Charlie Feldman started to experience paranoid schizophrenia while in college. Like many other people these days, he has been able to recover from this illness through such things as medication, support from both peers and professionals, work, volunteer work, and spirituality. Charlie has written his recovery story to document what it was like going through the illness, as well as to give people an understanding that recovery is possible. While still living with this illness, Charlie is no longer affected by the symptoms. Throughout the illness, and the hard times leading to recovery, Charlie’s main interest was in finding meaning in life, which he now finds through his spirituality and community.
Editor’s note: In this third installment, Charlie’s illness is becoming apparent to those around him as his own judgment and ability to conceal his distress is increasingly compromised. He is haunted by ‘ideas of reference’–a conviction that casual remarks by friends and strangers are synchronized with the chaos in his own mind. With a dry, ironic sense of humor he recounts surviving a perilous and tormented year in the grip of schizophrenia. (to read the story from the beginning, Go Here).
My senior year in college, I decided to major in psychology because I wanted to have what seemed like a fun job like Dr. McGurk’s job. I had not completed all the prerequisites for this major, but I felt I could catch up. Quite by accident, I found out that Dr. McGurk was sponsoring a Group Independent Study Project (GISP) at Brown, on encounter groups. Even though the other groups I had been in with him didn’t seem that worthwhile, I signed up for this.
Dr.McGurk ran the classes for the GISP and a psychiatrist, Dr. Herb Gross, ran the encounter group sessions themselves, at Butler Hospital, the local psychiatric hospital.
One day in an encounter group session, Herb gave us an exercise to do. He said we should all give ourselves a piece of advice. The advice I gave myself was: “Don’t blow it.” Later that evening, I went to a lecture, and the speaker said at one point: “Don’t blow it.” I thought he said that because of what I had said earlier in the day, which I thought he somehow knew about. I thought it was a secret message to me.
From that point on, I started feeling that people I met, and even people walking by me, were saying things and making gestures referring to me, that had hidden messages.
At first I thought people were gossiping about me. Then, when I thought they knew things they couldn’t have found out by gossiping, I thought they were sneaking in my room and reading my journal. Then I thought they must have been bugging the room. Then I thought they were reading my mind, because they seemed to know things they could have found out about in no other way.
I started talking with one girl in the encounter group course with the idea of developing a relationship with her. I soon thought that people were trying to get her to stay away from me. In an attempt to convince her not to listen to them, I called her a couple of times one night, once in the middle of the night. I did not feel I could speak openly of what was going on, so I beat around the bush.
I finally said that I would commit suicide if she didn’t keep seeing me, thinking that this would show her the depths of my feelings. The effect it did have was to give her the idea that I was going to commit suicide, so she called the campus security to protect me. When I met with the security officer, I convinced him that I was not going to commit suicide. The girl involved had the security office tell me that she didn’t want a romantic relationship with me. My whole approach had kind of backfired. Somehow I never saw her again, even on campus.
Due to this incident, I missed a final exam. I was feeling stressed out in general with the conspiracy that I experienced going on, so I decided to leave school. I withdrew from school, and rented a U-Haul. Someone had told me that you could live in the Goddard College library, so I headed the van towards Vermont. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with all my stuff, or how I would eat, etc., but I hadn’t thought it through that far. In Massachusetts, I stopped at a wooded area near a gas station to stretch my legs. I asked the gas station attendant if it was okay to park there. He said I could, but that he was not responsible for the van. When he said that, I thought he was copying Dr. McGurk, who often said he was only responsible for himself. I thought to myself that they were even reading my mind in Massachusetts. So I turned the van around and headed towards New York, where I thought I could stay with relatives.
In Connecticut, I stopped to get something to eat and in the café, I felt they were talking about me once again. Were they reading my mind everywhere? I turned the van around once again and headed home to my parents’ house. Once there, I kept asking my mother: “Did I blow it?” She didn’t seem to know what to say.
I bought a bus ticket so I could travel anywhere for a month. I was thinking I would travel to different cities at random, and people I knew would turn up. I went to the bus terminal in Providence, and someone I knew from high school was there. He suggested I go home to my parents’ house. I am surprised I didn’t interpret his being there as evidence that people were turning up as I expected.
When I felt that this plan wouldn’t work, I decided to use the bus ticket, since I had it anyway, and take a brief trip to Provincetown. I head down the street towards the local bus stop in Barrington, and I started talking to a guy I didn’t know on the street. When I told him I was going to Provincetown, he asked me why not go to Montreal? So I went to Montreal. At the Canadian border, a customs official asked me if I had a mental illness.
I was glad Dr. McGurk had told me there was no such thing as mental illness, because I knew to tell him that I didn’t have a mental illness.
I found a cheap hotel near the bus terminal in Montreal. I thought the women working there were making advances at me. At one point, I thought of going in to a nightclub, and when I walked up to it, the place emptied out. I thought they were all leaving because I was there. One girl had talked with me on the bus on the way to Montreal, and I thought she would be on the bus on the way back, but she was not there. I could have gotten in trouble on this trip, but my instincts always told me to restrain myself from openly
acknowledging what I thought was going on. I did take a trip to Provincetown where I slept on the sand dunes, but that was a bit later.
When I got back home, Dr. McGurk asked to see me. I saw him, and this psychologist, who had told me there was no such thing as mental illness, told me he was putting me in Butler Hospital. He said he was calling my parents and letting them know.
Dr. Gross had said towards the end of the semester that he was moving to New Hampshire to get involved in community mental health. I could not quite figure out what community mental health was. If he had stayed at Butler Hospital, my future might have been quite different.
Next– Part 4-A Noxebo Effect