CINCINNATI — The psychologist Lynda Crane found that of the many injuries inflicted by schizophrenia, the greatest could be the pain of being forgotten. Just naming the illness somehow erased the person, something she learned when her 18-year-old son’s doctors said he had schizophrenia. Six years later, he committed suicide.
“It took me a long time to come to terms with it,” Dr. Crane says. “Even I had a hard time understanding it, how this bright man, with a brilliant future, could suffer like this. One thing I learned was that as soon as you mentioned the word, people stopped seeing the person. They just saw the diagnosis and a collection of symptoms. Doug, my son, was forgotten.”
For years Dr. Crane, a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in the western hills of Cincinnati, sought a way to enlighten her students and others about the ordinary people who live with schizophrenia despite its extraordinary burdens – the confused thinking, the delusions, the hallucinations, the anxiety and fear. Then she discovered a tool more commonly used among sociologists and anthropologists: oral history. Employing the device to examine schizophrenia has shifted her own perspective about a disease she thought she knew well.
“People with schizophrenia do not lose their individuality, even when the illness is very severe,” Dr. Crane says. “What I discovered through oral history is that it’s not about schizophrenia. It’s about a complexity of life that is very hard to get at any other way.”
For the past three years, on their own time and with no outside money, Dr. Crane and a fellow Mount St. Joseph psychologist, Tracy McDonough, have built the Schizophrenia Oral History Project. Other oral history collections have focused on diseases like AIDS or leprosy, but this is the first to focus on schizophrenia, they say.
So far they have recruited two dozen people to sit down with them and a voice recorder, asking their “narrators” simply: What’s it like to be you?