I have schizophrenia, and sometimes I think about whether I have let my illness define my life. I work for my family’s nonprofit, International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO), as a mental health advocate. If you asked me when I was a kid what work I would want to do, the last thing I would have said was to take on a family enterprise. I used to value my individuality above anything else, and dreaded being corrupted by conformity. Thanks in part to my illness, my values have shifted since then.
I had a psychotic break in 1990, the summer after my freshman year at Dartmouth College. A friend managed to get me to a psychiatry ward. At first, I could not accept that I had a mental illness. I had a life plan, to be an astronautical engineer! I would not be cut down by a schizophrenia diagnosis.
Three nights into my first hospitalization I decided I would get out of the psych ward immediately. I was unable to sleep, furious, and refused to take meds. A nurse was on her way with an injection to make me sleep. I would not let her violate my consciousness! In fact, I would just knock the syringe from her hand and walk out of the unit before she could do anything. …Of course, when I tried that, several nurses wrestled me onto a bed, strapped me down and gave me the injection.
Now I understand their perspective, but at the time I felt mistreated. Still, when I woke up the next morning I realized I needed to get better somehow and get on with my life. Hard though it was, I agreed to a treatment program.
I was able to return to college, get my engineering degree, and secure a job designing communications satellites. I kept my illness under my hat.
When I had my second psychotic episode in 1996, it became clear to me that I could no longer work as an engineer. The job was too stressful for me, I admitted, with disappointment. But, my wonderful parents offered me a position in the winery they own and run, Staglin Family Vineyard.
A few years later, a film director was interviewing our family for a wine film he was making for international release. The time came when the director asked my parents what had inspired them to start their annual fundraiser for mental health research, the Music Festival for Mental Health. I made a split-second decision. I did not want to hide my illness, such a large part of my life, any more.
“I can tell you about that.” I told him my story.
The director, a little hesitant, asked, “Do you want me to keep this out of the film?”
I blinked, and said, “No, by all means put it in!”
Although my disclosure (and our mental health advocacy) ended up on the cutting-room floor, a change had taken place in me. I volunteered to help produce the Music Festival in its next year.
I began to talk more openly about my disorder. People were interested! When asked why I was so gung ho about helping to raise awareness, I explained that mentally ill people could be misunderstood by the public. Often, even caregivers found it hard to understand their patients’ suffering. I realized as I spoke that I wanted people with mental illness to be understood, to retain their sense of self-worth. I thought then, “This is something I can help with.” When asked, I began giving interviews for local radio and TV.
The next Fall a Music Festival patron, Liz Browning, sent me a link to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article about her son’s experience with schizophrenia. The health care system had failed to treat Marc adequately, the article reported, and after years of progress of his disease, he may have been beyond therapy. I was heartbroken for her and for Marc. This issue was much, much bigger than what I had experienced.
Since then I have met many people whose experiences with their own illnesses have inspired me. In September 2009 I appeared in the BringChange2Mind PSA. Talking with the Closes, the other principals and the people who helped to produce it showed me how much passion there is behind this cause. The momentum of that day caught me up and has never let me go.
Today, my job as communications director and blog-writer at IMHRO enables me to pursue my own passion for the cause. Has my condition defined my life? Yes, to some degree–and I like it. It has given me a new direction which I hope makes people’s lives better. And, it has led me to compassion and patience. I love my life and would live it the same way again, illness and all.
To learn more about the Staglin family and the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) please visit their homepage: http://www.imhro.org/
To watch a video clip of Brandon and his mom, Shari, sharing their story with BringChange2Mind, please visit this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pa3CddPGD8A