Commitment to recovery

by Donnie Buchanan

My name is Raymond “Donnie” Buchanan. I’m 39 years old, and I’ve had schizophrenia since I was 25. I live in the Atlanta area and grew up there. I also have an identical twin brother with schizophrenia. He got sick at age 21. I have another brother (younger) with severe epilepsy and a mother with bipolar disorder. My dad and one sister, who is the oldest sibling, seem to be the only “normal” people in the family.

I was thinking to myself the other day that I’ve suffered through fourteen years of pure hell; that I feel like I’ve lost a large part of my life to schizophrenia. I feel like these years have been taken away from me by this illness. Sometimes it feels like I’m trapped by this spirit so strong inside of me that I don’t know what it is at times. I was raised fundamentalist in the South, where people sometimes associate unusual behavior with demons and the devil. I don’t want to think my problem is demonic, and yet I don’t want to think it’s mental — but it is. One thing I have to accept is that I have a mental illness; that doesn’t mean I’m different from anybody else. But I think sometimes that if I hadn’t become ill, I’d be working full time somewhere.

My illness started in 1985 when I was working in Houston, Texas, driving a truck for some soft drink companies and serving machines. I began to feel very paranoid about the Teamsters Union, and thought that they were threatening me and going to hurt me. I might have misinterpreted things, but the paranoia and fear felt very real. Shortly afterward I started to hear things like “I hate your g_damn guts,” “You’re going to die,” etc. I also had religious delusions, like thinking I was Jesus.

I was hospitalized in Atlanta a couple months after the symptoms started. This was to be the first of about 30 to 40 hospitalizations I’ve had in the last fourteen years. I’ve also been put in jail for symptoms of my illness. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve been on Clozaril (the highest dose possible), which hasn’t controlled all of my symptoms, but worked better than other antipsychotics. I take about four other medications too.

I was put on outpatient commitment because of an incident that happened about a year after getting schizophrenia. I experienced an auditory command hallucination that told me to get a gun and kill myself. However, I shot myself in the chest and didn’t die. It was at this point that I was sent before the county probate judge and was ordered into treatment (outpatient civil commitment). The judge required me to attend day treatment on a daily basis and take medication regularly. The judge offered to help me obtain a lawyer/advocate that would help me follow through with the outpatient commitment plan and help me report progress back to the judge.

The day I first went to see the judge, I was nearly a vegetable from the illness. I hadn’t been participating regularly in treatment, including taking medication. I could barely function. At the first review in front of the judge a year later, when the lawyer saw me, she told me that I looked a lot better. I continued to get better over the next few years. After about five years, I think, I was participating in treatment so regularly that the outpatient commitment order was discontinued.

Almost all the time I got sick I ended up in the state hospital, but there was one time I remember where I ended up in jail. A voice commanded me to go to a part of Atlanta to look for Dorothy Stratten, and I was arrested for criminal trespassing at a hotel. Instead of taking me to the hospital, they took me to the county jail, where I was beat up twice by other inmates and taken advantage of.

The outpatient commitment order helped me a lot. It prevented me from getting into trouble and got me on a regular schedule. I knew I had to take medication and become involved in some type of daily activity to deal with the voices and paranoia. Since I’ve been on Clozaril and the other medications, I’ve been able to work part-time and attend day treatment. I’ve worked at a restaurant now for about six months, which is about the longest time I’ve held a job. The voices don’t tell me what to do anymore. I ignore them and tell them to go to hell and leave me alone, especially if they’re bad voices.

As far as advice to someone facing an outpatient commitment, I think the best thing for him or her to do is to use it to become educated. They need to realize that they have a chemical imbalance; that they DO have a brain disease. It’s not just their fault — they were genetically born with it, or that it came on through age, or whatever.

If people don’t take their medication, they’re going to get into trouble. As a person who’s had bizarre thoughts and feelings, I know what people are going through — I’ve been through the same thing. Some people who deny that they’re ill become either homicidal, suicidal, or both. I haven’t been homicidal but I’ve been suicidal, and I got help. I learned that when those feelings started, it was part of my depressive part of my illness, and I needed to seek help before I got worse and reacted again. I learned this largely through outpatient commitment, and the education I got through treatment. Sometimes outpatient commitment is needed — I would say in limited circumstances — it would be based on what the person did or what they do.

I hope that people realize that individuals with severe mental illnesses need help before they get into trouble and commit a violent act like homicide or suicide. To wait until a violent act occurs often can be too late, and isn’t a compassionate approach for people who have severe mental illnesses like mine.

From “Catalyst” published by Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, VA