Ought We to Cure Schizophrenia?
by Jason Ratcliff
When a young man or woman is first diagnosed with schizophrenia, and has the presence of mind through medication to perceive that he or she has an incurable disease that will make life and happiness immensely difficult, this question would most certainly be answered by that person with a resounding: “Yes!” I too would have said this twelve years ago. But now, I have certain reservations.
When someone has a physical disease, this can be the source of much unhappiness, and when the disease is cured, the core elements of that person’s personality remain unchanged. The body is healthy again, and without the suffering of the sickness the personality can go back to finding its own happiness, without having been altered. But when our very personalities are sick, and make us suffer (such as in mental illness), the personality, the very consciousness, of that person must be transformed in order to cure the disease. Though medicine reduces all mental illness to a malfunctioning brain, and believes simplistically that malfunctioning brains ought to be made to function again, in the same way a malfunctioning liver ought to be made functional, I do not think it is so simple.
Let me explain a little about my own personality, and how it might be different if I were suddenly cured of schizophrenia.
Being around people, especially people I am not familiar with, disturbs me. Whenever I am invited to a party, I decline. I only have one friend who lives in this city, whom I have known since adolescence, and I rarely see him, though I enjoy talking on the phone with him about once a week. In short, I am reclusive. Going around in the city, even practicing my Spanish with strangers on a bus, I am perfectly comfortable with. But as far as hanging out where I am likely to meet new friends, or being social and going out to dinners with groups of people, this makes me so uncomfortable that I avoid it whenever I can, and I usually can. Even going out to restaurants with my family sometimes disturbs me, as I am always conscious of the people at the other tables, and am unable to put their presence out of my mind or “tune out” their conversations. I have an introverted nature, and enjoy nothing more than keeping to myself and painting, writing fiction, or creative nonfiction such as the present essay. Since I have less ability to interact with people than others have, I am at a disadvantage when it comes to forming a romantic relationship. I have never, in my life, had a real romantic relationship, only a few short-term flings, and these were all years ago. I have not so much as kissed another human being in over nine years.
I am usually able to nip any active psychoses in the bud by talking over my paranoid thoughts with my brother on the phone, and though I presently have a few paranoid beliefs regarding certain acquaintances’ attitudes toward me, I am able to put them out of my mind most of the time.
I also lack the motivation to do things like care for my personal hygiene, wear clean clothes, brush my hair in the morning before going out, and keep my apartment clean. Just this morning, instead of wetting and brushing my hair (which looked very disheveled upon waking), I merely put a baseball cap over my head before taking the bus to another part of town to buy a new teapot. Sometimes I will go out to a fast food restaurant without doing so much as putting on the hat. These are all aspects of my personality. Oh, and one more thing: I am happy.
Certainly many of these aspects of my personality are due at least in part to my schizophrenia. Who would I be, then, if I were suddenly cured? So much of my personality has been formed and transformed by my disease, that such a question leaves me only considering people I have known, who were mentally healthy, and much different from me, so that I say, “I would turn into something more like them.” But I do not want to be like them. I want to be me.
But you ask, if I have this attitude, why do I take the medication that keeps my illness under control? If I like psychosis so much, why don’t I just let it take me over? And if I am willing to take all the help medicine currently has to offer, why wouldn’t I take all the help I could if there were a cure available?
My answer is that there is a difference between keeping me from being constantly in a psychotic delusion, and curing me of schizophrenia. True, it is a difference only of degree. But it is also only a difference of degree between shoving a man and breaking his ribs, between driving after drinking half a beer and a case. I have the sense that, on medication, the core elements of my personality remain unchanged; I am only able to think clearer, and have the presence of mind to attend a class every semester at the university and do the creative activities that bring me happiness. But suppose that someone said to me, “I am going to give you a procedure, and afterward you will have a strong desire to be social with people. Furthermore, you will love to keep your apartment clean, and you will love showering and brushing your teeth every day. Your novels will no longer be disorganized rambling with no story or scenes, but will be publishable, readable stories told in an orderly and clear fashion. You will hate the life of a recluse, and no longer be an eccentric.” Such changes could all be entailed in a cure for schizophrenia. Even if such a procedure would also enable me to handle the stress of graduate school, with a full time load, and go on to any job I was suitable for, if someone said this to me, I think I would turn and run the other way. If such a cure for schizophrenia were a pill I could try and see if I liked it, with the option of stopping treatment, I might try it. But if it altered my genes or repaired my brain so that there would be no going back, I probably, at this point in my life, would not even consider it.
One thing that disturbs me about this present genetic research (I know I may sound a little like Ted Kaczynski, but I’ll go ahead) is when they speculate that there are genes that predispose people for things like criminal behavior and drug addiction. These are genes that determine personality, and so I look forward to a future where, if someone robs a liquor store, he is not put in prison, but genetically altered so that he will no longer have a criminal personality. Such a genetic manipulation, especially if it is forced upon the person, sounds like a terrible violation of the very self. Sometimes the “free will” argument is used to explain evil, by those who are defending the existence of God in the face of a world full of evil. God created us with the choice to commit good or evil, and this in itself is good, though the results are sometimes undesirable. I am not basing my views on what God intended for us. But there is a certain sense in which altering our personalities so that we are only capable of socially desirable behavior, or no longer capable of depression and mental anguish, would not be better, but worse, just like some believe God saw that it was better to give us the choice between good and evil.
There is a certain discomfort I have with the prospect of science, in the future, being able to alter personalities so that we will no longer suffer mental illness, drink too much alcohol, or commit violence. This is not a discomfort I can defend with a rational argument; it comes, rather, from my own emotional makeup. If the reader is perfectly comfortable with such a future, there is nothing I can do to convince him or her; I am not “right” in the sense that my view is true and the opposing view is false. But coming from the heart of an artist, who sees psychological suffering as a way to transform the spirit and find unnamable treasures within, I am not exactly comfortable with the idea of completely curing the suffering that is the result of a diseased personality.
Making a malfunctioning brain perfectly functional again is not the same as repairing a heart valve. To reduce our very selves to a lump of meat which we alter just as quickly as we alter the stomach or kidneys is to deny all the dignity, complexity, and majesty we have heretofore assigned to the human spirit.
Hello H A,
Sure, you can post that chapter on your site so long as credit is
given. FYI, my feelings on that issue have changed quite a
bit since writing that; I think curing schizophrenia can only be a
good thing. However, the general principle is still valid that the
consequently personality) should belong in a different category when
it comes to repairing them from other malfunctioning organs. The
brain shouldn’t be altered as quickly as we would alter/heal the heart
or liver. That general principle still stands; though, as I said, now
I think curing schizophrenia would definitely be good.
www.AngelHaunt.net (this website is no longer available June 2018)