Coping Not Suffering

More to man than schizoaffective diagnosis

October 10, 2002
By Jeff Edelstein

Dan wants to make one thing clear.

"I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. But I don't identify myself as my diagnosis and it has very little to do with who I am. I cope with it, I do not suffer from it." In other words, don't consider Dan damaged goods.

"I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'God, I've got schizoaffective disorder. How am I going to get through the day?'" Dan, 42,said.

Today, Dan is a social worker.

His route to his vocation was not the typical one, however.

"I got a bachelor's degree from Rutgers," Dan said. "I wanted to be an actor. Instead, I was delivering fish."

He was also abusing drugs and alcohol.

He was also involved in the self-help movement known as est.

Founded by Werner Erhard in 1971, est was vilified as a cult, forcing the organization to change its name to the Landmark Forum.

"I had gotten obsessed with (est)," Dan said. "I started having problems with it, and it might have been a trigger for what was to come. I didn't want to do it anymore, but they were doing the hard-sell. I ended up in the hospital. And then I ended up even more into drugs and alcohol."

And then, one day while living in western New York, Dan had what he refers to as a "psychotic break."

"I thought I was a police detective," Dan said. "And then I started acting on it. I went outside and started directing traffic. I've got to say I was pretty good at it."

No matter how astute Dan may have been directing traffic, real policemen didn't find his behavior helpful.

"They came and took me to the hospital," Dan said. "They gave me a shot of Demerol, which knocked me back to my senses. I was in some bizarre reality."

And it was very real to Dan.

"When you're in psychosis, you believe it's all real," he said.

While in the hospital, Dan was put into a drug and alcohol treatment program.

He did very well.

"I'm very proud to say I've been clean for 15 years," he said.

He also spent a lot of time in therapy.

"It really helped," Dan said. "And then I thought to myself, 'Hey, I could do that.'"

So Dan went back to Rutgers and got a master's degree in social work.

Since then, he's held a variety of jobs, from working with kids to working with severely developmentally disabled people.

"So much needs to be done for people who must cope with mental illness," Dan said. "It's totally off the wall. The magnitude of suffering that people go through -- it's too much. So much needs to be done, and a lot of it has to come from the community."

As Dan works and copes with his disorder, he admits there's no telling what tomorrow is going to bring.

"There's no guarantee for anyone with mental illness that they won't have another episode," Dan said. "It's the same way a recovering alcoholic can never say he'll never have another drink. You just never know."

But Dan is not standing by idly.

In fact, he has a little program of his own that could benefit anyone.

"I eat right, I sleep well, I go to work every day," Dan said. "I have a social life, and I have hobbies. I play piano in a blues band, as a matter of fact."

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