Schizophrenia Testimony: Lia’s Journey Towards Recovery
Six months after her mother’s death, Lia manifested symptoms of schizophrenia. Read on to follow her journey towards recovery.
“I am not ashamed of having been “crazy“ or “schizophrenic“, but I realize that most people, who know little or nothing about psychiatry or psychology, are horrified by the mere mention of such conditions. Therefore I choose only to talk about my former illness with people who have an understanding of these matters.
My period of “delirious paranoid schizophrenia“ began in 1995, around six months after the death of my mother, and lasted for about three and a half years. Today I am completely cured, but I still see my psychiatrist for brief check-ups once a month, to stay on the safe side. Within 10 years of the outbreak of the disease there is a statistical risk of relapse, I have been told. I stopped taking Haldol [haloperidol: an antipsychotic medication used to treat schizophrenia] in 2002.
I have lived in Italy since 1972, but originally I came from the Netherlands. At the onset of my illness I was 43 years old and living with my husband and son in Turin. As the disease broke out, I began hearing voices that eventually grew louder and louder until they totally encompassed me, and involved everyone around me. In my confused condition, I felt persecuted by my husband, and the voices pushed me to separate from him. Fortunately, I gave him custody of our son, who was 13 at the time.
As my delusions grew, I became convinced that my father was my only living relative (even though my three brothers and six sisters were all alive), and that my grandmother, who had died when I was 6 years old, was in fact my mother. I remember her showing me an attention and affection as a child that I never received from my mother, and, in my schizoprenic state, I completely denied the existence of my real mother, and replaced her with my grandmother. After a while I stopped calling my father as well, since I believed that he, too, was dead. I also stopped seeing old friends and colleagues in Turin, because I felt persecuted by one of them.
I did not think so at the time, but today I consider myself lucky for being hospitalized for two months in May 1998. It was done by force, and, in cases like mine, I must say I am in favour of forced hospitalization. I was placed in the psychiatric ward of a general hospital through the great help of my husband, one of his friends here in Turin and my relatives in the Netherlands, but most of all through the tenacity of my psychiatrist, Dr Tibaldi.
This first experience of the mental health services was not pleasant. We were crammed together in big rooms, with eight people with all sorts of problems and tempers in one room. Fortunately, we were sufficiently numbed by the psychiatric drugs to be able to sleep quietly all the same. To begin with, I would refuse to take any medicines, but as soon as I started taking Haldol regularly, which was roughly after three days, I stopped hearing the voices! What remained of my affliction was the whole set of erroneous ideas I had built up, but this was dismantled bit by bit through my quick return to the family setting, visits to relatives in the Netherlands, and through psychotherapy and the meetings with my psychiatrist.
My Dutch relatives called me during the first two months of my hospitalization. While I was in the half-way house I did not hear from them, perhaps because it was difficult to get in touch with me there. One of my sisters kept writing me postcards and letters, though, two to three a week, even though I did not reply. I phoned my son every day, regardless of how unbalanced I was, and saw him at weekends and in the holidays. My husband visited me for an hour every day. After two months my psychiatrist decided that I should go to a half-way house in Turin, where my son and husband could easily visit me. Here I came to spend the following 13 months, until September 1999.
What annoyed me about the half-way house was having to share a room with three people I did not know, some of whom I did not get along with. I also disliked the gatherings every evening, where we had to take turns to speak on some topic. None of us ever knew what to say, and in the end we all stopped going. There were also weekly individual sessions with a person from the facility, horse-riding therapy and contact therapy with dogs, which were quite useless to me. I was still so locked up in myself that the only possible communication I could carry out was talking about practical matters, like what to do during the daytime and what to eat, apart from the personal telephone conversations with my son and, after half a year, short visits to see my husband at home.
What was positive, on the other hand, was the whole period of quietness, of “moratorium“, which was something that I sorely needed. I also profited from trips to the mountains and holidays at the sea, and enjoyed the freedom to move outside the facility, which was granted once they were sure people would come back for meals and at night. Regaining contact with reality really helped me a lot, and I much appreciated being allowed to return to my family during the weekends after just half a year, and to go on holiday for three weeks with my husband and son, a short while before leaving the half-way house.
A few weeks before I left and went back to my husband, I began psychotherapy with Dr Palazzi. To begin with, I saw her on a weekly basis; with time, less frequently. We spoke about my entire life, as well as about the relationship with my son and husband. I cried and realized many things through the constant contact with my therapist. For a long time the sessions appeared to me to be just ordinary conversation, but after some time I discovered that they were indeed therapeutic.
The story is too long to relate here, but I believe I have come to the roots of what brought about my illness. In my delusions I had four persecutors, the most important of which was my mother. All my life, up to her death in 1994, I was unsure about whether my mother loved me or not; she was always so incoherent in her messages and behaviour, even after I left home at 18. The other persecutors were my husband, an elder sister and my Sicilian sister-in-law. What these people have in common is that they actually did invade my personal privacy: that is, the privacy with my husband, the relationship with my son and the freedom to be myself.
The relationship between me and my husband has improved through all of this. I talk to him about my experience, and he knows that I saw him as one of my main persecutors, even though he does not know the whole story. He comes from the southern regions of Italy, from a family setting where conflict is truly taboo, but his attitude towards me has changed a lot. Nowadays he lets me choose freely if I want to go to Sicily to visit his family (some relatives there are too invasive of my privacy), and he also lets me go to the Netherlands whenever I feel like it, even on my own.
I know now that I have to fight for our life together, and fight against the evasion of conflict and the invasiveness of privacy typical of his culture (which, on the other hand, provides great hospitality and sociableness). I am not ashamed of my former illness, but I only speak about it in front of people who have had similar problems or are ready to come down from their “expert’s pedestal“. The only person I can speak to fully and freely is an ex-colleague and friend, who is a great consolation to me. Sometimes I write about my experiences to a dear pen friend. All of my Dutch brothers and sisters know about my disease, but only three sisters are prepared to discuss my illness in relation to my mother’s behaviour and our family background; the rest are afraid of being disturbed in their ways. The Sicilian relatives, as I already mentioned, shy away from all conflicts.
For the sake of my personal well-being and that of my family, I no longer work, but do a bit of everything. I have been receiving disability income support since 1999, and am happy with it. Anyway, it would be difficult for me to find a job, as I am over 50. Now I do housework, go shopping, see friends, travel and engage in hobbies like reading, knitting and going for walks alone or with my husband. It suits us well this way. Looking back on the whole experience, I wish many other patients a treatment and recovery like mine.
Through it all, my husband and my son have been my greatest support. My husband still does not know all the details about my illness, but their love has been and is the most important factor in my recovery.”