BY LOIS MAHARG
Arnhild Lauveng has written the kind of mental health book I like to read: an intimate account of lived experience and insight from a person who recovered her health and became what she wanted to be.
But Lauveng’s diagnosis was schizophrenia, and schizophrenia is understood by many to be an illness from which a person never fully recovers. Is it possible to become a “former schizophrenic,” as Lauveng, a Norwegian psychologist, describes herself at the beginning of her book? To live independently and have a rewarding career without the help of medication?
Lauveng’s memoir, “A Road Back from Schizophrenia,” is a testimony to her claim that sometimes it is. As she recounts her struggles, we believe in her story and can only imagine the years of therapy and self-reflection that went into making the inexplicable understandable to us.
Early Warning Signs
Her sickness started when she was 14 or 15. But she “suffered from suicidal thoughts and distorted senses for years before anyone knew that [she] was becoming a schizophrenic,” she wrote. The illness developed slowly, preceded by bullying at school, discomfort with her peers and more and more time spent alone.
“I think the main warning signal was my identity — the safety of knowing that I was an ‘I’ — was starting to crumble,” she wrote. “I became increasingly insecure about whether or not I really existed, or if I was only a character in a book or a being someone had made up. I was no longer certain of who was controlling my thoughts and actions.”
Sensory information became distorted, too. Inanimate objects such as houses looked menacing. Walking to work one day, she waited for half an hour to cross the street, unable to judge the distance to the cars. “The edge of the curb seemed like a bottomless cliff that would kill me if I fell off it.”
Voices and Hallucinations
Her response to these frightening developments was to try to excel even more at school and sleep less in order to devote more time to her studies. Then she began hearing voices. One in particular — whom she called the Captain — took control of her life, mercilessly driving her to work harder and harder and hitting her when she failed to live up to his standards. “I knew — I saw — that it was my own hand hitting me, but it felt like someone else was steering my hand. . . . When the Captain hit me, my experience was that he was the one doing the beating.”
Her situation continued to deteriorate. Lauveng started hallucinating wolves and crocodiles at school. One day she was discovered in the girls’ bathroom hitting her face, biting her hands, and knocking her head against the wall to make the voices stop.
Lauveng’s first hospitalization occurred when she was 17. “After that, it was back and forth, in and out, with shorter and longer stays” for about 10 years.
Lauveng’s encounters with police officers and hospital personnel are a study in the best and worst traits found in people in positions of authority in mental health and law enforcement settings. While she had mostly kind “helpers” along the way, a few police officers and psychiatric nurses were cruel and abusive, adding to Lauveng’s sense of powerlessness and shame about her condition.
But mistreatment at the hands of police and hospital personnel was not what most hindered her recovery. For Lauveng, who recognizes that her worst symptoms — cutting her arms and legs repeatedly with glass and other sharp objects and eating napkins and paper plates — could well have marked her as a person with little hope of recovery, the worst thing about the treatment she received was that “none of the people around me really believed in my dream, or that it was possible for me to achieve it.” Instead, they urged her to adopt a more “realistic” goal: understand that she had a chronic disease and learn to live within her limitations. This, for Lauveng, was tantamount to a death sentence. Indeed, she attempted suicide three times.
A Road to Recovery
But most of the time, Lauveng continued to long for — and, stubbornly, to believe she was capable of — the same things we all want: “life, development, growth, a good every day for me and the people I care about, understanding, safety, relationships with other people.”
And finally she met up with a caseworker who believed in her dream and wrote up a plan that took her from where she was to the psychologist she eventually became.
This memoir is a reminder that where mental illness is concerned, everyone’s situation is a little bit different. And, in Lauveng’s words, “Anyone who wants should be allowed to hope in a better future, no matter if that hope is realistic or not. . . . Some dreams do come true.”