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Work and Love: A Psychotic's Recipe for Recovery

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Schizophrenics like to work. And fall in love too.

This may seem surprising to some people, but Freud had it right a century or so ago when he said that work and love (as well as play) are the keys to psychic health.

This is as true for people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, as I was in the late 1990s, as it is for those who have never been psychotic or who have no mental disorder at all.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Maria Hengeveld, a sociologist at Columbia, and was delighted that she pointed out, as I have for years, that people with schizophrenia, as well as other severe mental illnesses, benefit from work and often blend into society.

Many of my co-workers at L.A. Weekly, where I started working in 1997, never knew about my diagnosis until I wrote about it in a 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times, titled "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket."

There were some people, though, who interacted with me when I was deeply psychotic. They knew how ill I was at the time.

Back in early 1999, I told my boss, Connie Monaghan, then the head of proofreading at L.A. Weekly, about some of my delusions, including my fear that there was a conspiracy to frame me for a series of murders and other violent crimes sweeping the nation.

She was so disturbed that she had to step out of the room for a few minutes, but she kept my confidence and did not do anything other than support me.

My then-girlfriend, Barbara, to whom I have been married now for 14 years, knew better than anyone what I was going through. There were many nights when I whispered in her apartment because I feared it was bugged. I thought our cat, who was following me from room to room, had been trained by the CIA. And when Barbara clutched my hands and tried to prevent me from fleeing her condo, she was so strong that I thought she too worked for the CIA or FBI.

As I have written before, I never struck nor shoved her. I simply pulled away and set off on a harrowing, six-hour trek across Los Angeles County.

Thankfully, after I got out of the UCLA psych ward, where I was held for 72 hours, Connie, a woman with a great deal of compassion and sophistication, welcomed me back to the proofreading department. She told me not to worry about returning.

I mention all this because I was extremely fortunate to work with a boss as empathetic as Connie. The same was true of David Caplan, my later boss at L.A. Weekly, an organization that gave me a safe home and allowed me to flourish.

Yes, there were stressors on the job, something that everyone, schizophrenic or otherwise, must confront. But it is much, much harder for a person with a psychotic disorder to work in some professions or jobs.

Sadly, that has not stopped some critics, including online commenters, from claiming that people with a severe mental illness are morally and spiritually lazy.

Such critics tend to think that those of us with a psychotic disorder don't work hard, that we are unreliable, and that we are potentially violent.

While there are some people with schizophrenia who turn violent, it is usually because they misread a situation, a point I have made numerous times in the past.

As I have written before, studies show that those with severe mental illness but no substance abuse problems commit only 3 percent to 4 percent of violent crimes in this country.

And when those of us with severe mental illness are in treatment for our condition, as I have been for about two decades, we are no more of a threat to anyone than those who do not have a mental disorder.

As far as work habits go, people with schizophrenia, about 1 percent of the adult population, or two million Americans, want to work because it helps them get out of the house or day hospital. It helps them develop a degree of competence, even mastery, in a field, a huge boon to self-esteem.

And it helps them meet other people.

My wife and I met in a writing class at UCLA in 1996 at a time when I was unemployed and spiraling into a world of delusion.

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia a year or so later, not long after I had gotten the job at L.A. Weekly as a proofreader.

While my diagnosis has changed over the years, from schizophrenia to schizoaffective disorder to major depression with psychotic features, I still take anti-psychotic medication as well as anti-depressants.

Like most people with or without a psychotic disorder, I do my best to avoid stressors in and out of the workplace.

It may surprise many to know that I and others with a psychotic illness can handle some stressors better than most people who do not have a diagnosis.

People like me have had to face hallucinations or delusions that might have killed or permanently incapacitated others.

The term, "existential threat," usually refers to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but it also might apply to the dangers that some of us have had to confront, threats to our sanity and ultimately our lives.

Many of us have been burdened with a genetic predisposition to psychosis, depression and suicide. Many of us have also been victimized, traumatized in ways that are hard to imagine for people who have not suffered from severe mental illness.

It is a mark of our strength, not weakness, that those of us who have a psychotic disorder contribute to society in the unique ways that we do.

I have learned the hard way that I have some limitations that other people do not have. At the same time, I probably have gifts that others lack.

People who do not suffer from psychotic illnesses should not judge us as lazy, incompetent or violent.

Most people with psychotic disorders want to work, love and play. We do not always succeed in finding the balance that comes much more readily to people without a severe mental illness.

The limitations we have are not simply a matter of lack of skills. They may be a matter of life or death.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.