What is schizophrenia really like ?

The recent tragic death of John Nash and his wife warrants reposting the following written 11 October 2009

“I feel that writing to you there I am writing to the source of a ray of light from within a pit of semi-darkness. It is a strange place where you live, where administration is heaped upon administration, and all tremble with fear or abhorrence (in spite of pious phrases) at symptoms of actual non-local thinking. Up the river, slightly better, but still very strange in a certain area with which we are both familiar. And yet, to see this strangeness, the viewer must be strange.”

“I observed the local Romans show a considerable interest in getting into telephone booths and talking on the telephone and one of their favorite words was pronto. So it’s like ping-pong, pinging back again the bell pinged to me.”

Could you paraphrase this? Neither can I, and when, as a neurologist I had occasion to see schizophrenics, the only way to capture their speech was to transcribe it verbatim. It can’t be paraphrased, because it makes no sense, even though it’s reasonably gramatical.

What is a neurologist doing seeing schizophrenics? That’s for shrinks isn’t it? Sometimes in the early stages, the symptoms suggest something neurological. Epilepsy for example. One lady with funny spells was sent to me with her husband. Family history is important in just about all neurological disorders, particularly epilepsy. I asked if anyone in her family had epilepsy. She thought her nephew might have it. Her husband looked puzzled and asked her why. She said she thought so because they had the same birthday.

It’s time for a little history. The board which certifies neurologists, is called the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This is not an accident as the two fields are joined at the hip. Freud himself started out as a neurologist, wrote papers on cerebral palsy, and studied with a great neurologist of the time, Charcot at la Salpetriere in Paris. 6 months of my 3 year residency were spent in Psychiatry, just as psychiatrists spend time learning neurology (and are tested on it when they take their Boards).

Once a month, a psychiatrist friend and I would go to lunch, discussing cases that were neither psychiatric nor neurologic but a mixture of both. We never lacked for new material.

Mental illness is scary as hell. Society deals with it the same way that kids deal with their fears, by romanticizing it, making it somehow more human and less horrible in the process. My kids were always talking about good monsters and bad monsters when they were little. Look at Sesame street. There are some fairly horrible looking characters on it which turn out actually to be pretty nice. Adults have books like “One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” etc. etc.

The first quote above is from a letter John Nash wrote to Norbert Weiner in 1959. All this, and much much more, can be found in “A Beatiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar. It is absolutely the best description of schizophrenia I’ve ever come across. No, I haven’t seen the movie, but there’s no way it can be more accurate than the book.

Unfortunately, the book is about a mathematician, which immediately turns off 95% of the populace. But that is exactly its strength. Nash became ill much later than most schizophrenics — around 30 when he had already done great work. So people saved what he wrote, and could describe what went on decades later. Even better, the mathematicians had no theoretical axe to grind (Freudian or otherwise). So there’s no ego, id, superego or penis envy in the book, just page after page of description from well over 100 people interviewed for the book, who just talked about what they saw. The description of Nash at his sickest covers 120 pages or so in the middle of the book. It’s extremely depressing reading, but you’ll never find a better description of what schizophrenia is actually like — e.g. (p. 242) She recalled that “he kept shifting from station to station. We thought he was just being pesky. But he thought that they were broadcasting messages to him. The things he did were mad, but we didn’t really know it.”

Because of his previous mathematical achievments, people saved what he wrote — the second quote above being from a letter written in 1971 and kept by the recipient for decades, the first quote from a letter written in 12 years before that.

There are a few heartening aspects of the book. His wife Alicia is a true saint, and stood by him and tried to help as best she could. The mathematicians also come off very well, in their attempts to shelter him and to get him treatment (they even took up a collection for this at one point).

I was also very pleased to see rather sympathetic portraits of the docs who took care of him. No 20/20 hindsight is to be found. They are described as doing the best for him that they could given the limited knowledge (and therapies) of the time. This is the way medicine has been and always will be practiced — we never really know enough about the diseases we’re treating, and the therapies are almost never optimal. We just try to do our best with what we know and what we have.

I actually ran into Nash shortly after the book came out. The Princeton University Store had a fabulous collection of math books back then — several hundred at least, most of them over $50, so it was a great place to browse, which I did whenever I was in the area. Afterwards, I stopped in a coffee shop in Nassau Square and there he was, carrying a large disheveled bunch of papers with what appeared to be scribbling on them. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. He had the eyes of a hunted animal.

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Comments

  • nainsicoogan  On May 28, 2015 at 5:25 am

    I strongly disagree with your take on how society deals with mental illness. It doesn’t “romanticize” it by any means. Schizophrenics are feared and ostracised by society and there is still a strong stigma around most mental illnesses. People are trying to humanise it because it needs to be humanised. It’s a human condition. And being diagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis is by no means the end of your life. Yes, it is terrifying, more so for the PERSON experiencing it. I should know – I have been through two bouts of psychosis so far and went on to complete my bachelors degree and am now thinking of pursuing a masters. Honestly, it’s opinions like this that contribute to the stigma around mental illness. And to be quite frank, I would have thought you would know better.

  • luysii  On May 28, 2015 at 7:36 am

    I think we’re basically in agreement if you change the word society to literature and film. But literature and film are one way society deals with its hopes and fears. Schizophrenia and the idea of losing one’s mind is indeed terrifying, and the book A Beautiful Mind describes what it’s like better than anything else in literature (I haven’t seen the film).

  • luysii  On May 28, 2015 at 10:50 am

    nainsicoogan — If you’ve read “A Beautiful Mind” particularly the gruesome 120 pages when Nash was at his sickest, I’d be very interested in your thoughts on how it compares with your own two bouts of psychosis.

  • DN  On May 29, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Do you have any insights into the etiology of schizophrenia? For example, ever see a case that was clearly autoimmune and later resolved?

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