Nautilus

A Mental Disease by Any Other Name

It starts without warning—or rather, the warnings are there, but your ability to detect them exists only in hindsight. First you’re sitting in the car with your son, then he tells you: “I cannot find my old self again.” You think, well, teenagers say dramatic stuff like this all the time. Then he’s refusing to do his homework, he’s writing suicidal messages on the wall in black magic marker, he’s trying to cut himself with a razor blade. You sit down with him; you two have a long talk. A week later, he runs home from a nighttime gathering at his friend’s apartment, he’s bursting through the front door, shouting about how his friends are trying to kill him. He spends the night crouching in his mother’s old room, clutching a stuffed animal to his chest. He’s 17 years old at this point, and you are his father, Dick Russell, a traveler, a former staff reporter for Sports Illustrated, but a father first and foremost. It is the turn of the 21st century.

Up until this point, your son, Frank, has been a fully functional kid, if somewhat odd. An eccentric genius, socially inept yet insightful—perhaps an artist in the making, you thought. Now you are being told your son’s quirks stem from pathology, his mystic phrases are not indications of creative genius but of neural networks misfiring. You sit with Frank as he receives his diagnosis, schizophrenia, and immediately all sorts of associations flood into your head. In the United States, a diagnosis of schizophrenia often means homelessness, joblessness, inability to maintain close relationships, and increased susceptibility to addiction. Your son is now dangling off this cliff. So you hand him over to the doctors, who prescribe him antipsychotics, and when he balloons up to 300 pounds,1 and they tell you he’s just being piggish, you believe them.2

just a kid: Franklin Russell as a child, before any symptoms of schizophrenia had surfaced. Courtesy of Dick Russell

Had Frank been living someplace else, things may have turned out differently. In some countries, schizophrenics hold down jobs at five times the rates of American schizophrenics. In others, symptoms are interpreted as unusual powers.

Dick and his son tried a variety of treatments over 15 years, some more effective than others. Then, unexpectedly, the pair turned in a very different direction, beginning a journey that Dick now likens to a “torch-lit passageway through a long dark tunnel.” By sharing his story, he hopes to help others find this passageway—but he’s aware some of it sounds crazy. For instance: He now believes Frank might be a shaman.


Certain structures and regions in the brain are thought to be particularly important in constructing our sense of

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