© Dustin FensterMacher | Wonderful Machine
Robin Cunningham's grandfather had schizophrenia and hung himself in a state hospital. His uncle met exactly the same fate, while his aunt tried to kill her three children and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.
At 13, in 1956, Cunningham began to think that Satan was putting blasphemous thoughts into his mind. His mother got him help as quickly as she could. "I got sick on a Sunday, and by Friday I was in to see a psychiatrist."
His doctor prescribed Thorazine. The drug didn't completely control Cunningham's delusional thinking and hallucinations, so the psychiatrist worked with him to develop strategies for coping with his illness and fitting in with the rest of the world. "He backed that up with a strong conviction that he believed I would recover," says Cunningham, now 65, who calls this belief essential to his treatment's success.
Cunningham learned to give up the physical defenses that he'd used to help cope with his "near constant state of terror," like clawing at his chest until it bled, and worked with his psychiatrist to develop mental defenses instead.
With the help of new medications and his doctor's coaching, Cunningham was accepted to the University of Washington, and won a National Institutes of Health fellowship to study psychology. He eventually found a drug that kept his hallucinations and delusions at bay, a combination of perphenazine and amitriptyline sold as Etrafon. But while at graduate school, he became depressed and quit taking his medication. A breakup with his first serious girlfriend precipitated a relapse, and he left school and returned home.
Cunningham got better after he began taking his medication again and continuing to work with his psychiatrist. He completed an MBA at the University of Washington and held a series of high-level positions in finance. He married, had a daughter, and retired at age 48.
His symptoms arose again two years ago, when Etrafon became unavailable because the FDA temporarily closed the plant manufacturing it. After about a year of trial and error to find another effective combination of drugs, Cunnimgham now takes Geodon, amitriptyline, Xanax for anxiety, and Cogentin to reduce his Parkinsonian symptoms, and he is doing well. "I've really only been back on the playing field for about a year now," he says.
Cunningham says anxiety has been by far the worst side effect he's had to cope with, and that many others with schizophrenia feel the same way.
Getting treatment so early in the course of his illness, even though it didn't erase his symptoms, prevented Cunningham's brain from deteriorating and allowed him to eventually realize his full potential. Experts agree that early intervention is essential to helping people with schizophrenia to achieve full recovery, as the illness progresses with every relapse, making a return to normal function increasingly difficult.
Today, Cunningham spends his time speaking, writing, and advocating for people with serious mental illnesses. He writes a blog for www.schizophreniaconnection.com tracing the course of his own illness and recovery. For six years, he's been training others with mental illness to speak about their experiences as part of the National Association on Mental Illness' program, "In Our Own Voice."
"These presentations do change peoples' mind; they're very effective in fighting stigma," Cunningham says. And for mentally ill individuals themselves, talking about their experiences can be "cathartic," he adds. "It makes them feel much more comfortable with themselves."