My name is Max. I have had schizophrenia for 9 years, and I want to tell you my story through psychological hell to recovery and hope. I’ll tell you at the beginning that beyond giving you an amusing story about my experience, I eventually want to convince you with my story that I discovered something called “Street Epistemology” that is growing in the atheist community, and that it has helped me get better, along with medication and support from the mental health community.
I was born in 1989 to a wonderful family. I have so many fond memories of growing up. I had a big family get together with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins all going over to my great grandmother’s house and having lunch and a good time together. All of the people in my family were very loving and had wonderful bonds. I was close with my siblings, and my brother and I shared a lot of friends. All of the friends and teachers I grew up with, I feel like were wonderful people, and I felt very bonded to many of them. We went on a lot of family trips growing up, and I traveled in a lot of different parts of the United States, and even to Mexico a few times.
I had no particular health problems, and there would have been no way to predict the hell I would go through when I turned into an adult. I never broke a bone, never had a cavity, never had any major diseases, and although i was prone to a lot of viruses, nothing serious was wrong with my health at all. I did have a teacher in about 4th or 5th grade tell my parents that I had ADHD, because I spent a lot of the time in class staring out of the window. I think she was mistaken that this was caused by a disorder, however. I think the truth is that I was a child full of wonder and energy for the world, and didn’t like to be closed up in the classrooms.
I was a smart kid and I loved to learn, and although I had a joke with one of my friends in middle school that we should “keep from working too hard on schoolwork, so that people didn’t start to get too high of expectations for us”, the truth is I was very successful with the schoolwork I was given. When I got to high school I got to be very shy, and only kept a few close friends. I had an awkward disposition and didn’t talk much, but I still do have a lot of good memories with friends that I kept in high school. I also had some friends that I had kept from elementary school who stayed close with me through high school, so I wasn’t particularly socially unhealthy at that time.
I think my problems really began when my friends and I began experimenting with marijuana. Note that I fully support the idea of legalizing marijuana and truly believe that it could help a lot of people, I just think my problems with it were contextual with the way the experimentation happened within my social life. Me and my friends started getting some problematic behavior, and although I refuse to incriminate myself in this writing, I have some bad memories of some of the things that happened during that time of my life, both alone and with my friends creating problems in our lives.
After getting into that kind of lifestyle smoking pot, and creating problems, I started to experiment with LSD and Mushrooms and any other kind of consciousness altering substances I could get my hands on. I was lucky not to get into anything like heroin or speed or cocaine, but I definitely had my fair share of experimentation with drugs. This is where the problems started to get complicated. I have so many feelings about my what my problems could have been, that it’s hard to tease out what the true cause of my long term problems were.
I have heard some scientific speculation, that some people are more predisposed to developing the problems I had with schizophrenia due to genetics, but I don’t know enough about it to make any judgement on that. All I know is that I have had these problems, and I also have hope that there is a way out of them, regardless of whether or not my genetics are predisposed or not. I did not even notice the problems myself. The only way I came to identify with my schizophrenia was that I knew everyone started worrying about me, and I just felt no way to challenge it, I gave into their worry, and came to identify with a new identity as a schizophrenic person.
I can still remember my symptoms, and I do think it started along with the experimentation with drugs and creating problems socially and personally. I remember some of my friends who did LSD and everything with me, a lot of times romanticized hallucinatory experiences. I had some of them try to guide me into certain hallucinatory experiences as well by certain social oddities. I think this is one of factors.
Beyond all of these problems, I began to have a major interest in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. When I graduated from high school, I traveled to San Francisco for 3 weeks and stayed in a couple of Zen monasteries. I meditated there with the experienced meditators and learned how to do intensive meditation by sitting with them all in the meditation hall twice daily, as well as doing work around the monastery mostly in silence. I had a great experience there, and loved what I learned, but I think that the baggage I brought there with my previous experiences created a problem when I began meditating. I think I thought of meditation as a kind of way that was identical to the way I thought of hallucinogenic drugs. So I basically started living in those experiences more permanently.
It seemed so reasonable to do this and felt very natural. I think that if that is something that you bring as an expectation to intensive meditation, can actually work. The problem, however, is that it led me away from a rational perspective of reality. I completely lost all sense of reason in my life, and my life became one giant acid trip that I thought was what meditation was supposed to induce for people. It could be argued that I had the wrong idea of buddhism, but the point is that that is what I believed, and part of that included these shared hallucinatory experiences I had in my head. I even used a drug called salvia on the weekends on my trip in San Francisco, another hallucinogen, leading me further and further into this rabbit hole.
During my time in San Francisco, through meditation, I started having a much more powerful and profound experience of my life. I really did try to learn how to do meditation the right way, and I think I was pretty successful overall. I remember a certain time when I started to believe that people there could read each other’s minds through meditation. This is an idea that has scriptural support from the Buddhist literature, although I didn’t know it at the time. I remember sometimes as I was sitting in the meditation hall a lot of what felt like a flashing in my mind of powerful lights going on and off, as my experience became more powerful. I felt very alive, in a way that I don’t think I had ever felt before, in a way that they would call in buddhist terminology, a waking up. But it was only in my experience, my cognitions of what my experience was could not keep up, and I didn’t know how to handle it.
When I got back to my hometown I immediately got back into my drugs, particularly ecstasy, or MDMA. I’m pretty sure the ecstasy was mixed with methamphetamines in what I took, and I decided after I took it, that I would go tell my parents that I had taken it, I guess expecting them to be giving me some sort of supportive experience on ecstasy. That did not happen. There was a major conflict my parents with yelling and screaming, and here I was stuck on this drug. It was such a profoundly negative experience in my life, it do not think it can be put into words. All I remember was a lot of yelling and screaming and accusations, and I was yelling I was convinced that I could read their minds and knew everything they were thinking, which was an idea I picked up through my experience meditating. I wanted them to be able to experience what I had learned through meditation, and I kept telling them to “Wake Up!” repeatedly, and for some reason I remember I wound up taking all of my clothes off in a state of madness. It was terribly traumatizing.
It was after this experience that they started taking me to psychiatrists, and I began getting diagnosed loosely with some kind of psychotic experience. I did not quit using drugs at that time, and my continued use just added to the trauma. I also continued meditating at home regularly, and all of the trauma and drug use and psychotic behavior was right in my experience with the meditation, and it all got interwoven together into my meditative experience, and I think this is when I think my problems started to permanently cement into what would become my schizophrenia. Meditation became my problem solving method, but I it was not sufficient to address the problems I was experiencing, although I was expecting it to. In fact I think it was more likely that it got me fixated on my problems, and unable to move on.
Soon after all of this, my Grandfather began declining into dementia and was dying. I volunteered myself to live at my Grandparents house to help him get along, partially because I was feeling virtuous from the meditation, and partially to get a break from my parents. While I was living there, although I do think I was a bit helpful to my Grandfather and we got to bond before he died, my mind went deep into all of my problems. I think the fact that I was living with him having dementia added a profound layer of sadness and existential anxiety to my experience. After about a month of living there, I had wound up calling the police to on my Grandparents, thinking they were using some sort of evil magic on me. A policeman came, and was very nice and talked to my grandmother, and told me she seemed very nice and that he didn’t think anything was wrong, and that he couldn’t help me. Another symptom at the time was that I was also talking to all sorts of “voices” in my head, mainly spiritual people I looked up to, but also other people in my head, I suppose in an attempt that I could get one of them to pray for me. I was so upset, that I was telling people that I was suicidal, and a few days later was my first trip to the psych ward.
I don’t remember much from my first trip to the psych ward, other than I got started on antipsychotic medication, and was in for about 2 weeks. I just remember laying there in bed thinking “I’m in the loony bin”, “I’m in the nuthouse”, and being extraordinarily overwhelmed and shocked that I of all people was diagnosed with schizophrenia. As I told you, most of my life growing up was wonderful, and I was smart, healthy, and loved. I just couldn’t imagine how I could have been the type of person who belonged there. Just the thought of getting diagnosed with schizophrenia weighed very heavy on me, and was very hard to accept. My mother has told me that she would go into see me in there the first time in visits, and she would try to talk to me, and I had a blank stare and wasn’t responding. I can imagine some of this was from the schizophrenia, some of it was from the medication, but most of it was probably my own shock and grief and indignation that I had landed myself in the psych ward of all places, getting diagnosed with schizophrenia.
When I got out, things didn’t change much, but I had medication now at least that was helping me. I didn’t mind the idea of medication that much, the effects weren’t that bad to me, but I was still in shock. I tried to stay with my grandparents and help some more for a while longer. I got in touch with a girl I knew in high school who I knew had used to have a crush on me in high school, and we began dating. I eventually moved back in with my parents and I think they hired some sort of nurse to help with my grandfather because it became a very hard job and I was too overwhelmed. He died pretty soon after this and it was overwhelmingly sad for me.
I got along with my girlfriend, but it was a strange experience, because she considered herself a Wiccan, so instead of talking me out of my superstitions, my experience with her wound up making my beliefs in magic and mind reading etc., even stronger. Her family also had a lot of it’s own problems with very strong conflict. I kept up with meditation though, because I thought that if my doctor says I’m “split from reality” that meditation would be the perfect antidote for that. We stayed together for about a year, and it was a nice distraction, but didn’t make me any better.
After splitting up with her, I decided to start going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to treat my problems with addiction. I had a fling with another girlfriend there, relapsed once with her, but got back into recovery quickly. I wound up becoming best friends with her brother. He had similar experiences to mine, and we got along like two peas in a pod. He was older, but he had gotten diagnosed with schizoaffective after a breakdown during an attempt to become a monk at a Catholic monastery, and I thought it was similar to my experience with a breakdown after going to a buddhist monastery, plus we could go to NA meetings together.
He and I were great friends, and we supported each other a lot, mainly by supporting each other’s religious commitments. He was very austere about his beliefs and while I was with him I spent most of my time studying and practicing buddhism, while he did his Catholicism. We became very isolated and didn’t seem to branch out with any other friends while we were friends. We did some, I had a few other friends I met in NA, but not much. Part of the reason was that he was gay and I think looking back this was mainly what led us to isolate together so much, was that he thought of me as a boyfriend. I was trying to ignore that part because I liked that we had so much in common and supported each other as friends so much. However, I think he and I had a habit of supporting each other’s delusions as well, so I didn’t really ever get much better during this time either, and continued going in and out of psych wards every once in awhile. I had fun and I learned a lot on my own though, particularly about buddhist philosophy, which also seemed to be support for my delusions a lot of the time as well.
I kept going to NA meetings, and learning and practicing more about buddhism, and hanging out with him, and that was my life for about 3 years. I loved to read all sorts of stuff beyond buddhism as well, science books at least, and spent a lot of time learning on my own through books, and eventually I discovered audiobooks, and got obsessed with those. One of the books I read was called “Rethinking Madness” by Paris Williams. It was about how he had helped people with schizophrenia recover from schizophrenia to the point that they were eventually able to manage their lives without medication. I didn’t read all of it, but the first part of the book was dedicated to demonstrating the dangerous side effects of antipsychotics, and the flaws in the theory of what schizophrenia is and how it should be treated. I didn’t even finish the rest of the book, before I was convinced that I needed to get off of all of my medications. I read some of the rest, where he talked about his alternative theories of recovery, but I was already convinced. Honestly, looking back, I think his alternative theories of schizophrenia and recovery are much less solid than the standard understanding. Some of his ideas that I was influenced by though, about flaws in the current understanding and treatment were actually probably accurate. I think looking back also, I need to know that just because a current theory is flawed, doesn’t give a license to make up alternative theories that are even less corroborated and pretend they are solid theories. I think it may also be true that some people with schizophrenia can manage without medications, but that is not related to his theories being true or false.
So I told everyone I was going to try going without medication, I was pretty hopeful, and fairly cautious, and I got people to accept that this is what I wanted to do, and I told my doctor I wasn’t going to take my medications anymore. He cautioned me, but I was convinced. Part of my convictions were centered in buddhist ideas as well, which Paris Williams was also endorsing in his book. I had become so knowledgeable and practiced in meditation, I was sure that would help me.
It felt really good for a while. I felt like I was doing the right thing and that I was making the right choice. I wound up getting into a conflict with my best friend of so long for reasons that I won’t get into. I wound up calling another friend I had who I had met from NA and became close with her, who had a lot of problems herself, and was involved with drugs, mainly just marijuana, but wound up getting me involved in smoking pot, drinking, and eventually going back to experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. I actually managed my symptoms effectively for a little over 6 months this way, but eventually got a DUI, was in jail for a night, and when I got out, had my license suspended, so I was stuck in the house with my parents with no way to get out of the house. Eventually, conflict with my parents started building up slowly again, I started going into a mania, and wound up calling the police because I was convinced that my Dad had killed someone and had buried them in our backyard. I just knew this based on intuition.
The police came, then a crisis came, and my family tried to get the crisis team to put me into the psych ward, but they said they couldn’t do anything because I was not at danger to myself or others. So my sister decided to get a court order telling the police that I was at danger to myself or others, which I think we all knew was not true, to get me involuntarily committed, in an attempt to help me get better. It did not work. I was furious that I was being held against my will when I was truly not a danger to myself or others, and I knew it. I was so furious that when I was in the hospital, I resisted treatment so adamantly, that I was stuck in the hospital for over a month. When I got out, I wasn’t any better, and was still furious about what happened, and still manic, etc.. My parents got to their wits end and told me that if I wouldn’t go to the hospital that they would take me to the homeless shelter. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I still felt like it was so wrong that I had been wronged like that, so they took me to the homeless shelter. I couldn’t sleep in the homeless shelter I was so upset, so I left and walked over to the jail and used their phone, and called my parents to come pick me up and go ahead and take me to the hospital.
I went into the hospital and was still so worked up, that I was in there for another three weeks freaking out about my situation. I got out and was finally exhausted with it all and fell into a sort of manic depression, and just slept. I just crashed. I was exhausted. I felt like I had been beaten to a pulp through it all. I was that way for a long time. I don’t remember how long. But I remember that during that time, I started studying atheism, because I was worn out with using my faith to fight all of my battles. Just thinking about meditation or my buddhist beliefs or anything religious caused so much negativity, that I needed something to relieve that. And I think that what I learned during this time studying the atheist and skeptic movements has been what I have needed for so long and never knew what I was missing.
Along with taking medication again and getting help from my mental health team, I learned something called “Street Epistemology” that is growing in the atheist movement. It is a method of conversation based on the socratic method, where you ask people about their deeply held beliefs, respectfully, find out why they believe it, how they concluded it was true, and finding out if the methods they are using to come to their conclusions can reliable lead to truth. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with studying knowledge, what it is, how it works, and particularly how we can know a belief is justified. Often times, with deeply held beliefs, the method used is faith. Many people have their own definition for faith, but you can let them give their own definition, and analyze it with them as a method of coming to truth, It is very simple, but you can use it on everything. It is not focused on what the belief is, or metaphysics, but how you know the belief is true, or epistemology.
Focusing on epistemology is exactly what I needed to learn. I needed to figure out whether or not the methods I am employing to come to my conclusions is actually reliable. I think that is why people have problems with schizophrenia. It has nothing to do with the actual conclusions they are coming to. There is nothing wrong with the particular conclusions in themselves. The problems come by employing faulty methods of reasoning, that creates problems in their daily lives. I am convinced that if we changed the way we think about delusions, by using epistemology, not metaphysics, that people could actually get better by learning critical thinking and reasoning. It has helped me so much, and I am still getting better, but I have hope that there is a way. All of these problems that contributed to my mental health problems are not insoluble, but pretending to know things I don’t know, and can’t know, isn’t a solution to the problem.
I am equally as convinced that when we give an exception from certain metaphysical conclusions as exceptions from being considered as delusions, simply because people consider them sacred beliefs, that it does a huge disservice to the way we are treating mental health problems. It’s what i’ve heard called “belief in belief” or believing holding certain metaphysical conclusions are moral virtues. When you analyze this it doesn’t seem rational that believing in certain metaphysical ideas can be moral virtues.
The idea that we should just let people believe whatever they want and protect certain ideas from scrutiny, leads to a failure in reasoning, that can have real life consequences on our society. We live in a democracy and the ability to engage with each other’s ideas freely and openly and without fear is crucial to our societies functioning properly and healthily. A failure to engage on these topics can have a real detrimental effect on our own and each other’s well being. If you don’t believe it, just turn on the news or open a newspaper. It is alarming. And once you become aware of the problem, you will see that to live and let live may not always be the best policy. We need to be able to engage with each other.
I’m going to go to school for philosophy, and stay involved with the skeptical community, and keep practicing Street Epistemology, but I’m not going to give up hope on people.