Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

My life with schizophrenia

By Elyn Saks, Special to CNN
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Sun August 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elyn Saks' career as a law student was halted by schizophrenia
  • She was institutionalized and doctors said she would at best hold a menial job
  • Saks became a law professor, "genius grant" winner and author
  • She says she continues to cope with illness and urges people to overcome stigma

Editor's note: Elyn Saks is a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at USC Gould School of Law, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship winner and the author of "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness" (Hyperion, 2007). She spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, UK, in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- I am a woman with chronic schizophrenia. I have spent hundreds of days in psychiatric hospitals. I could have ended up living most of my life on a back ward, but things turned out quite differently.

In fact, I've managed to stay free of hospitals for almost 30 years. This is perhaps my proudest accomplishment. That doesn't mean that I have been free of all psychiatric struggles. For example, on my analyst's announcing his planned retirement, I fell apart. My best friend, Steve Behnke, sensed that something was terribly wrong, and he came to New Haven, Connecticut, to see me.

Quoting from some writings of mine:

A tale of mental illness from the inside

"I opened the door of my studio apartment. Steve would later tell me that for all the times he had seen me psychotic, what he saw that afternoon shocked him. For a week or more I had barely eaten. I was gaunt, and moved as though my legs were wooden. My face looked (and felt) like a mask. I'd pulled down all the shades, so the apartment was in near total darkness, the air fetid, the place a shambles. Steve, a lawyer and psychologist, has worked with many patients who suffer from severe mental illness. To this day he'll tell me that on that afternoon I looked as bad as any he'd ever seen.

"'Hi,' I said, then returned to the couch, where I was silent for several minutes. 'Thank you for coming, Steve,' I finally said. 'Crumbling world. Word. Voice. Tell the clocks to stop. Time is time has come.'

... 'I'm being pushed into a grave, the situation is grave,' I moaned. 'Gravity is pulling me down. Tell them to get away. I'm scared. I'm scared.'"

Watch Elyn Saks' TED Talk

***

As a young woman, I was in psychiatric hospitals for three lengthy stays. Despite my diagnosis with schizophrenia and my "grave prognosis" -- that I would live in a board and care facility and work at a menial job at best -- I am a chaired professor of law at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, with a beloved husband, Will, and many good friends. I'd like to tell you how that happened and describe my experience of being psychotic. I qualify that by saying my experience, because everyone becomes psychotic in his or her own way.

One Friday night on the roof of the Yale Law School library I scared my classmates with a full-blown psychotic episode.

Quoting from my writings:

"The next morning, I went to my professor's office to ask for an extension, and began gibbering unintelligibly as I had the night before. He eventually brought me to the Emergency Room.

"Someone I'll call just 'The Doctor,' and his whole team of goons swooped down, grabbed me, lifted me out of the chair and slammed me down on a nearby bed with such force that I saw stars. Then they bound both my legs and arms to the metal bed, with thick leather straps.

"A sound came out of my mouth that I'd never heard before. Half-groan, half-scream, barely human, and pure terror. Then the sound came again, forced from somewhere deep inside my belly and scraping my throat raw."

TED.com: Sherwin Nuland on how electroshock therapy changed him

This incident resulted in my involuntary hospitalization. One reason the doctors gave for holding me against my will was that I was gravely disabled. Supporting this view, they wrote in my chart that I was not able to do my Yale Law School homework. I wonder what that meant for most of the rest of New Haven.

During the next year, I would spend five months in psychiatric hospitals on the East Coast. At times, I spent up to 20 hours a day in restraints -- hands tied, hands and feet tied down, hands and feet tied down with a net tied tightly across my chest. I never struck anyone, I never harmed anyone, I never made any direct threats to anyone.

I was lucky I wasn't one of the one to three people who die in restraints each week.

Today, I am pro-psychiatry and anti-force. I don't think force is effective as a treatment. And I think using force is a terrible thing to do to another human being with a terrible illness.

***

Everything about my illness says that I shouldn't be here. But I am. And I am, I think, for three reasons. First, I've had excellent treatment, both psychoanalytic psychotherapy and medication. Second, I have many family members and close friends who know me and who know my illness. Third, USC Law School is an enormously supportive workplace which has been able not just to accommodate my needs, but to embrace my needs.

Even with all of that -- excellent treatment, wonderful friends and family, enormously supportive work environment -- I did not make my illness public until relatively late in my life. And that's because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn't feel safe with people knowing. If you hear nothing else today, please hear that there are not schizophrenics, there are people with schizophrenia. And each of these people may be a parent, may be your sibling, may be your neighbor, may be your colleague.

TED.com: Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight

***

I often get asked the "magic pill" question: Would I take a pill that would instantly cure me? The answer is a fast and emphatic "yes."

That said, I don't wish to be seen as regretting the life I could have had if I'd not been ill. Nor am I asking anyone for their pity. What I rather wish to say is that the humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.

What those of us who suffer with mental illness want is what everyone wants: in the words of Sigmund Freud, to work and to love.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elyn Saks.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT