I was born in the Netherlands in 1952, the seventh of eleven siblings. When I was a year old, a brother of mine I never had the chance to know died in a car accident; this tragedy created great difficulties for my entire family.
I was a very shy girl, cried easily, and was sensitive, but I had a strong will, too. Until the age of ten, I had no friends, and remained with my mother whenever possible, as I was always unsure of her love for me. In fact, I was always hanging onto her skirts, as if this could give me some assurance about her affection.
When I was about three or four, my mother said to a neighbor, “I have never had such a crybaby for a child!” I was standing right there next to her, and remember knowing she was talking about me.
I think I can say that I was never good with my feet on the ground, and this, basically, was an expression of my internal insecurity. As I’ve written in my memoir, as a child, I was easily worried about hurting myself, and never dared to put myself in seemingly ‘dangerous’ situations, such as climbing trees or onto the low roofs of Dutch houses. Some of my sisters did, but I was never a tomboy, never sure of myself. Quite the opposite. I certainly never excelled in games that required physical ability. Even on roller skates or ice skates I was hopeless.
Starting when I was eight, I began to have a recurring nightmare; only decades later did it go away. I see now that although I managed pretty well at school—I loved studying—I really could have functioned much better.
When I was eighteen, I got a scholarship that allowed me to leave home and live on my own in the same village as my family, which I wanted mostly because of conflicts with my mother. After three months on my own, I started hearing voices, which lasted for a week before I was able to stop listening to them. I wouldn’t hear them again for twenty-five years, after my mother died. It was in these years – from ages seventeen to twenty—that my performance in school declined, but because I’d had long talks with a social worker connected to my school, I was able to handle this strange situation of living outside my parent’s home but still in the same village.
When I was twenty, I moved to Italy for a sabbatical year before deciding what to study, and what I wanted my future to be. The decision was also made in part to follow my first Italian boyfriend back to his home. I believed I had nothing to lose in leaving my parents, but of course, I brought my problems with me, deep inside.
I worked for years in a part-time job as a multilingual secretary and a translator while studying Pedagogy, which is the science and art of education, at an Italian university, although I never ended up using this degree professionally. Somehow, even if not completely conscious of it, I knew I was interested in psychology, for this was connected to the inner discomfort I’d felt throughout my life stemming from my childhood. It helped me in part to understand the problem I had with my mother, and also to better understand the needs of young children. While in Italy, I continued to have disturbing communications with my parents, especially my mother, and I suffered with different stress-related conditions like allergies, sweating, itching, and an overactive thyroid. I didn’t return to Holland for over twelve years. I ended up marrying my second Italian boyfriend and we now have a grown-up son.
In my early forties, my mother died, and I slowly started to hear voices again. This time, I wasn’t able to stop listening to them. Because my husband did not allow me to be myself, I separated from him, leaving my thirteen-year-old son with him. I did continue to see my son every weekend and on holidays, phone him daily, and write him.
Six months after the separation, I was so taken by my inner voice communication that I wasn’t sleeping enough at night. I had my first nervous breakdown, staying home for a month.
After hearing voices for over a year, I convinced myself that it was evidence of telepathy. Over the next two years, I would slowly construct a great castle of fantasies, including the belief that I was not the daughter of my biological mother, but from my grandmother and my real father; that I had no brothers or sisters at all; that I was a person with another identity. I was convinced I was continuously being persecuted, kidnapped, undernourished, drugged, raped, and so on. In the last year before treatment I ended up writing about a hundred and sixty complaints to the Public Attorney, convinced my real identity would come out in this way too. After filing so many complaints in a year’s time, I slowly convinced myself I was the only person who could really answer all the legal questions, and I decided I must be the only Public Attorney of my town. Soon, I came to believe I was the only prosecutor in all of Italy. It eventually got to the point in which I believed I was the only prosecutor in the entire world.
In the months leading up to my hospitalization, I lost my job and didn’t look for another one. The day before I was forcibly hospitalized, I was evicted from my home. My husband, my family back home in Holland, and an Italian friend of ours had all contacted my psychiatrist in the months prior to my hospitalization, but I wasn’t open to any kind of communication. Later on, contacted by a judge, my psychiatrist was also asked to examine a statement of mine and from that—I can now admit—my diagnosis of ‘paranoid delusions’ was really easy to make.
I was never told directly that I had ‘schizophrenia’, and I am very glad about this. I know I was feeling bad, very bad, and was unsure of what to do, but I don’t see how a diagnosis could have helped me at that time. What could I have done with it? To be marked with a label like that would likely have caused me to rebel even more. After three years, finally a bit more open and curious about my problems, I discovered on my own, by taking a secret look at my clinic papers, that I’d been described as ‘paranoid and delusional’.
Twice a day, I had the freedom to walk around outside on the hospital grounds during the two months I spent on the psychiatric ward. I then went to a halfway house for thirteen months, where I was allowed to walk around in the city for hours and hours, and I know this was very relaxing for me, a way of letting off steam. I was never a person who liked living in a forced way with people I didn’t know or like, so this was helpful for me; I only had to guarantee my presence during meals, during the evening and at night. After six months the staff psychiatrist gave me permission to go home every weekend to see my son and husband, as long as I brought my medication with me. We all appreciated this very much.
At the end of those thirteen months, I was encouraged to spend three straight weeks with my family to see if it was possible for me to return home. It was, and I returned to my husband and son, while also starting psychodynamic psychotherapy, which would last for almost a decade.
I was on Haloperidol and Akineton, an anti-Parkinson’s drug for the side effects that Haloperidol gave me. Looking back at those years of being drugged I remember that I was a zombie on both the inside and the outside. I was too befuddled to do basic day-to-day tasks, like starting the washing machine or composing a shopping list, cutting my own meat or even swallowing my salad. I don’t remember dreaming, nor was sleep even relaxing at all. In 2002, four years after I moved home, I completely stopped taking psychotropic drugs. I, along with my husband, my psychotherapist, my psychiatrist, Dr. Giuseppe Tibaldi, and other professionals working in their organization, concluded that the side effects of my medications were keeping me from truly expressing myself. Together, we worked to reduce the drugs and within a year I started sleeping better, talking again, dreaming again, reflecting better, associating better, functioning better everywhere.
During those years on drugs, it was as though I was functioning as a machine, without any real contact with my own deep feelings, my own body, myself. I am sure that psychotherapy would have been much more helpful for me from the very beginning if the medication dosages had been lower. I’d also begun to see my father again in The Netherlands, going every year together with my son and husband. With a lower medication, I imagine I could have expressed to him better how important he had been in my life, how much I loved him and enjoyed his presence, like I do the presence of other dear people around me; he passed away in 2003.
The presence of my son has always been helpful to me, because I knew I had to be present for him, even if I was going out of control on other levels. During my long stays in the psychiatric ward and the halfway house I also greatly appreciated the constant affective presence of my husband. I was also treated humanely and kindly inside the hospital, and at the halfway house and in the program where I met my psychiatrist and psychotherapist. This certainly helped me positively, as I was able to come off the medications and make my first great step on the way to recovery.
My psychiatrist and psychotherapist have really been like parents to me, creating an opportunity for me, as an adult, to reconstruct myself through their great human availability to listen and avoid judgment, as well as offer their advice, presence, questions, suggestions and support. Through this long psychotherapeutic process, we have found a remedy to the early years of my infancy. In this way I finally learned to love myself, deep inside, like every sane or normal human being should, after all.
At the end of my psychotherapy, my psychiatrist and therapist invited me to write my story. It seemed something useful to me at the time, to write down my fantasies and all the things that happened to me during that delusional and paranoid period. I really didn’t imagine that writing would help me to free myself, to reach more mindfulness, but it has. It has added to the support I’ve received from therapy.
Psychotherapy, the writing process, reading other people’s first person accounts and psychiatric lectures, talking to my parents, and reflecting on things has helped me reconstruct the course of my problems from my childhood up to the present day. It has been surprising, enlightening and liberating for me to discover how certain seemingly unexplainable life experiences actually fit right into the puzzle of my life.
Since all that happened to me in the years leading up to 2000, I haven’t returned to a job, because the remaining possibilities for a fifty-year old in Italy have all seemed like stressful jobs; having free time today allows me to live in a comfortable way. After all, for a lifetime I worked in a part-time job, and my husband and I have never been very big consumers anyways, so it’s worked out okay.
Over the last five years, I’ve often spoken publicly about the possibility of recovery across Italy at mental health meetings, and I have occasionally participated in interviews on radio or television. Together with my ex-psychiatrist I have also written some psychiatric articles.
Since 2010, I’ve also guided a self-help group for voice hearers in my city.
I imagine I would have liked the opportunity to work part-time in a job for those who are “expert by experience”, but these jobs are not as widespread in Italy as they are in northern European countries. This could be a great opportunity for Italy’s future, to create more jobs for users or ex-users, so that our voices count in the political decisions being made about mental health.
It is my hope that more people have the opportunity to gain recovery from so-called ‘schizophrenia’ with human psychiatric approaches like I was fortunate enough to experience. As I wrote in my book, “[N]ow recovered I feel freer… thanks to all the regained energy—stronger with respect to the people alive who must not squash my rights again, step over my boundaries, expect behavior from me that I find strongly irritating. I feel as if I have become a fighter. It is as if I have acquired personal affirmative power and I am much more self-assured.”
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.