Through Acceptance Comes Freedom
By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator
"The more I accepted my mental illness, the fewer symptoms I had and this ultimately set me free," said Elyn Saks at her acceptance speech.
For more than 30 years Elyn Saks has lived with schizophrenia. With the help of her medication, she not only lives a successful and productive life, she can be called a "genius." In 2009, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship-nicknamed the "genius grant." With her fellowship endowment she established the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, which has aided in the research of many topics. This year the focus of the institute was on the use of mechanical restraints and seclusion in psychiatric facilities.
Because of her tremendous work, Elyn Saks was awarded the Gloria Huntley Award at this year's NAMI National Convention on July 6. The Gloria Huntley award is handed out each year for a individual or facility's contribution in reducing the use of seclusion and restraints in a treatment setting. The award is named for Gloria Huntley, who died after being continually restrained at Central State Hospital in Virginia in 1996. Her death led to Congressional hearings and legislation and regulatory reforms.
Elyn's personal experience with mental illness gives her a unique position as a researcher and someone who has experienced the issues she is studying first hand. Elyn began experiencing symptoms in her first year attending Oxford. Weighing less than 100 pounds (she's 5-foot-10) and failing to take care of her hygiene and physical appearance, she became socially isolated from her classmates. The social stresses eventually led to the full blown manifestation of her illness and she was admitted into a hospital.
Initially Elyn wanted to live her life using as little medication as possible. She was able to do this for many years but she ultimately realized that in order for her to go back to school and work, she would need the medication. She has not regretted her decision to begin taking her medication since; she is nearly symptom free.
At her award acceptance speech, she related not taking medication to not using a crutch with a broken leg. "Why wouldn't you use something to help make you better?" Elyn asked.
Staying well is important to Elyn. Being able to work effectively is one of the most important aspects of her life. Work, Elyn has found, is what makes her happy. She could not imagine not being able to work for herself. When she was diagnosed with schizophrenia she was told she would never be able to maintain a real job on her own. But now as an associate dean at USC Law School, Elyn not only works independently, others rely on her guidance.
In her book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, Elyn chronicles her life with schizophrenia and the battles she has faced. Her mind, she believes is her best friend but also her worst enemy. But she is not ashamed about living with schizophrenia; she uses it as a learning experience, an experience that makes her unique, one that helps identify who she is as a person.