Friday, September 10, 2010


January Schofield and Early Childhood Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a strange illness. While there are many commonalities among its "sufferers," it's quite the unique-to-the-individual type of condition. And while it seems to be devastating and dangerous for some, for others, it offers creative and artistic insights.

Take Mark Vonnegut, for example (yes, he's Kurt's son). His memoir, The Eden Express, chronicles his descent into madness, and also enlightenment, after taking LSD. When the acid-trip brought on his dormant schizophrenia, he had to be taken off the Canadian island where he and his hippie friends were living and farming, and handed over to a mental institution. After a plethora of medications, Vonnegut learned how to handle his disease organically, changing his diet to alleviate his personal symptoms. Others do not possess the same amount of control.

January Schofield is only eight years old, and far too young to properly devise her own coping mechanisms. But thanks to her parents bringing her on Oprah, Discovery Health, and other programs, she's become a well-known face of childhood mental illness. I'm not particularly interested in the controversy surrounding her father's admittance to hitting her (during one of her violent rages) on his blog, nor am I won over by his plea "to get the general public to reconsider that when they see a child acting up in public, it may be because of a mental illness and that they should not be so judgmental," since I think this is completely self-driven as well as overly idealistic, but I am interested in what goes on in young January's head.

Here is what I do know: Jani (as she's often called) apparently has a genius I.Q, and a generally soft spoken manner. Despite adult-dosages of the most potent anti-psychotic medications available, she continues to battle vivid hallucinations, delusions, and uncontrollable violent rages. She lives with one foot in the "real world" and one foot in her own personal world, called Calalini. As she said to Oprah herself, Calini is "on the border of my world, and your world." This imaginary place is home to mysterious animals and little girls that play with Jani and sometimes tell her to do bad things. Two recurrent creatures are "Four Hundred" the cat and "Wednesday" the rat; last year, Wednesday told Jani to find a place that was fifty feet high and then jump from it. Luckily, Jani didn't listen, but it's possible that one day she may involuntarily kill herself, or badly hurt someone else. At present, her parents maintain two apartments so that she does not injure her little brother. Jani also suffered some oxygen deprivation during or shortly after birth, which killed some brain cells. Doctors think that this exacerbates her psychotic states; however, they do not think this caused her mental illness.

Her father attempted to explain Jani's obsession with numbers and animals: "Every schizophrenic has certain hallucinations. My personal theory is that when Jani's illness was becoming acute, she was learning a lot at the time. She was learning about animals and numbers. At 13 months old, she knew her numbers to 20, and she always loved animals. And I think that is the form her hallucinations took."

My own childhood was colored by my vivid and overactive imagination. I'm sure this is the case with most children, and certainly I brought many other people (like my sister, cousins, and friends) into one of many worlds we could create together, but I do think that my ability to simultaneously exist in my head and reality lasted well beyond the age that most kids stop "pretending." I did not experience uncontrollable hallucinations (well, I did have an imaginary friend I don't remember, as do many kids) or violent episodes like Jani, but I did pace back and forth for hours on my lawn or in my basement, talking to myself. My sister makes fun of me to this day for the way I used to do this, oblivious to anyone else watching and wondering who I was talking to.

My inner world fostered a rich connection to myself, and I mourn the loss of the ability to create an all-encompassing inner-reality in which I could exist. At twenty-six, I am far too self-aware, and also too self-conscious, to fully "pretend." However, the ability to make things up, and keep myself entertained when nothing or no one else can/could, simply by way of my thoughts, has evolved into a love of and passion for writing. One day, I hope to make things up for a living.

Curiously enough, another thing that connects me to January is that my name was almost January too, since I was born on January 27th. Eventually, my mom decided that she didn't want anyone calling me "Jan" for short, so that idea was nixed, but I always thought it was a pretty cool name.

Well, we all know that Western medicine loves to put a label on a disease and then determine what the sufferer can or cannot do based on empirical evidence, but schizophrenia falls so outside any circumscribed course of action, rendering the predictable unpredictable and the sufferer largely misunderstood. Doctors also love to over-medicate anyone and everyone, even if that person is only a child.

Daniel Johnston lived in his own world too, and he wrote some gems of heart-wrenching songs, both before and after his own psychotic breakdowns. My hope is that January manages to function within the world that she subconsciously created, or perhaps within a world/realm that does exist somewhere but only she has access to, in addition to the one dictated by society. I guess we shall see.

-Amy Dupcak

1 comment:

ali said...

this is fascinating, and beautifully written.