding ourselves and others, with an open mind. Surely as we move away from labels and towards a more honest understanding of life experiences, we will go through many changes and challenges, some of them painful, as we are forced to look at the dark side of the power structures in society, seeing that the Emperor has no clothes. The better ways may not be clear yet, but acknowledging this with humility would be a good step. Acting as if we know everything is a placebo sort of pseudo-confidence that our culture seems to favor.