For the past three decades, the message from doctors to people with serious mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, was grim: You can take medication to reduce symptoms, but you shouldn’t expect to have much of a life, and you will probably never have a partner. Very bright patients were told that despite their intelligence, the most they could aspire to was a menial job. All of that is changing. “Mental-health experts used to be far too pessimistic about people’s ability to recover because they were focused solely on getting rid of symptoms such as hallucinations,” says Stephen R. Marder, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Now the medical community is more aware that people can have residual symptoms and still lead rich, meaningful lives.”
Marder and several colleagues are studying 20 high-functioning people with schizophrenia, including a doctor, a psychologist and a CEO. Their research has found that those who thrive share certain traits. “The thrivers understand their symptoms and have adopted techniques to keep symptoms from interfering with their lives,” says Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law who has schizophrenia. One such technique is for a schizophrenic to stay on track by playing loud music to drown out imaginary voices. “Mental illness,” Saks concludes, “doesn’t have to consign you to a life on the fringes.”
Meet three women who walked through the darkness of mental illness for years but came out on the other side, thanks to personal determination and the right professional help.
Dana Parker-Mathis, 44
Mental-health outreach specialist, Birmingham, Michigan. She has a form of schizophrenia.
Dana Parker-Mathis had always been emotionally fragile. “I took everything way too personally, so I had trouble maintaining close relationships,” she recalls. A psychiatrist had diagnosed bipolar disorder and put her on Depakote, an antiseizure drug, and Zoloft, an antidepressant that affects serotonin levels. But the treatment did not provide much help as she went through a major crisis: a 1999 divorce that left her a single mother with a toddler son.
Almost immediately after the split, her mental state took a scarier turn. “I started having thoughts that I was created for a special purpose, to do something great, and I looked for signs everywhere telling me what I was supposed to do,” recalls Parker-Mathis, who was then working in the recruiting office of the University of Maryland. In her mind, colors held special significance. Green meant she needed to grow up, orange indicated she should quit smoking, and purple represented her mother. “I thought I had a special skill—a gift for interpreting messages from the universe,” she says. “It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I’d drive miles out of my way to chase a truck that I thought had a special message for me.” She also believed that people were out to get her and her son, Zachary (now 17), and felt certain her car was bugged and had hidden cameras.
One day in 2002, Parker-Mathis took Zachary to the park and saw a car with its keys in the ignition. “I thought my family, who lived in Michigan, had left the car for me so I could escape from the people watching me. I strapped Zachary in and pulled away from the curb,” she says. “As I drove, I saw this guy running alongside me. He was screaming, ‘Stop! You’re stealing my car!’ ” She pulled over, and when the man saw her face, he said, “Dana?”
“I didn’t know him, but he recognized me because I’d been the first runner-up for Miss Black University of Maryland several years before,” she says. “I told him, ‘Something’s wrong with me,’ and he put me in my car—which I’d driven to the park—and followed me home.”
The incident was a wake-up call. Parker-Mathis, who says she had a “messy divorce,” was concerned her husband might conclude that her mental-health problems made her an unfit mother to their son. “If I had stolen that car, the authorities could have taken my child—the most important thing to me in the world,” she says. “When I got home, I called my mom and said, ‘You have to come get me. I’m doing things and thinking things that aren’t making sense.’ ”
Parker-Mathis and Zachary moved to Michigan, where she checked herself into the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. The doctors there diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder, a subtype of schizophrenia, and put her on an antipsychotic medication and a mood stabilizer, plus a medication for anxiety. She saw a therapist and a psychiatrist every week, and for the three months she was in the hospital, the doctors allowed Zachary to visit every day. “We’d sit on the floor and play Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. I just kept telling myself I had to get better for him.”
Her strong connection to Zachary was unusual. “Many people with schizophrenia become isolated and lose interest in life in general—and the drugs we use don’t treat those problems very well,” says Mary Seeman, MD, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on schizophrenia in women.
Parker-Mathis’s symptoms improved markedly, but it took years of tweaking the medications and dosages to get to where she says she is today: feeling almost “completely normal.” Five years ago, she married her longtime boyfriend, and after earning a master’s degree in social justice, she’s studying for a PhD. “My goal is to advocate for people with emotional problems,” says Parker-Mathis, who works as an outreach specialist connected to the University of Michigan Depression Center. “I feel as if it’s my job to let people know that mental-health disorders are like diabetes: chronic health conditions that can be managed with medication.”
Even so, for a long time she didn’t take her antipsychotic meds consistently, because they cause weight gain. Noncompliance is a problem that’s especially common in women who take the drugs. Now Parker-Mathis says she has “learned to love being plump, because that means I’m emotionally healthy—and these days there’s nothing more important to me than that.”
Parker-Mathis knows she is fortunate. “When I was leaving the hospital, the doctors said, ‘Many people don’t recover when they’re as sick as you were.’ I recovered because I was blessed with a loving family and a reason to get better. I’d do anything for my son. I really believe that’s what pulled me through.”
Michelle Hunt, 48
Professor of neuroscience and anatomy, Troy, New York. She has treatment-resistant depression.
From childhood on, Michelle Hunt had struggled with periods of overwhelming sadness. She consulted many counselors and psychiatrists, who tried different antidepressants, then various combinations of drugs, all without much success. Hunt, like about a third of people with depression, suffered from a “treatment resistant” version of the condition. “It was scary to feel as if no one could really help me,” she says. “I began to doubt I’d ever get better, and that thought was unbearable.”
In 2006 she hit a new and terrifying low. “I was teaching at the time, and I had to cancel class after class because I’d start crying and not be able to stop,” she recalls. “Nothing in particular in my life was making me sad. The feeling just came from a very dark place inside me.” Within weeks, Hunt had to take a leave of absence, a development that factored into her thoughts of suicide. “I was very ashamed of being depressed, and I tried to hide it even from people close to me because I thought it was a character flaw. I just kept thinking, If I can’t make a contribution, I must not be a valuable person—and if I’m not valuable, what is there to live for?”
When Hunt still wasn’t able to return to work in the fall, she lost her job. While that scared her, it also triggered something: an “inner tenacity,” she says, that she hadn’t known she possessed. “From then on, I made getting well my job,” she says.
She found a psychopharmacologist, a psychiatrist who specializes in medication management, who was equally determined to get her back on her feet. Finding that doctor was key. “Anyone with a mental illness that’s difficult to treat should consult specialists like a psychiatrist, because they have more expertise than primary care doctors about the different types of psychiatric medications,” says Wayne Katon, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The doctor Hunt saw prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (the family of antidepressants that includes Prozac), and when that didn’t turn her mood around, he added Abilify, a medication for bipolar disorder that can sometimes heighten the effectiveness of antidepressants.
“I also started seeing my psychotherapist several times a week and doing lots of little things that seemed to make me feel better—journaling, meditating, walking regularly, doing yoga,” Hunt recalls. Even so, there were many days when the only reason she got out of bed was that her dog needed to be fed and walked.
In 2008 her doctor added Lamictal, an antiseizure drug that is FDA approved for bipolar disorder but has been shown to be effective for some people with depression as well. That kind of medication tinkering is crucial to helping people feel better, Katon says, and in Hunt’s case it worked. “The combination put my chemistry right and started turning me around,” she says. She returned to work part time that fall and full time last year.
“I’m a different person now in many ways,” Hunt says. “I have always been driven to achieve, but now I just want to be healthy. I want to be a good teacher and a well-rounded person. I cook and garden and hang out with friends, and I continue to do all the things that helped me in my lowest moments—journaling, meditating, yoga. I accept that I have an illness I’ll always need to manage, but I’m grateful that I was able to find the right treatments to help me live a full life.”
Lisa Garcia, 57
Part-time peer-support specialist in Rancho San Diego, California. She has bipolar disorder.
In April 2000, Lisa Garcia hit rock bottom. She’d been gambling in a casino for four days straight on almost no sleep and had lost at least $5,000. Her younger son, Shane, 10 at the time, had just left after a weeklong visit. (She also has a son who was then 21.) Shane had been living with his father for four months because Garcia was unable to take care of his daily needs. Saying good-bye to him made Garcia feel like a failure, and when she passed the casino, she pulled in on a whim.
For two years, Garcia’s life had been an emotional whirligig. There were periods of restless, irritable, unstoppable energy—during which she’d put in 16-hour days running a large catering company, then stay up all night cleaning her house—followed by moods so dark and dangerous that she tried to take her own life twice. “I went in and out of the hospital several times, and I eventually stopped working. Doctors had diagnosed me with depression, and I was taking an antidepressant, but I was still very, very sick,” Garcia recalls.
Once she entered the casino that April day, her mood shifted dramatically. “I became the life of the party—laughing, gambling, making friends with the dealer and the pit boss,” she says. “I had no idea I was losing so much money. I was in this sort of euphoric fog.” Four days into Garcia’s spree, her sister Wendy tracked her down. “Wendy came to my hotel room with her husband and my best friend and pounded on the door. They said they were taking me to the hospital. I broke down sobbing and said, ‘OK, I give up. I just want to get well.’ ”
At the hospital, she received a different diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Bipolar is tricky, because it’s often misdiagnosed as depression. The two years that Garcia went without a proper diagnosis is comparatively short; several studies have shown that the average lag time is six to 10 years.
The doctor in the hospital prescribed lithium, a kind of salt, in addition to the antidepressant, and within days Garcia felt remarkably better. “It was as if I’d been hunched over and could stand up straight for the first time,” she says. Her quick and positive reaction to the drug was a bit unusual. “Some people with bipolar disorder don’t like taking mood stabilizers or atypical anti-psychotics because they may numb the feeling of euphoria associated with manic episodes,” says Geena Athappilly, MD, an instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
For Garcia, that glimpse of wellness had the opposite effect: It gave her hope that she could actually turn her life around, and she instinctively knew just what she needed in order to heal: “more social connections, especially with people who understood what I was going through.” During one of her healthier moments in the previous two years, she’d attended several support-group meetings run by Recovery International (RI), a peer-to-peer program that teaches people who are suffering from mental illness to talk about their dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and change them using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. She’d enjoyed the sessions but hadn’t had enough emotional stamina to continue going. Once she was on lithium, she decided to give the program another try.
“I started going to meetings every day, and right away it began making me feel better and teaching me coping skills,” she says. In her weekly sessions with a professional, she discussed deep childhood issues, but in the RI groups, surrounded by people who were struggling just as she was, she had the chance to talk about the minor day-to-day thoughts and events that threw her off track. “For example, if I call my son Shane and he doesn’t call back right away, I develop symptoms. So I’d share that in a meeting, along with the kind of anxious or angry thoughts it triggers. And then we’d talk about the tools I could use to get through it, like telling myself that he was probably fine, just busy. The program taught me that I can ‘excuse rather than accuse,’ and that’s been very helpful for me.”
The meetings not only gave her a healthy social connection but also provided a sense of purpose. “Within a year I started leading groups, and now I lead several a week,” she says. “I’ve met people who are more than dear friends. They’re able to give me the healthy support I need to keep my mental health on track. In the past 10 years, both my sister and father have died, but I’ve made it through those heartbreaking events with the help of this community. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
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