Today is World Schizophrenia Day

Over 20 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia.

Historic examples of people with schizophrenia have included Vincent Van Gogh, Zelda Fitzgerald, Veronica Lake, and Vaslav Nijinsky.

Several famous 60s musicians such as Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Skip Spence (Moby Grape), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), and Syd Barret (Pink Floyd) also suffered from schizophrenia.

I first directly encountered schizophrenia when I started working at the Ranch Treatment Center. That disabused me of any notions of “split personality.” Instead, I met people —”residents” was the term we used back then —struggling against unseen forces, aided/sedated by psychoactive medications for the most part. 

Sometimes, their skew on reality was humorous. One of our residents with schizophrenia, TJ, was pacing the dayroom floor when I urged him to sit down. He responded, “I keep trying to but this chair gets in the way!” At other times, though, TJ exhibited dangerous, explosive behavior, screaming cursing and throwing chairs. 

My first experience with schizophrenia outside the confines of a psychiatric facility was meeting Roky Erickson, founding member of the 13th Floor Elevators. In the late 70s, after his release from the state mental hospital system, we would go see him play at Raul’s with the Explosives unleashing tales of horror rock in fierce pounding jagged rhythms. He spoke of aliens and thinking he might be one, but he was still holding it together then.

Such was not the case when I saw in a grocery store in the 80s. Wearing jarringly mismatched, loud clothing, hair beyond disheveled, a crazy bedeviled look in his eyes as he looked around frantically. “Hi, Roky,” I said and he looked at me and called out “Where is (—)?”  I don’t even recall what he was looking for, just that haunted look of his. I suggested Aisle 4  and he ran off to look.

A few years later, I saw him in a different grocery store after he had gotten into treatment: well-groomed long hair with neat, appropriate clothing. He was standing patiently in line, a few items in his grocery cart, his hands by his side as he waited. The change was remarkable. Roky would go on to survive and thrive and return to his roots in music, thrilling fans up until his death in 2019.

Not all who suffer from schizophrenia fare so well. When I married Sara, I met her brother, Mike, who had been in and out of treatment and institutions for his schizophrenia for years, often completely estranged from the entire family. When he attended our small wedding, he mostly stayed in a side room and we would visit with him separately. I recognized the anxiety nearly bordering on panic behind his eyes. I feel like I did connect with him but he seemed almost a ghost.

That’s certainly what my cousin, Will T. Massey, looked like in Dec 2004 when he showed up on our doorstep to ask for help getting help. He was gaunt and gray and I might not have recognized him in a crowd. He had scribbled a plea for help on a folded newspaper.

Not in the margins — straight over the newsprint covering both sides.

Schizophrenia is unkind when it surfaces. Usually it’s through a psychotic break and all too often involves law enforcement and psychiatric hospitalization. Will had several separate incidents in his struggles with schizophrenia. I don’t know the details but his first incident occurred in Seattle and resulted in forced hospitalization, He signed himself out quickly and headed home to San Angelo. Shortly after his arrival, however, his alarming behavior prompted his family to have him committed again — and again Will signed himself out. He refused the diagnosis of “schizophrenia” and any treatment for many years as his career and his life slowly unraveled. I had lost touch with him entirely before that day he showed up on our porch.

Sara’s brother, Mike, eventually succumbed to his schizophrenia. Though ruled a “suicide,” I view it as “death by schizophrenia.” I don’t think he truly acted of his own volition. When you’re “hearing voices,” they rarely have helpful or benign suggestions. “Kill yourself” becomes a constant chorus some cannot overcome. Sara was told Mike had died “old for a schizophrenic” in his 40s.

That used to be conventional wisdom but Will received very promising treatment a decade later. One doctor even speculated about having available remedies within Will’s lifetime. With the help of a loving partner, Valerie, as well as therapy and medication, he recorded multiple new CDs, toured Italy twice, and enjoyed a decade or more of good health.

Sometime after he left Austin in 2014, though, Will’s mental state began to deteriorate again. Being around him that last year was heartbreaking as he completed recording “The Weathering.” He played a few gigs that spring but by summer, I could see him steadily slipping away and his paranoia increasing, even eying me suspiciously a time or two.

Like many people with schizophrenia, Will is probably out there today. I may never see him again. Please keep him in your thoughts — today and every day..

Along with the millions of others who likewise experience this strange twisting of the human psyche we call schizophrenia.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
This entry was posted in mental health and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.