Elyn Saks describes her struggle with schizophrenia
Let’s try something new this week. Inspired by Dave Munger’s new blog, The Daily Monthly, I’m going to try posting about a single topic for a week. This week’s topic will be schizophrenia. We’ll start with Elyn Saks, a professor of law at the University of Southern California and a winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2009. Saks is what you’d call a high-functioning schizophrenic. In a recent Q&A with Scientific American, she compared her symptoms to a waking nightmare.
Objectively, I have delusions (irrational beliefs like that I have killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts); infrequent hallucinations (like watching a huge spider walk up my wall); and disorganized and confused thinking (e.g. what are called “loose associations,” like “my copies of the cases have been infiltrated. We have to case the joint. I don’t believe in joints but they do hold your body together”). These are called “positive symptoms” of schizophrenia. Except for my first two years at Oxford, I have been spared the so-called “negative symptoms”: apathy, withdrawal, inability to work or make friends.
COOK: Do you experience symptoms every day or week? What are they?
SAKS: As my husband likes to say, psychosis is not like an on-off switch but like a dimmer. At one end of the spectrum, I will have transient crazy thoughts (e.g. I have killed people) which I immediately identify as symptoms of my illness and not real. A little further along the spectrum, I may have three or four days of being dominated by crazy thoughts that I can’t push away. And at the far end I am crouching in a corner shaking and moaning.
The transient psychotic thoughts I might have several times a day. The several-day episodes are usually a response to stress and may happen three or four times a year. The experience of crouching in the corner hasn’t happened for years.
She goes on to describe how her work helps her cope with her symptoms by giving her a “center.”