For ten years, Arnhild Lauveng suffered as a schizophrenic, going in and out of the hospital for months or even a year at a time. A Road Back from Schizophrenia gives extraordinary insight into the logic (and life) of a schizophrenic. Lauveng illuminates her loss of identity, her sense of being controlled from the outside, and her relationship to the voices she heard and her sometimes terrifying hallucinations. Painful recollections of moments of humiliation inflicted by thoughtless medical professionals are juxtaposed with Lauveng’s own understanding of how such patients are outwardly irrational and often violent. She paints a surreal world—sometimes full of terror and sometimes of beauty—in which “the Captain” rules her by the rod and the school’s corridors are filled with wolves.
When she was diagnosed with the mental illness, it was emphasized that this was a congenital disease, and that she would have to live with it for the rest of her life. Today, however, she calls herself a “former schizophrenic,” has stopped taking medication for the illness, and currently works as a clinical psychologist. Lauveng, though sometimes critical of mental health care, ultimately attributes her slow journey back to health to the dedicated medical staff who took the time to talk to her and who saw her as a person simply diagnosed with an illness—not the illness incarnate.
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Fog, dragons, blood, and iron
It started carefully and gradually, and I almost didn't notice. It was like a nice summer day when the fog slowly creeps over the sky. First as a thin veil over the sun, then gradually more, but the sun is still shining, and not until it stops, when it suddenly gets cold and the birds have stopped chirping, do you realize what is happening. But by then the fog is already there, the sun is gone, landmarks are starting to disappear, and you don't have time to find your way home because the fog is so heavy that all the roads are gone. And then the fear hits you. Because you don't know what happened, or why, or how long it will last, but you understand that you are alone and that you are lost and you are scared that you may never find the way back home.
I am not sure when it first began, or how it first began, but I remember that I first started to be scared in middle school. There wasn't much to be scared of yet, and I wasn't very scared either, but I did notice that something wasn't right. I had always been the nice, quiet, good girl that kept to herself, daydreamed a lot, and didn't have many friends. I had some, especially one I was very close to — a good best friend — but we were never a large group. In elementary school I was bullied a lot. It wasn't violent in any way, but rather it was a quiet and calm everyday teasing that is almost invisible, but steals confidence and friendship and laughter, and leaves you by yourself, confident that being alone is the best solution for you. There was bullying at middle school as well — not much, but enough. Bubble gum in my hair, kids leaving when I entered a room, people pulling away their chairs and laughing mockingly. Group work was a nightmare, and I kept to myself during recess. It had been this way for a long time, but suddenly I started to realize that I was more alone than before, and it was no longer just an external loneliness, but it started growing inside of me as well. At one point something happened; I was no longer alone because I did not have anyone to be with, but rather because the fog made it hard to communicate, and the loneliness had become part of me.
I got good grades in school. I spent time with my best friend, went to the movies, babysat, drew, painted, and listened to music. I laughed; I had many plans for my future. But I started going out more at night, taking long walks where I thought of everything and nothing, and sometimes I didn't even know where I had been by the time I got back. I thought a lot about death, and I climbed to the top of the ski jumping hill in the middle of summer and thought about how it would be to jump and fly downward and land in a completely different place, the place you don't return from. I think I killed someone in every single essay I wrote all though middle school, maybe with the exception of nonfiction essays, but they, too, were pretty gloomy. I quieted down and started listening to music a lot. I spent a lot of time reading, most often sad and heavy books, maybe too heavy for a fourteen-year-old. The Bleaching Yard and The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas; Kafka and Dostojveskij. I became very grown-up and very childish, and I basically lost track of who I was. When I was in ninth grade, for Christmas I wished for a Latin textbook and a baby doll. I was increasingly confused and I wrote a lot, and pensively, in my diary.
But none of these things are really that out of the ordinary. I was a teenager, and teenagers are usually unpredictable. They are torn between being a young child and being somewhat grown-up, and much thought and sudden mood swings are really very normal and nothing to worry about. Upon reflection years later, I think the main warning signal was my identity — the safety of knowing that I was an "I" — was starting to crumble. I became increasingly insecure about whether or not I really existed, or if I was only a character in a book or a being someone had made up. I was no longer certain of who was controlling my thoughts and actions; was it me, or was it someone else — the author maybe? I started feeling insecure about whether or not I was alive, really alive, because everything felt so empty and gray. In my diary I replaced "I" with "she" and after a while I started thinking like this as well: "She was walking to school. She was sad and wondering if she was going to die." And someplace within me, something was questioning if "she" was still "me," and it found out that that was impossible, because "she" was sad, and I, well, I was nothing. Just gray.
It was around this time that I realized that I needed help. I dreaded it for a long time, but one day, when I was sitting by myself in a classroom to finish some homework, I decided to visit the health nurse. She was sweet and nice, but I didn't feel like I was able to explain myself properly. She asked if I ate, and I did, and if I was afraid to gain weight or to drive a car, but I was neither. I was afraid of not existing, and I was afraid of my thoughts not being my own, but she didn't ask about that. I said that everything felt gray and that I just couldn't bear living anymore, and at that time she set up an appointment for me with the school psychologist. I was scared and embarrassed, and I didn't want to tell anyone. The appointment was during winter break, so the school was luckily closed.
At home, I told my parents that I was going for a walk, and then I hid out in the cemetery, right by the school, until I saw the school psychologist walk in. I really did want to talk with him, even though I was scared, because I understood that I was losing my way in the fog, and I needed help. But I didn't know how to ask for it or explain what was happening, because the fog was already quite thick and it had become difficult to communicate. I told him that I was confused, and he responded that this was common among teens. I said that I felt like I wasn't in charge of my feelings or actions anymore. He then drew Freudian circles for me with an "id" and "ego" and "super ego." I didn't understand this at all, but it made me quite sure that he didn't understand anything of what I was trying to say. My next appointment with him interfered with a test, so I ran down to the nurse and said that I didn't have time and that I didn't need the appointment anyway because I was feeling better. This was a straight-out lie, but the fog was really thick now, and it became increasingly hard to form reasonable thoughts and even harder to talk about them, so the lie was just easier. I knew that I would never be able to express how it really was. So I said that everything was fine and whirred on by myself.
Strangely enough, I was still keeping up with my schoolwork. My essays were tragic but still well written, and my science and math classes went fine. Dates and kings and wars and chemical formulas were safe, simple, and firm facts in a world that was increasingly chaotic, and they gave me no trouble. They were what they were, insensitive and unchangeable and completely unaffected by my chaos; they could be memorized and studied and all was fine. I went on walks, babysat, did my homework, and took tests, and nobody knew that each day I was getting more lost and was drifting further away from home. But I did.
And then I started high school. In the beginning it was fine. I was placed in a nice class, with some of the people I knew from before and many fresh faces, and I discovered that people could be nice and that I could get more friends and that I could have fun with them. I got a job next to the school, as a chocolate saleswoman at a movie theater in the city, and even if the bus ride was long, I was happy with both the job and my colleagues. I was feeling good. Very good. Too good. Because this wasn't the world I was used to, and when things got that good, it became even more apparent how painful and lonely it had been before. And the sorrow I was carrying was still there, and when I laughed with the others, the sorrow would twist and turn and remind me that life wasn't this easy and fun, but lonely, cruel, and sad. And so I felt even more alone. Furthermore, I had been bullied for so long that it felt tiresome and uncomfortable that people were suddenly nice to me. And if I were to accept that they actually were nice, and that it wasn't an inevitability that they wouldn't be, well, then, I would also have to accept the sorrow of what had been before. That I couldn't handle. And the grayness grew. It became increasingly clear that I was uncomfortable in the role of quiet, nice, and good girl. I wanted to fly, and I started drawing golden-red, fire-breathing dragons, dragons that glowed with power and life and everything I didn't have. Because I was only gray.
In middle school my senses already had started to change a bit. This, too, happened so slowly and carefully that I almost didn't notice at first, but sometimes, especially when I was tired, noises sounded strange. They were sometimes too high, or too low, or just strange. Now, it grew worse. Usually there is a clear order when it comes to sound — some are high, some low, some important, and some less important — but now many of these rules were unclear. I might be walking and talking with people and find that it was hard to hear what they were saying, because their voices were overpowered by the sound of my sneakers hitting the asphalt. The hissing in pipes could get loud and threatening and physically painful, and sometimes I was unsure of what the sound really was; was it just hissing or was someone talking? In the same way, my teacher's lectures would lose words and content and become sounds, like the whining of a saw blade or the howling wind.
What I saw was changing as well; the distinctions between light and shadow became more apparent and, at times, quite scary. When I was walking down the street, the houses around me could grow large and threatening, or I felt like they were falling toward me. Familiar rules of perspective blurred, and it was like walking around in a surrealistic painting by Picasso or Salvador Dali — both tiresome and confusing. One day, on my way to work, I ended up glued to the ground for half an hour, not daring to cross the street. I was unable to judge the distance to the cars, and the edge of the curb seemed like a bottomless cliff that would kill me if I fell off it. This anxiety and despair grew, and at the end of it, I saw no other way out than to just walk. If I was killed, then at least it was over. I wasn't killed. I crossed the street, found my way to work, and said that the bus was late. That was the first time I was late for work, and it was fine, but I felt horrible for lying. But at the same time, what was I supposed to say? That I had been afraid I would kill myself if I fell from the curb? That was just not possible. It would sound insane. While the world was becoming messier, there was still something inside of me that registered what was happening and understood that it was wrong. I knew, on some level, that curbs are 6 to 8 inches high, not 50 to 65 feet, and that you don't die when you step down from one; but it didn't look that way, and even though one part of me said one thing, another part said something completely different, and it became increasingly harder to understand and make sense of these things.
I continued to write my diary, and I still wrote about "she." This confused me. If I was "she," then who was writing about "she"? Am "I" "she"? But if "I" am "she," then who is telling the story about "I" and "she"? It got more and more chaotic, and I couldn't work it out. One night I gave up on the whole thing and replaced every "I" with an x, for unknown. I felt like I had ceased to exist; everything was a mess; I had no idea if I was or who or what I was. I just wasn't anymore; I wasn't a person with an identity or boundaries or a beginning and an end. I was an indefinable and fluid chaos, like a cloud of fog, woolly and without limits. But I was still me. When I now read my diary from the night I felt like my identity dissolved completely and the psychosis took over, I can see it. Because then, when the chaos threatened and I was in such despair that I couldn't handle it anymore, I wrote, in direct quotes, "Now x can handle no more. X has no idea who x is and just can't think about it anymore either. X thinks x will put y (3rd singular person) to bed." And even though I clearly remember the despair and loneliness in being completely and utterly alone, without even a solid "I," I still have to smile. Because it becomes so evident that I was there all along, and that the identity was solid even though the experience of it had crumbled away. I am interested in grammar and language; that is one of the traits and unique qualities that creates my identity and make me who I am. So I was there back then as well. I just didn't see it.
The world had turned gray, my senses were a mess, and I didn't know how to relate to the conflict between "good girl" and "living life." My role was so narrow that my soul was blistered; it ached all the time, but I had no idea how to move on. I drew dragons — individual drawings of golden creatures that flew through the night, and series containing multiple pictures that together made a whole story. One of these series started with an ice princess in a blue-purple dress who was walking alone though a dark winter forest with naked, dead trees. The forest was filled with wild animals — wolves, snakes, little devils — but none of them saw the ice princess; they all just turned and walked in the opposite direction. She was completely and utterly alone. In the next picture the princess was swallowed by the large, golden, fire-breathing dragon, which actually looked nice, even when he ate the princess. The third picture showed the dragon brooding on a large, white egg, and in the fourth picture the egg cracks and a golden-red princess came out. Both she and the dragon smiled happily. In the very last picture the fire princess walked through the woods once more. The forest was just as dark and cold, and just as full of wild and dangerous animals. But the princess didn't fit in anymore, and the animals could tell, and in this photo all of the animals walked toward her and attacked her. The ice no longer protected her; she was now alone and vulnerable and may have been in danger of being eaten. Despite this, I wrote in my journal: "It doesn't matter what it costs, I will not die before I have painted with all the colors in my paint box, I will not live in pastel colors." And I wrote this, even though I, not knowing anything about the future, had drawn an unnervingly accurate photo of what would happen. I knew I was about to be swallowed, and I knew that I would survive.
In another drawing series, the ice princess is about to be swallowed by a flock of small wool chunks without bodies, but with large mouths. To escape, she decides to yet again let the dragon swallow her. This time the dragon doesn't lay an egg, but it is lying in a meadow, crying. The tears gather and form a river, and by the riverbank a flower grows. The bud cracks and the fire princess comes out, singing.
I was completely confused, I understood nothing, and I couldn't explain what was happening to me, because I didn't know myself. I remember it and I know that it is true. But the drawings, nicely dated from the beginning, still tell the entire story. They show that I knew nothing, yet understood everything.
There were other areas wherein I expressed the things I could not put words to as well. I did not feel comfortable in my role, but instead of dropping it, I became great at it. I worked everyday after school, but I still wanted just as good, or better, grades. I studied at night after I came home from work and long into the night hours. Then I got a few hours' sleep, before I got up at the crack of dawn, studied some more or did chores, silently so no one noticed me, then went back to school again, and then to work, followed by more homework. There was no time for friends or hobbies, and even though that was unfortunate, it was safe because then I didn't have to mourn my lonely years. Everything had just as bad as it had always been, and that wasn't good, but at least it was familiar.
I slept less and started to eat less, not because I was trying to lose weight, but because I wanted to push myself and be in control of the chaos. Then the Captain came. The first time I met him, I was writing in my diary. I was tired and I was sitting down and writing, and I suddenly realized that one of the sentences ended in a different way than I had wanted. This frightened me, and I wrote, "Who finished that sentence?" And he said: "I did," and so it began. The road from writing to thoughts and finally voices is very short; at least it was for me. My senses had been confused and distorted for a while, and the step to hearing voices was therefore not very large. I guess I had heard it before this point as well, or been unsure of what I heard, but the voices had been unclear; mumbling, distant noise, a sound like talking — but I was unable to catch the words or who was talking. At this point, there was no doubt. It was the Captain who was talking, and he was speaking clearly. It was impossible to misunderstand him. The Captain was captain, and captains give orders. But he was kind as well, at least in the beginning. He was pleasant and said that he would take care of me, that I didn't have to worry about anyone else because he would be there for me. He said that nobody knew me as well as he did, and he gave me proof by telling me about my dreams and aspirations, which was quite easy considering he was me. He said that I no longer had to think about whether or not other people liked me, and that I no longer needed to worry about what I wanted or who I should be. He would take care of all of that. And he promised to never leave me. I just had to trust him and do as he said. And I did. It wasn't that hard to begin with. "You should work on that assignment some more," the Captain said. And I wrote the assignment over. "It is still not good enough," the Captain said. "Trust me, it's not good, write it one more time!" I trusted him. And I wrote the assignment over once more, found new facts, and polished the outline. "Not good," said the Captain. "You must be stupid, but you are still lucky to have me to help you. Write it again, and right this time!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Road Back From Schizophrenia"
Copyright © 2012 Arnhild Lauveng.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Stories of Confusion 1
Fog, dragons, blood, and iron 3
Loneliness in a blue-white dress 17
Deprived language, distressed language 37
What is left 53
Stories of Systems 61
Love roses and professional shards 63
The Saturday of the Orangemartyr 75
Poetry without pajamas 89
The horse is an ungulate 105
Stories of Change 121
Travel companion 123
Canes, crutches, and fences 137
Stop the world-I want to get back on! 149
Gray as sheep, golden as a lion 161