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Professional News
Lawyer With Schizophrenia Says Analysis Saved Her Life
Psychiatric News
Volume 44 Number 6 page 13-31

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 said.

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 indefinitely.

"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.

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