My name is Dale Walsh. After a successful freshman year at Dartmouth College in 1975, I experienced what was classified as a “psychotic schizophrenic break” because I developed the delusion that I was God. This belief resulted in a hospitalization for 13 weeks in a “mental hospital” in New York City. I then entered a psychiatric program andI spent the next five years there. When I was well enough to leave the program, I re-entered college at Fairleigh Dickinson University from where I graduated 5 years later with a degree in English literature. I used my skills after I graduated to begin a business helping Fairleigh Dickinson students to write their term papers.
I now consider myself recovered from my diagnosis so that I have become a coach for the families of schizophrenia who have loved ones affected by the illness. My goal in coaching is to help my clients come to terms with the challenges of dealing with their loved one. I also aim to instill in them hope by using myself as an example of the possibilities of recovery.
How schizophrenia affects the brain
I have learned many lessons in the course of my journey back to mental health. I still follow a strict regimen of medication every day, although it has been significantly reduced over time. One of the most important tools I have come across is the development of my own self-awareness and ability to understand how my condition affects my brain.
Dr. Xavier Amador talks about a condition called anosognosia in his excellent book “I’m not sick and I don’t need help.” Anosognosia is a term taken from neurology and applied to stroke victims with neurological damage. Doctor Amador applies it to psychiatric conditions. What it means in simple terms is that the patient is unable to comprehend both his symptoms and his overall illness as being something that needs treatment.
Anosognosia has been acknowledged as a symptom of schizophrenia which affects almost 50% of those diagnosed with the disease. It is different from denial. Denial is a defense mechanism created by the ego in order to not face painful realities. Anosognosia, however, is completely different. It is a symptom of the condition which operates at a much deeper subconscious level than denial. An alcoholic refuses to admit the problem; a person with anosognosia cannot understand there is a problem in the first place.
This lack of understanding has a negative effect on a person’s willingness to take medication and participate in therapy. It is a big problem because self-awareness is essential to recovery. If you don’t think you’re sick, then you aren’t going to seek treatment or take medications which make you feel abnormal, agitated or uncomfortable. It creates a resistance to getting professional help from a counselor or doctor.
Self-Awareness & Schizophrenia
What is the connection between self-awareness and recovery? In fundamental terms, insight is a critical trait that a patient needs in order to heal. When I realized that I had schizophrenia, it gave me the objectivity to be able to see how the illness was affecting my reality. I became, however, a “schizophrenic” in my own mind, rather than a “person with schizophrenia”. This identification of my whole self with my diagnosis was another obstacle to recovery. It took me a long time to understand what I had to overcome.
The need for self-awareness about schizophrenia and its effects is essential to healing. It is necessary to build communication skills to help the person diagnosed come to insight about their condition. The caregiver must also exercise self-compassion and self-care to guard their own health, both mental and physical. This is one of the most important factors not only in helping their loved one get better but also in keeping themselves safe from adverse effects.
Dale Walsh is a coach for the families of those diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has been coaching families for three years and is the creator of the LIVELOVE method to help his clients. He is guided by the mantra “Recovery is Always an Option”.