There is really nothing unique in my story. I write to expose systematic institutional failures to address my situation and that of millions of others with any measures other than psychotropic medication. I write in concert with and in support of those advocating for a fundamental rethinking of biological psychiatry.
I was born in 1952, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with a sister born two years later. This is the story of a life in turmoil, my failings and those of the systems meant to help such persons.
My earliest memories are of familial illnesses, but I also happily remember my paternal grandmother’s home and garden in the small town of Canistota, South Dakota. My paternal grandfather died young of kidney failure. My father’s only sister of five siblings suffered from multiple sclerosis, two brothers were alcoholics, one of them died from a rare nervous system disease, a third suffered an undiagnosable paraplegia, and a fourth committed suicide. There is no other history of familial mental illness. I never knew my maternal grandparents but did meet my mother’s eight siblings, most with heart problems. My parents used alcohol only moderately and although my mother suffered many hospitalizations from severe gastrointestinal problems and heart disease, she lived ninety-two years.
I was indoctrinated into the Lutheran faith and often noticed the contrast between people professing the faith and the way they lived their lives. By the age of five until middle school, I preferred reading (especially science books and encyclopedias), studying my modular human body model, following the progress of the space program, drawing pictures of imagined moon bases and being outdoors. None of these pursuits impressed my father who was a practical man and taught me various plumbing, construction, and electro-mechanical skills. The son of my father’s cousin sexually molested me at the age of six years while our family was visiting their home.
In 1963, my family and I moved to Boulder, Colorado where the social and intellectual climate would shape the course of my life. In middle school during a time of family stress due to poverty, parental conflict, and sometimes excessive corporal punishments, I was never a stellar student despite consistently testing at the higher levels of intelligence. I listened to 1960’s popular music while in my bedroom/study working on mechanical drawing with its requirement of mathematical precision. My first employment was a paper route, but later while other boys were working for much more money, I worked in the local library shelving books where I would peruse anything from limericks and novels to philosophy and science, borrowing the books I found interesting. Later, I was employed in a restaurant by a Dutch family with three boys and a girl.
I first became aware of psychology and psychiatry after reading a Life Magazine article on the ‘Flower Power’ generational shift involving the use of LSD and other drugs in San Francisco, California. The article described this phenomenon as dangerous and illegal, especially because of its association with a large population of recently released California prison inmates, but also mentioned controversial psychiatric research and claims of mind expansion and a new consciousness especially in relation to racial unrest and the Vietnam war. Later, I came across remarks by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Baba Ram Dass), both Harvard-educated advocates of LSD and other drugs as a path to higher consciousness.
Thinking that Harvard-educated individuals must not be entirely incorrect in their thinking even if it contradicted the law, because I was socially awkward, because I had a high school work-study job shared with one of the ‘bad’ boys with access to drugs and a car and which allowed free time during the school period, and because one of the older Dutch boys I worked with had easy access to and liberal attitudes toward drugs and social phenomena, I began to experiment with cannabis, LSD, mescaline/peyote, and psilocybin. The youngest boy of the Dutch family was my age, attended a different high school in town and challenged my interests in hunting and fishing with a new (to me) sport popular at his school, rock climbing, which I got involved in with him. This would prove to be a protective factor against the negative aspects and dangers of drug culture. Most of my drug experiences were truly wondrous, but I was always cognizant of the risks involved and became concerned for my well-being after friends had negative experiences. I stopped using the drugs for a time, immersing myself in climbing.
With a good basic education in math and science, I graduated high school in 1970 with a middling GPA and a profound sense of trepidation about my future. I applied for and was granted Conscientious Objector status and because my lottery number was high, was spared the trauma of the Vietnam war without alternate service. During this period, I read the psychological works of Fromm, Rogers, Buber, Jung, Liang and others, the spiritual literature of the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Confucius, and Mo Tzu, and Western philosophy.
A girlfriend invited me to a yoga class I was interested in as a way of improving my climbing abilities. More generally interested in the yogic traditions of literature and practice, I was given a book by Swami Satchitananda explaining that there are three traditions of yoga: hatha, karma and jnana. The book pointed out that enlightenment could be attained with any of these three paths, but that jnana was the most difficult. It is my belief that attaining enlightenment by specializing in hatha practice is in fact the most difficult and that use of drugs and alcohol, including those prescribed by a medical practitioner, while not recommended in the practice of yoga are aspects of the physical, or hatha, path. Frequently in life, I would return to the three practices, the physical or hatha, acts of benevolence and service or karma, and intellectual practice or jnana. It became my way to integrate these as best I could, but tragedy would alter my course.
Intermittently, I would return to cannabis and other drugs, but then my family and I learned that my father was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was terrifying to watch a man, who sadly I had never been close with until just before learning of his disease, degenerate and die horrifically. About this time, friends in my climbing circle died in accidents as well. Although these deaths occurred within the context of freely chosen risks, they too affected me deeply. It was then that I began to overlook the risks of drugs and alcohol and used them in earnest. Still, I recalled tales of a yoga expert who took LSD and experienced no change in consciousness, and the lessons of those others who transcended drug-induced experiences, giving them up while retaining the heightened awareness intimated by their altered states of consciousness.
During this period, I worked intermittently in construction and retail and my search for a place in life often took the form of abandoning my various jobs and hitting the road looking for a better life. One of these episodes landed me in Eugene, Oregon in 1978 where I first found the resources to pursue higher education. In 1979 I had a work-study job in the sociology lab of Lane Community College. There, in a sometimes-public forum, I reviewed my life with anyone who would listen, some who would rather not have and some who might have arrested me. Much of this was fueled by my reaction to a bad experience with a street drug, probably Thorazine, sold as LSD, and chronic use of some extremely potent cannabis. In classes on medical botany, I learned about the medicinal and dangerous characteristics of herbal substances and that many modern medicines originated from plants. I read an article explaining a theory that LSD acted by flooding the synaptic cleft with serotonin, thus creating its effects on the mind. I also learned that chronic use of methamphetamine, which I had used only one time, often causes schizophrenic-like mentation.
The themes of these explorations were that I needed to change my way of living, and along the way the world, but seemed incapable of doing so; that I was potentially autistic-schizophrenic because as a boy, I pounded my head on the car seat while riding in the car and had never been very sociable; and that I might therefore be self-medicating in order to feel normal, but was in fact ‘volunteering every day to be mentally ill’ because of the cannabis and alcohol I was using. I surmised that since I had taken many street drugs it might make some sort of difference if I were to take prescribed medication for these conditions, not only for myself, but as an experiment in order to improve the lives of people actually diagnosed as schizophrenic. Later events showed much of this to be prescient.
The last week I was at the community college, I began to experience auditory experiences often associated with schizophrenia (hearing voices) and was also experiencing renewed social isolation and poverty. At first this was merely curious and seemed to confirm that I was on the path suggested by my life review and conclusions in the sociology lab. My friends at the time, whose influence was as much a problem as a support even though that was mutual, were leaving Eugene and since I had no job and no prospects, I elected to return to Boulder. This was unwise because Boulder had always been economically challenging; it is difficult to find semi-skilled work there and when found, it typically pays one-third of the prevailing wage. Although I grew up there and formerly had more suitable friends there, they were not in evidence at this time, so at the age of thirty, I stayed with my mother in her home.
My mother had lived an exceedingly difficult life, starting with farm life in Texas where she and her eight siblings worked the family’s cotton fields for a meager living. Unlike the other occasionally significant women who came and went in my life, she was a tough, stern, sometimes violent, uncompromising, hard-working but not unloving woman and it was frequently difficult for me to understand this ambivalence. During this period, my experiences with unexplained auditory phenomena became more intense and unpleasant. I believed they were deliberately caused by some agency as part of the scenarios I had explored while at the community college, and it often seemed that people in ordinary conversations were interjecting remarks that they would deny having made while also not acknowledging hearing the things I was hearing. I blamed my family, the only social contacts I had at the time. This was disturbing for all concerned and met with a near-total lack of understanding although I was admonished to and did seek professional help for it. Unfortunately, no help was forthcoming until things spun out of control and the law became involved.
Dates are uncertain, but I believe it was in June of 1984 that I decided my family had orchestrated the experiences I was having. I purchased a handgun and rode my bicycle from Boulder to my sister’s home in Louisville, Colorado intending to put a stop to the experience by any means necessary. Fortunately, no one was home, and I only fired the gun into an old car and towards her mother and father-in-law’s home. This was reported to the police, and I was asked to surrender the gun, which I did, and after a few hours in jail was sent to Cedar House, a community mental health center.
I was shocked at the squalor of the communal living situation there as well as the slovenly habits of its residents. It was here that I was first professionally diagnosed as having schizophrenia with a hopeless prognosis and no consideration of my individual psychology or my socio-economic situation. Medical professionals prescribed psychotropic medications with the assertion that this was to be a lifelong treatment. This added to the misery I was experiencing. One night, I left the facility and simply walked around the neighborhood which was not allowed, and I was picked up by police and returned. Later that night, believing that my roommate was whispering suggestively to me, I punched him in the abdomen and was transferred to Fort Logan Mental Health Center in Denver where I was placed on the ‘violent ward’ where I in turn was assaulted by a patient and staff member. For two years I refused medication but was eventually compelled by the court and was discharged into the ‘community’ of Denver with no support of any kind. No job, no money, and no friends in evidence.
This pattern repeated itself over the years, interspersed with always brief periods of employment, severe relapses sometimes related to not taking medication but often not, and always accompanied by a lack of financial means and social isolation, re-hospitalization, and release without support.
During this period and despite overall compliance with medication, I was overwhelmed by the auditory experiences I was having and although I kept this hidden from everyone, when alone I would vacillate between terror and rage. This was exhausting and exacerbated by chronic use of cannabis and heavy alcohol use, but I was ‘functioning’ and able to work at various jobs until I succeeded in passing the first and only objective hiring test I have ever been given and was hired as a telecommunications engineer. For the first and only time in my life, I was paid a fair wage commensurate with my abilities and provided the means to study at university. I decided that cannabis was interfering with my work performance and my ability to study and again stopped using it and all other street drugs but continued to use alcohol for some time. Stresses of the job, my studies, and my mental experiences would once again overwhelm me within five years, and I abruptly left my position. This led to yet another period of un- and under-employment with more bouts of hospitalization. Despite frequent brushes with the law, I was fortunate to be placed in mental health facilities instead of jails.
In the months previous to November 12, 2012, I had tapered off my medications, was not using any other substances, and was doing very well with minimal symptoms, but still had no means or hope of improving my situation. Again, I turned to my mother and visited her in Boulder with nothing in mind other than seeking solace. I began to feel harshly judged, helpless, hopeless, and worthless and asked my mother if I could stay the night. She agreed to let me stay a little while longer that evening and went to take a nap. I arranged the couch cushions on the floor and did likewise. Later, my mother awoke and saw me laying there and expressed her disapproval. I returned the cushions to the couch, and we sat quietly for a while. I began to think about a lump I had observed on her neck and came to believe that I should remove it, at the same time thinking it was a crazy idea since I had no medical training or equipment or her consent to do anything like that. But I went into the kitchen and laid a paring and serrated bread knife in the sink.
My mother came in, saw the knives, said “oh God” and asked me for a hug. I panicked, grabbed the paring knife, and began to stab at the lump on her neck but relented with little damage done as she fought me off. She went to sit in the living room, and I stayed in the kitchen for a while. Believing I was guided and aided by friends using technology, I picked up the paring knife and went to her, pinning her arms against her chest and stabbing at the lump on her neck. This time I saw blood spurting from where I had stabbed her and returned to the kitchen with the knife. A few minutes later, she got up and left to get help from a neighbor. I exited the back door and walked down the bike path near her home, wondering whether she would survive, where I could go and what I could do next. Eventually, I called the police, telling them that I may have killed my mother. I was arrested and charged with attempted first-degree murder on an at-risk victim (because of her advanced age) and although she survived, I never saw her again except in a video court hearing. She died the following August, no doubt confused about my feelings toward her and why I had done what I did, knowing I was ill but taking no comfort in that. I wish it to be known that the voices I heard never commanded me to harm anyone and in the incident with my mother, I believed I was assisting her in some way even though I realized at some level that this made no sense.
I spent a year in the Boulder County jail with a brief sojourn to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo (CMHIP) for evaluation, and was eventually adjudicated Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI). I was remanded to the CMHIP for a term of ‘from one day to life’, confined to hospital, medicated by court order over my objections and in violation of Colorado law, and finally received what is sadly the best care available. I am currently living independently and reluctantly cooperating with medication, still under court supervision and making strides with my involvement in what passes for community in the United States.
My history highlights the systematic failures of our family, social, economic, medical, and legal institutions to address distressed individuals holistically. These failures have most noticeably and negatively impacted my access to a healthy sexual and emotional life, a balanced health-promoting diet, and economic and social justice. What is unique in all of this are the beneficial perspectives it has enabled in me and for those around me.
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.