Elyn Saks: defying the predictions
Elyn Saks is a college valedictorian, Oxford scholar, Yale law student, USC legal professor – and a person with schizophrenia.
The university press release “USC law professor battles schizophrenia” declares, “However ironic, the life of Saks’ mind has been her salvation. Even as her brain attacks her with fear and hallucinations, it also provides the source of her greatest pride and stability — her work…
“Since her arrival at USC in 1989, she has been among the school’s most productive and respected scholarly writers.”
Schizophrenia affects three million Americans, and is “a form of psychotic disorder or psychosis, which means it interferes with a person’s ability to interpret reality. People with schizophrenia develop a marked change in their thinking, perceptions and behavior as evidenced by the presence of a combination of symptoms: hallucinations, delusions or false beliefs, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, apathy and social withdrawal.
“No two cases of schizophrenia are identical; one person may have experience one or two of these symptoms, while another may experience many.” [Definition from SchizophreniaDigest.com]
The article A secret life of madness discusses her new book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, and notes that Elyn Saks “has defied the prediction of a doctor who once said she would never lead an independent life. She has even flourished, thanks to a strict regimen of medication and talk therapy.
Dashing the myths
“Now she wants to dash the myths surrounding an illness that affects 3 million Americans: Schizophrenics aren’t all emotionally out of touch, shouting and swiping at gremlins, shut away in hospitals.
“Like the story of fellow schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician whose life was portrayed in the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” Saks’ life illustrates not only the stresses mental illness places on personal and professional relationships but also how they can be overcome.”
“Ironically, the more I accepted I had a mental illness, the less the illness defined me — at which point the riptide set me free,” she says.
In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. writes, “It appears that the potential for creativity is enhanced by the cognitive changes that occur within some mental states. We don’t as yet understand the chemical and anatomical pathways responsible for the cognitive changes that take place during creative and manic states.
“Artists’ reflections and observations about themselves and their work suggest that they have a very high tolerance for irrationality or deviance. In life, creation and destruction are closely related.”
Dr. Neihart adds, “Many artists report that their motivation for engaging in their creative endeavors is to work through, release, or better understand their own destructive urges.”
That is also a theme of my interview with Stephen A. Diamond, PhD.
John Nash: taking delusions seriously
Sylvia Nasar, in her bio of John Forbes Nash, Jr. – A Beautiful Mind – notes some aspects of his deviant but creatively productive thinking: “In almost everything he did – from game theory to geometry — he thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods… almost always worked alone, in his head, usually walking, often whistling Bach. …
“When he focused on some new puzzle, he saw dimensions that people who really knew the subject (he never did) initially dismissed as naive or wrong-headed. Even as a student, his indifference to others’ skepticism, doubt, and ridicule was awesome.”
[The photo is Russell Crowe as Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind.]
In the prologue, she writes about how Nash thought about his delusions: “How could you,” began Mackey, “how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof… how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?”
“Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake. “Because,” Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
Philip K. Dick: a mind on fire
Another exceptionally talented person with mental health challenges was writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Films based on his novels include Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.
His official site biography notes, “In his late teens, Dick later recalled, he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia – a label that terrified him. Other psychotherapists and psychiatrists in later years would offer other diagnoses, including the one that Dick was quite sane.”
A biopic of Dick is being developed by his daughters and a major screenwriter, according to a news article (The future keepers, by Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2007) and it will “intertwine Dick’s life story with scenes from his final and unfinished novel, “The Owl in Daylight.”
“The basic premise: An alien culture that cannot hear sound comes to Earth and inserts a bio-chip into the brain of a composer to funnel the experience of music to their society for the first time — but the fellow they pick is a hack writer of B movie scores, and the aliens hunger for a richer experience than his talent can deliver. Then the bio-chip begins to push and inspire him to new heights of creativity, but it also begins to scorch his mind.
“He’s making this fantastic music, but the rub is he’s burning his brain out,” his daughter Isa Dick Hackett said. “In many ways it really is my father’s story. He couldn’t not write — he had these experiences he had to write about — but it was all at a tremendous cost to him.”
But this great novelist lived at a time before the benefits of current medications and other treatment, and the increasing neuroscientific understanding of current research on mental disorders.