I have been living with schizophrenia for the past 18 years. I first became ill when I was attending university in Vancouver when I was 22 years old. At that time I was enrolled in my second year at law school at the University of British Columbia, having already completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Victoria the previous year. I was enjoying myself and taking part in many activities. Socially, I had quite a few friends and acquaintances; athletically, I was jogging five miles four times a week, I played tennis and soccer, bicycled, skied, went scuba diving, mountain climbing and hiking. During my first year at law school my grades were in the top quarter of my class and I had no problems handling the stresses of university life.
Within a few days in October 1976 all of this came to a crashing halt as I suddenly experienced my first psychosis. I can still remember those experiences vividly even now 18 years later. At first I thought I was coming down with the flu since the abnormal mental state I was experiencing was similar to the viral delirium of influenza but as I stayed in bed for a day my symptoms got even worse. I began to have delusions about the state of the world around me. Suddenly the noises made by cars and planes going by outside my house took on secret and deliberate meanings. I became convinced that I was involved in the start of a nuclear war and the only way for me to survive was to find the answer to a difficult riddle. During this first episode of psychosis I fluctuated between wild delusions of grandeur to deep depressions about my future. I thought I would become the next prime minister of Canada and rule by divine right over a new world order for our citizens. I was also visited by demonic voices. These grotesque distortions tormented me day and night until I could no longer distinguish between reality and nightmares.
In hindsight, one of my most dangerous delusions was probably the belief that I could fly, for if I had found a tall building, I might have easily climbed to the top and tried to jump off to test it out.
During the second day of my psychosis I began to wander in the streets of Vancouver following my disrupted thoughts and hoping to find the answer to all of life's problems. After a few hours I ended up in someone's backyard. I had another delusion that I had been magically transported 20 years into the future and owned a mansion I had at random found. Sitting there was almost blissful, the delusion at that point was even enjoyable; however, within a few minutes a police car arrived and two officers arrived on the scene and asked me what I was doing there. I thought that they were part of the conspiracy to have me made the next prime minister so I was quite friendly towards them as if I had been expecting them to arrive. After a few minutes they made some inquiries over the radio telephone and called for an ambulance. The attendants arrived and took me to the emergency room at the nearest hospital.
When I got to the hospital, I got even more paranoid. I thought the nurses and doctors were plotting to kill me. I had a wild delusion similar to a horror movie plot that hospitals were not places where people go to get better but rather where people go to get killed and then were chopped up into processed food and fed to everyone. I was placed in the psychiatric observation unit for 24 hours. My symptoms got worse. I began to hallucinate more intensely and the constant delusions continued. Eventually, the medical staff got in touch with a friend of mine who was a second year medical student at the time. He came to see me the next day and brought a psychiatrist with him who I agreed to see. Even with all my delusions and paranoia I guess I still had enough trust in my friend and agreed to do as he suggested. From there I was transferred to another psychiatric ward and started on a large dosage of haloperidol to control my symptoms. At first I had some severe side-effects from the medication. My muscles became rigid, my vision blurred and I slept about 20 hours a day; however, within two weeks my symptoms had remitted and I was able to be discharged from hospital. When I say my symptoms had remitted, I should point out that I am referring to the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, that is the delusions, the hallucinations and the thought disorder. The so-called negative symptoms such as lack of motivation and depression actually got worse and were made more severe by the medication.
Upon discharge I returned to my studies at law school; however, trying to cope with university after such an episode of schizophrenia was extremely difficult. I was unable to concentrate and therefore my reading ability was almost zero. I had trouble remembering things and was still sleeping about 18 hours each day. With all this it was no wonder that I was failing my courses. Luckily, I got my exams postponed that year and was able to write them a few months later.
An interesting note about the stigma of mental illness and the legal profession at the time. My psychiatrist had to write a letter for me to the Dean of the law school in order for me to postpone my exams. He decided not to write the word "schizophrenia" as my illness but rather said I suffered from "emotional illness". My doctor said that if the Law Society should one day find out I had schizophrenia, I would be disqualified from practicing law. However, the strategy almost backfired when the Dean at first would not postpone my exams because an emotional illness was not serious enough, he thought. Eventually, I did get my exams deferred and was able to write them later as I said.
Over the course of the next several months to several years my medication levels were reduced allowing me greater freedom from the horrible side-effects. As I practiced studying my academic skills returned to a point where I was able to pass my exams, although now I was at the bottom of my class instead of at the top. The following year I was placed on an antidepressant medication to assist me in functioning a little bit better. It didn't seem to help that much and I just learned to live with the depression and the lack of motivation associated with the illness. Another of the side-effects of the medication for me was gaining weight. Within six months from first starting the treatment I had gained about 40 or 50 pounds. This only added to my depression and my poor self-esteem.
Over the next few years I got progressively better and was able to finish law school, find an articling position and become a practicing lawyer. However, I found that I had trouble competing with my peers, my stamina and motivation levels were quite low. I still had trouble interacting with others in relationships and tended to be more withdrawn than I had been before my illness. After about three years of being treated with medications my doctor decided to take me off all of them to see if I could function without them. I did very well for a number of years after that. I opened a law practice, I got married and moved into a new house. I certainly did not miss the side-effects of the haloperidol. I now had a greater range of emotions. My weight dropped to normal and I needed only 8 or 9 hours per night of sleep instead of the usual 12 or more that I was getting while on medications. I lived a relatively normal and fulfilling life for the next five years while off all medications. I did not have any symptoms of my illness during this period.
Unfortunately, in 1986 I had a sudden relapse in my illness. I became acutely psychotic while mountain climbing alone in a wilderness park here in British Columbia. Fortunately, I was able to return home without assistance from anyone. It was during this psychosis, however, that I believed aliens from outer space were communicating with me and that a fire was started in my house that set the house on fire and caused me to end up in court as a result. Within a few days of the fire I had signed myself into the local psychiatric hospital and was again placed on large doses of antipsychotic medication. I spent two months in hospital this time and upon discharge it was very difficult for me to function again. I had to give up practicing law because of the side-effects of the medication and the lack of motivation and inability to concentrate on my work. I slowly relearned most of the life skills necessary to find employment and function independently outside of hospitals. I worked at a drop-in centre working with people with schizophrenia and reconnected with many friends in the community.
In 1989 I began a relationship with a woman that continues today. She has been a tremendous support and encouragement to me over these past five years. I feel that successful relationships are a key factor in overcoming serious illnesses such as schizophrenia. The other person acts as a sounding board and gives feedback on a day to day basis and helps one grow and gain insight.
Since October of 1992 I have been working with three other people, two consumers of mental health services and one family member, in a partnership education program through the Schizophrenia Society and with the Ministry of Health. We work at educating various groups about serious mental illness using our partnership talks. In them we describe our personal experiences with mental illness and how it has affected our lives. This has proven to be a very powerful and successful way of teaching many people about mental illness. It has also become a way of breaking down the barriers between families, consumers of mental health services and professionals and allowing them an opportunity to work together to further the cause of mental health.
In conclusion, my experiences with schizophrenia were initially very devastating, derailing my career and almost destroying my future. Since those difficult times, I now use my experiences in a positive way to educate others and advocate for better services for all consumers of mental health services.
Editor's Update (Feb. 14, 1996)
Since November 1995, Maurizio Baldini has been working full time as a legal research assistant for our provincial government. Last summer, Maurizio and Leslie bought a new condo in Victoria, and have settled down to marital bliss in our province's capital city. In addition, Maurizio is on the Board of Directors of Riverview Hospital (our largest provincial psychiatric facility). This week, at the Riverview Hospital Board of Directors meeting, Maurizo made local psychiatric history. He proposed a motion that: "there be an immediate freeze on all further downsizing of Riverview Hospital." His motion was passed unanimously.
Congratulations Maurizio on all that you have done on behalf of psychiatry in British Columbia. You are our inspiration!
Internet Mental Health (www.mentalhealth.com) copyright © 1995-2011 by Phillip W. Long, M.D.