I would work at menial jobs when my symptoms were quiet. They were graduate students, managers, technicians and professionals, including a doctor, lawyer, psychologist and chief executive of a nonprofit group.Following my last psychiatric hospitalization at the age of 28, I was encouraged by a doctor to work as a cashier making change. Today I am a chaired professor at the Gould School of Law. At the same time, most were unmarried and childless, which is consistent with their diagnoses.For some, this meant keeping their living space simple (bare walls, no TV, only quiet music), while for others, it meant distracting music.“I’ll listen to loud music if I don’t want to hear things,” said a participant who is a certified nurse’s assistant.I eat comfort food (for me, cereal) and listen to quiet music. Usually these techniques, combined with more medication and therapy, will make the symptoms pass.But the work piece — using my mind — is my best defense. My mind, I have come to say, is both my worst enemy and my best friend.
Far too often, the conventional psychiatric approach to mental illness is to see clusters of symptoms that characterize people.We can’t all be Nobel laureates like John Nash of the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” But the seeds of creative thinking may sometimes be found in mental illness, and people underestimate the power of the human brain to adapt and to create.An approach that looks for individual strengths, in addition to considering symptoms, could help dispel the pessimism surrounding mental illness. My prognosis was “grave”: I would never live independently, hold a job, find a loving partner, get married. They suffered from symptoms like mild delusions or hallucinatory behavior. Half were male, half female, and more than half were minorities.My home would be a board-and-care facility, my days spent watching TV in a day room with other people debilitated by mental illness. All had high school diplomas, and a majority either had or were working toward college or graduate degrees.