This I Believe

Richard - Vero Beach, Florida
Entered on February 6, 2007

“Leading a Positive Life with Mental Illness and Disability”

I used to be an Oil Economist for a Fortune 5 Company, and Director of Planning and Institutional Research at a large university. But while at Harvard University I was stricken with mental illness. My dreams gradually collapsed of ever holding a position of authority and possibly garnering big paychecks, of being a mover and a shaker. At first, I couldn’t quite grapple with what was wrong. I had been doing intensive research on the Middle East in 1986 to 1988, specifically on Iran and Iraq, and then I entered the nightmare of paranoid delusions. I thought my phones were tapped, that I was followed, etc. There may have been some initial germ of truth to this surveillance preoccupation, but I could never let it go, and like a mental cancer the paranoia invaded my psyche, sucking up the mental energies I needed to work at any job. I tried about twenty or more jobs over the twelve years, from Investment Banking Intern to delivering copy paper, rarely lasting more than a couple of weeks or months. I lost my wife, and then filled out the forms for Social Security Disability and was granted it first shot… The exact diagnosis was difficult to pinpoint, but my psychiatrist settled on “schizoaffective disorder.” This is not schizophrenia, but a mood related disorder more closely aligned with manic depression.

I was depressed at first as my diagnosis sunk in. Still, I realized all of the positive things in my life. I had never been arrested, never hurt anyone, never had a DUI—the jails are full of the mentally ill. Not all those seriously ill with mental illness do horrific acts. I have never been adjudicated as incompetent. My family loves me and I am a contributor to their well being, having recently been a quasi-caretaker for my elderly father. In fact, I am quite lucky.

Granted, life is much more humble than I had once envisioned it. I have watched classmates and friends buy multi-million dollar houses and become talking heads on television, but life is defined by more than wealth and prestige. The advent of effective atypical anti-psychotics with few negative side affects helped quell the delusions and has vastly helped me; counseling brought “cognitive therapy” whereby patients engage in self-talk, sticking to the logical and the probable instead of wandering off into the land of suspiciousness. In sum, while I’m not 100 percent, I am as happy as most people. I have friends with similar stories. Mental illness does not necessarily mean being banished to real or self-made asylums. Life can still be sweet, or, rather, bittersweet as life tends to be for all of us. The human condition suggests we all have problems, depending upon the hand we’re dealt. Some are high class, some mundane, some as simple as keeping one’s sanity.