As valedictorian at Vanderbilt University, with degrees in literature and law from Oxford and Yale Law, respectively, and as a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry & behavioral sciences at USC's Gould School of Law, Elyn Saks might be thought of as having been born with an intellectual leg up.
But she was also born with a mental condition — full-blown schizophrenia.
Saks not only effectively manages her schizophrenia through medication and five-times-a-week talk therapy, but she has also carved out a dynamic career studying the very malady from which she suffers. She is her own walking, talking case study — an extremely high-functioning, productive and self-fulfilled schizophrenic.
"My goals were to put a human face on schizophrenia and dispel some myths that were very destructive," says the personable Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, among other books. Those myths are "that you can't work, can't have a spouse, can't live independently, are violent. ... And to give hope. There is hope. It's wrong when mental-health professionals tell people to lower their expectations drastically."
Many people tell Saks that she is unique, "but that's not true," she says. She points to other high-functioning schizophrenics she has met: M.D.s, Ph.D.s, various academics, a number of excellent parents. And then there is John Forbes Nash Jr., who — as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind — brought some "star quality" to the illness.
Born into a placid, secure, nontraumatic childhood, and with no mental illness in her immediate family tree, Saks describes her schizophrenic episodes as being like a "waking nightmare," full of bizarre images, impossible occurrences and terror. During her delusional episodes, she has believed herself responsible for literally killing hundreds of thousands of people with her thoughts, and while hallucinations are relatively rare in her case, she has seen a foot-long spider crawling up the wall and Santa Claus coming out of the TV.
Saks has also suffered from "disorganized thinking," once turning to her fellow law school classmates and asking, "Have you had the same experience as me of our legal cases being infiltrated? We've gotta case the joint. I don't believe in joints, but they do hold your body together."
She chuckles heartily when I tell her it sounds like pretty good stream-of-consciousness poetry, or maybe early Dylan lyrics.
Among Saks' current projects is a study at UCSD for which she's both a subject and an investigator. It involves psychiatric evaluations, neuropsychological testing and brain imaging with EEGs and functional MRIs; and studies for a book on bipolar disorder, an almost equally serious mental illness also of great personal and professional concern to Saks.
In her book Refusing Care: Forced Treatment and the Rights of the Mentally Ill, she states that the first time someone becomes psychotic, he should be hospitalized and treated, after which the person will be in a much better position to decide for himself what kind of subsequent treatments to submit to.
When that book came out, a Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote: "This is a scholarly and erudite book, but she would do well to think about those on the receiving end of her suggestions."
Saks got a good laugh out of that line.