What Is A Schizophrenic?
How do they think? Should we fear them?
by Allen R. Kates, MFAW, BCECR
Schizophrenic Kelly Thomas
"You can't hate someone whose story you know."
At a storytelling conference in Tucson, AZ, several years ago, a speaker explained why she tells stories. "You can't hate someone whose story you know."
That comment had a profound affect on me as I sat in the audience. I wondered if it applied to everyone, including the mentally ill. Can we hate them if we know their story? Would we fear them if we understood them, if we empathized with them as fellow human beings? If we had compassion for their suffering?
You don't have to like their story. You don't even have to like the person. As people who have known Kelly Thomas have pointed out, sometimes he was sweet, but he was at times obnoxious, obstinate and uncooperative. I mean, he was mentally ill. He could be an asshole.
But if you knew his story, would you hate him or fear him?
This article is not only for police officers so they can get a better understanding of schizophrenics, empathize with them, and learn how to talk to them, but for anyone who comes in contact with the mentally ill.
As one of the publishers of this website has pointed out, I have unique experience with schizophrenics. I spent two years as a residential counselor at Phoenix House, a Santa Barbara, CA, group home for drug or alcohol addicted people suffering from mental illness.
All 12 residents were diagnosed as schizophrenics. I talked to them, listened to them and took them on outings. I saw them interact with others, and complete activities that psychiatrists say, due to their illness, are impossible.
Putting You Into The Mind Of A Schizophrenic
I'll get to the official definition of schizophrenia in another article. However, the following are my observations after working with schizophrenics over a period of 104 weeks. Kelly Thomas suffered from delusions and acted out his fantasies in the same manner as those I worked with. My goal is put you, the reader, into the mind of a schizophrenic like Thomas. I want you to think like them, to see what they see, to hear what they hear... and to experience where they hear it.
Voices In Their Heads
Schizophrenia is a thought illness. Schizophrenics have difficulty making plans, expressing themselves and thinking things through. They are haunted by voices in their heads interrupting their ability to rationally work out an idea. It is rare that a voice in their heads will tell them to harm another person. That is a theme played in movies, but seldom in reality. Although it does happen.
Sometimes, as well as audio voices, they see people that are not there. That is extremely rare, but one young man I talked to described the people he saw standing next to us that I could not see. Sometimes schizophrenics imagine events that never happened, either on planet earth or in Heaven. I've had long discussions with them about God and the angels and what they were up to while we poor miserable beings struggled below to put food on the table and find a suitable mate.
Schizophrenics seems to bathe in conspiracy theories. According to them, the President of the United States is always in danger by some clandestine, shadow organization, and they know how to keep him safe. They have a knowledge that has mysteriously been implanted in their minds. Only them. They are special. Nobody else on the planet has been granted such precious information.
Sometimes the police, FBI or CIA are the organizations responsible for plotting unimaginable mayhem and murder. But usually the police are friends, and the source to which they go to report their special knowledge and information. They frequently call the local police, but most often the CIA and FBI. As well as phone calls, sometimes they write them long, detailed, rambling letters. One afternoon while working at Phoenix House, I had a phone call from the CIA, begging me to tell one of the female residents to stop writing them crazy letters about the danger to the President.
I tried to convince her to stop, to no avail. She felt an urgent need to warn the President of impending doom. Sometimes schizophrenics threaten the President's life, but most often they try to protect him as a result of their secret knowledge.
For your information, they do not wear tinfoil hats, yet are predictable in their weirdness.
Trying to talk to schizophrenics can be difficult, particularly if they are off their medications. Sometimes they resort to a "word salad," where the combination of words appears to make no sense. But in their strange world, they do make sense, just not in a way we think is rational, logical or reality-based. Nevertheless, if you listen and tune into their world, you may see that there is a bizarre logic to their thought processes.
After I learned how to listen to them and not dismiss everything they said as bonkers, I came to understand that they broadcast their thoughts like music on an old vinyl record with a scratch on it.
Even on meds, they would get to a certain point in their speech and then the needle in their brain would hit the scratch and skip back to an earlier part of their speech. They are repetitive, hard to follow, and their sentences don't always follow a logical pattern.
Ignore Content, Focus On Feelings
Phoenix House's Clinical Director taught me to ignore the content of their speech and to focus more on what they were feeling, to analyze the subtext, the true meaning behind a comment, instead of the comment itself. Doing that, I was able to make sense not so much about what they were saying as what they were feeling at that moment. But it means spending a lot of time with them and listening, listening, listening--not at what they say, but at what they don't say in words yet are desperately trying to express.
Schizophrenics Endure Extreme Loss
To truly understand and empathize with schizophrenics, even though they may be raging or sobbing, we must recognize that schizophrenics endure extreme loss. Loss of their family, who can't cope and often throw them out or have them committed; loss of their education; loss of learning a trade or profession or holding down any kind of responsible job; loss of identifying with a community; loss of having enduring friendships or loved ones; loss of not being well enough to attract a mate, get married, have a family, earn an income, have a career, have a future.
Loss has ravaged their hearts and souls and schizophrenia has stolen their ability to participate in our human drama.
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When Schizophrenia Occurs
Schizophrenia often occurs around the age of 19. Maybe the stress of leaving high school or going to college sparks the hidden illness that seems to come from a combination of genetic and environmental influences. Years ago, the parents were blamed. That is no longer the case. Nobody knows why it happens.
Poor Memories After Onset
Schizophrenics remember little of what has happened to them since the onset of the illness. For them, time has stopped. You could speak to a 45-year-old schizophrenic and he will talk about going to the junior high dance or riding his bicycle or listening to disco music--events that happened before he got sick. They have difficulty remembering anything that happened after they became ill.
Moments Of Clarity May Lead To Suicide
Schizophrenics are not schizophrenic every moment of the day. They have brief moments of clarity, like having a hose wash away the mud in your eyes, only to have the mud slide down over you again minutes or days later. Those moments of clarity produce the greatest danger for suicide, as they suddenly comprehend all they have lost.
While a counselor, I was sometimes put on suicide watch when one of the residents abruptly "cleared" and became aware of who he was... and who he was not.
That meant checking on them day and night, every 15 minutes, talking to them, holding their hands, allowing them to cry and tell stories, until they poured back into their illness and oblivion. We counselors worked a three-day-and-night shift, and slept over. However, we were always on call. On suicide watch, there was no sleep for us.
Lives Of Schizophrenics A Living Hell
The lives of schizophrenics are a living hell. Imagine not being able to remember much of anything from the point that you got sick, and then suddenly you have complete clarity. You recognize what you have lost over the years--and it is everything and everyone that has meant something to you. You are being punished just for being alive. Is there a greater cruelty than this sudden awareness?
Medications And Illegal Drugs
Schizophrenics you meet are likely on medications, mostly anti-psychotic drugs that help calm them so they don't endure so much anguish over their predicament. But behind the drugged-up facade is a sorrow few of us could endure.
Drugs Make Them Tired
The drugs make them tired all the time, and it is hard to motivate them to do anything while they are fighting to stay awake.
However, having them perform routines like cleaning the house, doing crafts, going on outings to the grocery store or to the mall are therapeutic and comforting, despite the stares and fearful looks of shoppers.
Sometimes they sneak drugs, mostly stimulants like cocaine, speed and caffeine to stay awake. They smoke one cigarette after another, nicotine being the stimulant of choice because we allowed it.
When they are off their meds, they turn to depressants like marijuana and alcohol to subdue their voices.
At Phoenix House, a resident who brought illegal drugs onto the premises was sometimes taken to a locked facility for a period of time to wean them off them. Even regular coffee was banned, as it ruined the effect of their medications.
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Decaf And Cigarettes
Decaf coffee was allowed, but they outsmarted us. Decaf contains about 5 percent caffeine, and they would drink 20 cups of Decaf to get the same buzz as a regular cup of coffee. Hell, they had nothing else in their lives, so why not smoke hundreds of cigarettes and drink gallons of Decaf?
I asked one of the residents why he smoked so much and his reply was, "It's the only thing I can control in my life. It's my only freedom."
He was right. The counselors controlled every aspect of their lives. Smoking whenever they wanted gave them a degree of power. Of course, the nicotine helped them to stay awake, which was a huge reason for smoking, and didn't seem to have an effect on the meds.
Schizophrenics Taken Advantage Of
Due to the nature of the illness, schizophrenics often become outcasts, exiled from their homes and families, thrown out onto the mean streets of our cities. Like castaways, they are dumped onto a concrete island with few resources and little human contact.
Mugged, Beaten And Raped
Thugs and street people take advantage of their confusion and vulnerability, stealing what little they have, even the clothes off their backs, and beating and raping them. Every schizophrenic I talked to had been beaten and raped, often repeatedly, regardless of their gender. The violence and abuse were documented in their police, prison or hospitalization files.
Some Doctors Mistreat Them
Doctors don't usually like treating schizophrenics because it's an unsatisfying and frustrating experience. Even on meds, schizophrenics can be hard to talk to, so they can't help the doctor understand their medical issues. They forget doctors' appointments. They forget why they are in the office. Dentists hate working on them. Their teeth are often rotten because of the dry mouth caused by the meds.
Dentists And Shrinks
When I took them for dental appointments, I saw dentists become angry with them. When I took them to see their psychiatrists, I watched the doctors get frustrated and scream at them. I've often asked myself why the shrinks would do this. Their behavior was not exactly therapeutic. And in there lies the answer.
No form of talk therapy seemed to help the schizophrenics, and I've concluded that the doctors have given up on them. But that's no reason to verbally abuse them.
Not everything was pain and suffering when the schizophrenics were out on the street fending for themselves. They told me about dumpster diving behind grocery stores. One man said that he'd never eaten so well. The stores threw away gourmet food before their expiration dates.
Scratching around inside a dumpster didn't bother them. Off their meds, they didn't care much about bathing, washing hands, cleanliness or general hygiene, so flopping in a filthy, smelly dumpster was not a great burden.
However, their hygiene and dangerous habits are of great concern for police officers. As schizophrenics have poor self control, many participate in high risk activities like unprotected sex. Sometimes they are raped by thugs and other mentally ill street people who don't care who they have sex with.
High Risk For HIV, AIDS
Consequently, schizophrenics, especially those who live on the street and are off their meds like Kelly Thomas, are at high risk for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases as well as HIV and AIDS.
Do You Want Their Blood On You?
Which is another reason why police officers should NEVER strike a schizophrenic or other mentally ill person. Do you really want their blood on you?
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After the officers brutally beat Kelly Thomas, there was blood everywhere. Ramos and Cicinelli must have been covered in his blood. Did they inhale it, get it in their mouths or eyes, or on a scratch or cut during the struggle? Have the officers been tested for HIV or AIDS?
When I was a counselor at Phoenix House, we wore latex gloves whenever we were required to touch them. Whenever we ate with them, we made sure our food and utensils were clean. Often we brought in our own food. If I had to touch them when blood was present, I wore two pairs of gloves.
Sometimes we had to check for lice in their hair. On one occasion we found them, and had to wash their hair with a toxic solution. Police officers often touch the heads of suspects to put them in their cars. Do they think about lice when dealing with the mentally ill?
Frequent Hand Washing To Prevent Infection
The residents were allowed free unsupervised time away from the house, and you never knew what they were doing during that hour or so when they walked into town. You didn't know what bacteria they were bringing back with them and spreading on cupboard doors, door knobs, bannisters and toilet seats. As a caution, I used to wash my hands about a dozen times a day. What do police officers do?
After I left Phoenix House as a counselor, at my own expense I had a TB test, to make sure I hadn't picked up anything. Do police officers have regular TB tests? They are in frequent contact with high risk people, and owe it to their families, fellow officers and the public they meet to get regular tests.
Schizophrenia Dissipates With Age
Oddly, the illness seems to begin to dissipate around the age of 50, although some studies disagree and say it's the opposite, reporting that schizophrenia symptoms increase with age. I hadn't seen that negative result from the aging schizophrenics.
Drugs That End Schizophrenia
There are drugs like Clozapine that can knock schizophrenics out of their illness. That in itself can create tremendous fear and stress. I had a girlfriend years ago whose brother was a schizophrenic. He was offered Clozapine and was told it would return him to reality. The problem was that he would be required to take weekly blood tests because the drug could be toxic to the liver.
He said, "What if I take the drug, return to normal, but then have to give it up because it's destroying my liver?" In other words, what if he gets his life back, but then has to give it up again?
Wouldn't that be too much to bear for most human beings? To be "cured" by a miracle drug and then to be told you'll have to stop taking it and be sick again?
He decided not to take the drug.
Schizophrenics Love To Laugh
Believe it or not, there are fun sides to schizophrenics. I used to joke with them and make them laugh. I tried to show them that even loss and sadness can have a funny side when we step back and see ourselves as being in this world for only a brief moment of time.
Sometimes I would get them to laugh through their tears. They enjoyed laughing at themselves, and would feel better. Laughter is better than any drug.
Diagnosis Should Not Define The Individual
I've had some unexplainable moments with schizophrenics, where they demonstrated abilities and awareness that were more than unlikely. They were impossible, based on the diagnosis of the illness, and what was expected of them.
The Phoenix House Clinical Director told me on my first day of work as a counselor to ignore the diagnosis and only look at the individual. The diagnosis did not define who that person is.
So that's what I did. I looked at the individual and made decisions based on that. Some of those decisions were considered nuts by the rest of the mental health staff.
Like taking the residents on a camping trip, something never attempted before. Even suggesting the idea made me look like... well, one of the residents.
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The Camping Trip From Hell
I took the Clinical Director at her word. Look at the individual, not the diagnosis, and what I saw were deprived and unlucky people who needed to do something different. Something that gave them confidence and self-esteem. What was I thinking?
The day I announced during our weekly staff meeting that I wanted to take all 12 schizophrenics on an overnight camping trip, my fellow counselors thought I had lost my mind. It had never been done, and for a good reason. They could become frightened and uncontrollable out there. The staff painted a picture right out of the apocalyptic novel, Lord of the Flies, where the children divided into tribes and savagely murdered each other with sticks. Undeterred, a couple of weeks later, my co-counselor, Wendy, and I took a van load of residents to a state park that offered camping, boating and lots of mosquitoes.
Setting Up Tents
We arrived late in the day, and I was trying to figure out how Wendy and I could set up 8 tents, 6 for the residents to share, one each for us, before nightfall. And also cook dinner over an open campfire for 14 people. My solution was to treat our charges as if they were normal with normal skills and normal curiosity. I asked everyone to gather round while I set up the first tent and then suggested that they give it a try. I am the eternal optimist, but thought this was going to be a disaster and turn into the camping trip from hell.
The outcome was beyond what anybody could have predicted. The schizophrenics (those who have a low threshold for stress and are supposedly incapable of following complex orders) divided themselves into teams of two, selected their tent areas, and in 20 minutes had set up every tent without making a mistake, needing assistance or running off into the wilderness in tears.
A Night Of Joy And Laughter
The evening was joyful. They loved sitting around the campfire, eating grilled hot dogs and chicken, roasting marshmallows on a stick, and sleeping in a tent, an event outside their usual city-slicker setting. That night gave birth to lots of laughter. They are not supposed to like change or challenge, but they liked camping and the great outdoors. So far so good, I thought. Then I pushed things...
Who Is Driving The Boat?
Next morning, I rented a large flat-bottomed motorized boat and asked everyone to come out on the lake for a ride. Wendy thought this was a very bad idea. There was a big risk that somebody would get hurt. Everybody put on a life jacket, boarded and off we went without anybody falling in the water. Then I did the most unexpected thing. I asked, "Who wants to drive the boat?"
Everybody volunteered and took turns sitting in the captain's chair, steering and driving around the lake. Everybody except one woman, who put her hands on the wheel and began to shake and cry. Maybe I had gone too far with my experiment, but overall it was a success. It was like the old TV Show, What's My Line... Would the real schizophrenic please stand up? Only one did. The others proved that the diagnosis could be elusive.
The point of this story is that Kelly Thomas was just like the schizophrenics on this camping trip. On meds, he could have been one of them, and enjoyed himself. Schizophrenics are much more capable and able to focus than most people believe.
Here's another example of how schizophrenics defied their diagnosis and showed their abilities. My purpose in telling this next story is that you will see schizophrenics as human beings, not objects of scorn or fear. They are not always their illness. Sometimes they can become great baseball players...
The Impossible Baseball Game
One day, everyone, including staff and residents, went to a city park for a barbecue and a game of baseball. We brought gloves, balls and bats with us, and the residents were excited about playing. After we ate, we headed over to the baseball diamond. However, it was already being used by a bunch of guys from Gold's Gym, who wore cutoff tee-shirts that said... Gold's Gym. They had muscles where I didn't know muscles grew.
I asked them if my group could join them for a game. I didn't tell them that the people on my team were mentally ill, overweight, under-exercised, addicted to cigarettes, lethargic, and drugged out of their minds on anti-psychotic drugs. The Gold's Gym guys could see it for themselves. They looked the schizophrenics up and down and one of them laughed and said, "Sure."
I called Team Schizos together in a huddle and told them just to have fun, they were about to get creamed, but that's okay, we're not here to win, and some other blather to make them feel better about their impending rout and destruction.
Team Gold's Gym Battles Team Schizos
Gold's Gym was first at bat, and, predictably, the muscle-bound goons smashed in about 8 runs without much effort. I could see that on the bases and out in the field Team Schizo was demoralized. The schizophrenics had long faces and scowled a lot. After what seemed like a week, they managed to stop the runs and got up to bat. That's when the improbable, the unbelievable, the impossible happened.
Team Schizo called their own group huddle, screamed a cheer they had just made up and then went up to bat. They put their game faces on and looked determined. Then the baseball miracle occurred. The team members jumped and screamed encouragement to each other. Then they knocked in 32 runs without giving up the plate.
The Gold's Gym guys hung their heads in shame and looked depressed. Then they walked off the field, defeated and humiliated. Not only had they misjudged the schizophrenics, those who cannot plan, those who were flabby and heavy smokers, but I had misjudged them, as well.
So What Is A Schizophrenic?
So then... what is a schizophrenic? Just shows that you cannot believe everything you've read or been told. The Clinical Director at Phoenix House had trained me to ignore a diagnosis and only observe behavior. The schizophrenics behavior showed planning, cooperation, determination and that intangible quality called spirit.
Now that you know a little more about schizophrenics and the way they think and act, should you fear them? What do you think?
That brings me back to Kelly Thomas. Was he a schizophrenic capable of planning, cooperation and purpose, against all definitions? If he had been persuaded to stay on his meds, could he have thrived on that baseball team? Could he have gone camping and put up a tent?
We'll never know what kind of life he could have lived.
For the official definition of schizophrenia and more articles about Kelly Thomas, please click here for the Front Page.
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