Dwelling in PossibilityAs you may know, March is Women’s History Month.  In recognition, we at Group Therapy Associates are celebrating how women cope with and overcome various hardships to lead healthy, fulfilling, productive lives.

In this post, I highlight Elyn Saks, an accomplished law professor at the University of Southern California Gould Law School and expert in the field of mental health law.  Saks has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has lived with the illness for most of her life.  In her book, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, Saks details her struggles with the disorder.

To provide a bit of context, schizophrenia is characterized by disordered thinking, delusions and auditory and/or visual hallucinations.  Symptoms typically appear when a person is in their late teens or early twenties, although earlier or later appearance of symptoms is possible. One of most difficult mental health disorders to manage, it can be hard for persons with the illness to achieve full functionality (i.e. able to work, maintain independent living, etc.), particularly without medication.

In The Center Cannot Hold, Saks discusses how her illness has repeatedly disrupted her life. Particularly while earning her graduate and law degrees, the symptoms of her disorder resulted in multiple hospitalizations, making it difficult for her to maintain her studies.  Saks also details her frequent attempts to discontinue her medication, which would ultimately result in her having delusions and hallucinations; these were not only mentally exhausting and difficult, but sometimes threatened her physical safety as well.  The author illustrates this point quite clearly, depicting an episode in which she climbed out on a roof while at Yale Law School, much to the surprise and concern of her fellow students and professor.

Saks also describes her efforts to ‘protect’ her family, and parents in particular, by not sharing what was happening to her.  She attempted to shield them from the symptoms of her illness, even the fact of her hospitalizations, in order to avoid being a burden.  At some point, of course, she was unable to hide how serious her disorder had become, and once her parents became aware, they were fully supportive of her efforts to achieve recovery.

At any point in her journey, it would have been easier for Saks to abandon her goals.  Some might say that this would have been the safer or more reasonable course. However, Saks persevered, and was ultimately able to find a combination of medication and therapy that allowed her to achieve stability, fully pursue her career goals, and develop a rich life with a partner, family, and friends.

I believe there is much to take from Saks’ story.  To start, I think women often feel that we can and should handle everything on our own, and so we avoid asking for help from those around us until our circumstances have become dire. As I stated above, Saks delayed discussing her illness with her family as long as possible, despite being reasonably assured that they would make every effort to help her (which they did once they knew).  Besides the affection and joy we receive from our family and friends, they can also be our greatest asset in managing the issues we face each day.  These persons are our support network, and we should allow them to help us.

I also believe Saks’ story is a powerful rejoinder to the idea of limiting ourselves and others who struggle with mental health issues.  Many mental health diagnoses, including Schizophrenia, have a powerful stigma attached to them, and, as a society, we often regard persons with these illnesses as incapable of achieving anything noteworthy. Saks demonstrates how important it is that we expand our view of what persons with mental health disorders can accomplish.

And, of course, this lesson applies not only to those with a mental health disorder, but to all of us who struggle with self-limiting mindsets and behaviors. In my work with clients, one of the key goals is often making a space for what is possible.  Not probable, or likely, but possible.  We can easily become overwhelmed with our present circumstances to the point that we fail to see or even look for an opening.  We know only in part, but have misled ourselves into believing we see the whole.

Elyn Saks’ story, then, is a powerful reminder to open ourselves to the whole. To find the possible amid all the improbables and unlikelys. To get a hand from family and friends, even from professionals when needed, for a fuller, more meaningful, and more complete life.