In the early 70’s I worked in Grendon Prison in England. The facility was run on the lines of a therapeutic community – lots of meetings, groups, etc… One of the prisoners – let’s call him William – was serving time for burglary. He was about 24 years old, and during his intake interviews he told us that he was a member of a small quasi-religious sect who believed that doomsday was imminent and that they would be the chosen few. He talked about these matters openly and with a good measure of passion, and after a few weeks the other prisoners were describing him as “crazy” and a “nutcase.”
We had a great many professional visitors at Grendon. Social workers, nurses, psychologists, etc.., would spend a few days observing and attending our meetings. On one occasion we had some newly-trained psychiatric nurses on the unit, and during one of the plenary meetings there was some focus on William, and he recounted (again passionately) his end-of-times story, and defended it vigorously against the dismissive input from the other prisoners.
After the meeting the staff and professional visitors met briefly to reflect on the meeting. Someone asked one of the nurses what he thought of William. I can recall his response verbatim: “If he’s schizophrenic, he’ll never get better.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
The nurse shrugged. “That’s what they told us in class.” His peers nodded confirmation.
Fast forward about twenty years, and I was working in a mental health center in the US. We lived about 20 miles out of town, and I drove in and out each day. One morning I picked up a hitchhiker. He was about 60 or 65 years old, and told me that his car wouldn’t start. He thanked me for giving him a ride because he needed to get to work.
In the course of chatting I mentioned that I worked at the mental health center.
“Oh,” he said. “I spent eleven years at the State Hospital.”
“What was the problem?” I asked.
“Schizophrenia. But I got better.”
“How did you manage that?”
“One of the nurses,” he replied.
“Was she nice to you?” I asked.
“Oh, no, she was a witch. She was mean.”
“How did that help?”
“Well, the other staff were always so nice. You know, they’d say: “Are you OK?” “Do you need anything?” “Don’t stress yourself,” and all that. But she would say: “Are you still here!” “Maybe it’s time to get off your ass!” And she would never smile – just scowl all the time. We hated her. But one day something clicked, and I started to listen to her. I got off my ass and started to take an interest. And one day they sent me home. They said I was cured. That was thirty years ago.”
“Any problems?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Just the car.”