Often people hear about the horrors of schizophrenia. But rarely do they
hear about persons who are prevailing against this grave illness—that is
to say, the success stories.
One such person is Elyn Saks, J.D., a professor of law and psychiatry at
the University of Southern California and a specialist in mental health law.
Saks told her uplifting story at the American Psychoanalytic Association
meeting in New York City in January.
Actually, "analysis is the star of my show," she declared."
Analysis really saved my life."
Saks grew up in a prosperous home in Miami with two younger brothers."
My parents loved us and cared for us as best they could."
However, at age 15 she had a psychotic experience: colors around her became
very intense, and houses sent messages to her. While studying at Vanderbilt
University, she also had some psychotic episodes, but courses in philosophy
seemed to stave off the episodes to some degree.
"They provided me with a structure to my mind and order to my
days," she reflected.
After graduating from Vanderbilt, she won a scholarship to study at Oxford
University in England. There, she became very depressed and isolated. "I
believed that people were talking about me behind my back, which actually
might have been true," she said. "I thought of myself as a bad
person." She was hospitalized for a few months.
"I was mostly depressed then [with some psychotic features] and did
not receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia until later," she recalled.
After she was released from the hospital, the hospital doctors advised her
to return to the United States. However, she decided against it and continued
at Oxford. But during this period, she also saw a psychoanalyst to help her
manage her mental illness.
"I was floridly psychotic in the consulting room for much of the
three years I saw her," Saks recalled. "However, I don't think she
knew the extent of my psychosis as I was hiding a lot. In any event, she did
not recommend medication, and I think she believed that my illness could be
worked with psychoanalytically.
"My analyst's presence was comforting, and my thoughts were neither
good nor bad in her view. Furthermore, she helped me become more
psychologically minded and to develop an observing ego."
Saks obtained a master's degree in letters from Oxford. She then returned
to the United States and attended Yale Law School. During this period, she was
still not taking any antipsychotic medications, and her positive symptoms
increased. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, hospitalized for five months,
and forcibly medicated with antipsychotic medications.
Upon being discharged from inpatient care, she remained on antipsychotic
medications, but also saw an analyst. He, like the analyst in England,
strengthened her observing ego and "was very soothing," she
Saks graduated from Yale Law School and started working as a lawyer. During
this period, she attempted to reduce the amount of antipsychotic medications
she was taking because of concerns about developing tardive dyskinesia. Her
psychotic episodes returned.
Subsequently, an analyst helped her come to accept that she had a serious
mental illness and that she needed to remain on antipsychotic medications
"Simply being on antipsychotic medications could not have brought
about such acceptance," she stressed. "And this acceptance set me
free psychologically. My good fortune is not having recovered from
schizophrenia, which I have not, but to have found my life."
And finding her life meant setting out, in her 40s, to look for romance and
a partner who would accept her as she was. She was successful. In fact, her
husband, Will, was at the ApsaA meeting, providing a colorful and humorous
PowerPoint presentation to illustrate her talk.
Saks also discussed some of the other ways that analysis has helped her
cope with her illness:
Saks is so impressed with analysis, in fact, that she is training to become
a research psychoanalyst.
Saks has written a memoir about her struggles and successes with
schizophrenia, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through
Madness.It was published by Hyperion in 2007. She will lecture at
APA's 2009 annual meeting on Monday, May 18, at 11 a.m. ▪