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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT