Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

My life with schizophrenia

By Elyn Saks, Special to CNN
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT