Up to age 40, I had nothing to complain about. Talk about a normal life. Well, mostly so. My early years were lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My Jewish parents had three children: my sister, four years older than me, and my brother, seven years younger. My parents loved us. They fought with each other, but never in a way that got physical. While we were poor in those early years, we did not want. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents were our neighbors.
By age 2 ½, I had made up my mind to become a doctor. The source of that inspiration was Dr. Gabriel Kirschenbaum. He was our family doctor who lived across Bedford Avenue in his four-story brownstone with his doctor’s office on the ground floor. Kirschenbaum was the Don of our neighborhood. Big and burly, loud, with flashing eyes and bushy black eyebrows. He was the Jewish equivalent of Judge Roy Bean. He was the law east of the East River in Williamsburg territory. We were his flock. I knew from a young age that I wanted to become just like him.
My path to doctor-hood was unobstructed. I was a math whiz kid. I suffered from no physical ailments. I sailed through. It wasn’t until age 40 that I came to realize I had emotions that could derail my ability to “function.” Seemingly out of the blue, my wife of fifteen years left me and our two young children to run off, temporarily, with another man. To my shocking disbelief, I became uncontrollably anxious and depressed. For the first time in my life I sought out mental health counseling from a psychologist. I appreciated his insights but, after three visits, I decided to grin and bear my circumstances, assuming that time—and an occasional rum and Coke—would get me through. And, after 3 months, they did. I was back to my usual, steady emotional equilibrium. Then, something even more calamitous befell me. After a night of unexplained, severe belly pain, I was diagnosed with cancer of my small bowel and given six months to two years to live! Once again I was plunged into severe anxiety, which was only resolved when I came to accept my own death. The hardest part was the thought of letting go of my two children, ages 10 and 12, and accepting that they would be “okay” without their dad.
And then… the x-ray evidence of my cancer evaporated, and with it my cancer diagnosis. I had been ready to die and now was ready to live. I was truly born again, filled with a joy that lasted for at least ten years. I submerged myself in the world of venture capital, running venture funds and startup medical device companies. And then I turned 50, and so began the greatest adventure of my life.
My venture capital world had begun to unravel as my interest in business waned. At the same time, my amorous relationship of the past five years had turned explosive, or was actively exploding. Lizard-like, I was shedding my skin and much more. I began to sense a new awareness around me. Then one evening, a voice started speaking to me in my left ear, in my brain. I was deaf in that ear due to otosclerosis and hadn’t heard a sound out of it in years. So when I heard that voice, I was frightened by its sudden appearance, especially as it spoke to me in a hostile, demanding tone. At the same time, my curiosity was piqued. Could this voice be that of an alien, G-d, or was I just having an auditory hallucination? Was I going crazy?! But how could I be crazy if I could contemplate that I was possibly crazy?
The voice came to me for three nights in a row, and in extraordinary sessions that lasted no more than half an hour, changed me at my core. Those provocative sessions relieved me of guilt, helped me accept my frailties, accept my humanity, my belonging to the human race, and caused me to fall in love with the voice. Now the voice wanted “us” to go public with this new vision of life, one full of love and caring for my fellow man. At the time, I was still involved with my venture capital world, sitting on three corporate boards, chairman of two, and on two non-profit art boards. Willingly doing the voice’s bidding, I spread its message about love, about changing the world for the better, at board meetings. For the most part, my message was not well received and got me into hot water. But I stand by that message even now, twenty-two years later.
One devoted friend, an influential physician at the University of Minnesota, felt strongly that I had “lost it” and tried to persuade me to see his psychiatry buddy at the university. The voice and I agreed to not participate. My friend, his psychiatrist, my girlfriend, and family members then conspired to have me “arrested” and incarcerated at the University of Minnesota’s locked psych ward. It was an extreme measure; at no time did my records show that I was suicidal or homicidal or a menace to anyone. Nor did I feel I was a menace. But my friends and family were all convinced that their actions were meant for my best good, that they were rescuing me.
My formal diagnosis by the university psychiatrist—who I never actually let interview me—was “acute mania with psychotic symptoms, auditory hallucinations.” His suggested treatment was involuntary commitment and treatment with forced neuroleptics, since in his mind I was uncooperative and had no insight into my illness. I did hire a psychiatrist who was in private practice and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. His conclusions refuted those of the university doctor. He felt that I in no way needed to be committed, that I may or may not have been suffering from mania, and that neuroleptics were not required. It was also noted that a diagnosis of an original bout of mania is rare after age 45. At my trial, his opinion was overridden by the psychiatrist from the university.
Mental health commitment trials in Minnesota are unusual. They consist of two parts. One is a hearing for commitment, and then there’s a separate hearing to assess the need for the use of neuroleptics. This is called a Jarvis Hearing. The reason for the Jarvis Hearing was to avoid the administration of neuroleptics, with their severe side effects, when they were deemed not likely to be beneficial to the patient. My trial judge’s determination went as follows. He agreed with the university psychiatrist to incarcerate me for up to six months to treat my mental illness. He agreed that my doctors could treat me with certain neuroleptics, per the Jarvis Hearing, but not until they had proved I did not have a medical condition that could explain my behavior—such as a brain tumor! The voice had told me all along not to allow the university psychiatrist to examine me or perform any tests on me. It also told me to lie to him and others… telling them I had a brain tumor. The trial judge, Judge Crump, was well aware that the Achilles heel of psychiatric diagnosis is that it is substantiated only by elimination of medical conditions that can mimic psychiatric states. There is no direct scientific test for mental illness. He also was well aware that until I was deemed psychiatrically incompetent, I could not be legally forced to take a CAT scan of my head to determine if I had a brain tumor or not. Catch 22: the university’s psychiatry department was trapped. Crump refused to reverse his order when the university appealed. This triggered a do-or-die offensive by the university.
One day, two state troopers entered my room on the university psych ward, and in the space of fifteen minutes, packed my belongings, handcuffed me, and led me to their squad car. “Get your clothes, your belongings, together right now! Put them in these boxes. Do not resist!” We headed north. After a half hour or so, the cops loosened up and briefed me about what was going down. We were headed to Brainerd State Hospital where the Attorney General of Minnesota, Skip Humphrey Jr., ruled. He had signed for my transfer and more. My lawyers were not made aware of my transfer until three days later. By then, I had been held down by no less than six attendants, injected in my buttocks with a sedative, and given a CAT scan of my brain. My lawyers were told I volunteered for the scan.
Once the scan proved I did not have a brain tumor, I was severely treated with triple neuroleptics: Haldol, Thorazine, and another drug. I developed hypotension, collapsed, and was transferred to the local hospital. On return, neuroleptics were restarted and I developed a severe side effect—akathisia—and all but died. By this point, I was no longer of interest to my keepers. They had successfully discredited me and saved the university psychiatry department (though not for long). They discharged me with a guarded prognosis, which means I was deemed hopeless. Thankfully, my sister took me in and I moved to live with her in New Jersey. There I saw as a patient a little old Jewish lady psychiatrist who gave me a tricyclic antidepressant called Pamelor, as well as a hearty dose of chicken soup philosophy. Without the two of them I don’t think I would have made it. I would not have recovered from the disastrous effects of incarceration and “overdosing” with neuroleptics.
The little old lady psychiatrist told me, in a very “matter of fact” manner, that I would be back to my usual self within a year. She never mentioned anything about me being manic or having a psychosis or hallucinations. She was Mrs. Right. I saw her for all of three sessions.
I stayed at my sister’s house for three months, at which point I managed the courage to return to Minnesota, to my house. Soon after, I was able to restart practicing medicine and stop taking Pamelor. I have had no further need for psychiatric medications or mental health counseling. That was twenty-five wonderful years ago.
As for the University of Minnesota Psychiatric Department, it was later torn apart by scandal. It turns out that researchers were being paid large sums of money to test neuroleptics on patients deemed psychotic. This led to the over-diagnosing of patients as psychotic, and then the abusive use of neuroleptics, sometimes with disastrous results. I certainly fit the abused-patient profile. At the time, the university’s department of psychiatry was a leading proponent of the theory that a chemical imbalance was the cause of psychosis and that chemical treatment with neuroleptics would effectively treat the psychosis, if not cure it. The newly appointed Head of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota now professes a policy of psychotherapy as first line for treating “psychosis”—much in line with the Hearing Voices Network’s (HVN) proselytizing. Antipsychotic medication use is now to be avoided as much as possible. I support HVN and applaud its success in changing psychiatry’s abusive use of dangerous drugs. I recently saw the film A Beautiful Mind, about how Nobel Laureate John Nash overcomes his disabling hallucinations by learning to deal with them, rather than taking antipsychotic medications. HVN could have produced the film.
I have another agenda along with that of HVN. I believe my voice was, and is (it is still with me, as it is me), the voice of G-d, of love. Whenever given the opportunity, I spread the word, whether it be in my medical practice, with friends and relatives, in the books I have written, or on my social media posts on the internet. Hearing voices was, and is, in many societies, considered the expression of the spiritual. Our world, our universe, is transcendent. Jews pray three times a day, Muslims five, so they won’t forget. We should never forget that fact.
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.