March 29th, 2010
The Canadian National Post has a fascinating piece on Frederick Frese, psychologist, director of psychology at an Ohio mental hospital , and admitted schizophrenic:
Inside the beautiful mind of a schizophrenic psychologist
By Joseph Brean
Schizophrenia gripped the mind of Frederick Frese in the usual fashion, with an abrupt psychotic break in his early twenties that felt like terrifying insight.
Now a prominent clinical psychologist and mental health advocate, who is still afflicted by his field’s most mysterious delusional pathology, Dr. Frese was then a U.S. Marine captain with an advanced math and science education, fluent in Japanese, and assigned to guard nuclear weapons at the Jacksonville, Fla., naval base.
He was also preoccupied with U.S. military failures in Korea, and China’s successes, and he came to believe that the only explanation was long-distance Chinese brainwashing of U.S. officials.
Fatefully, he took his concerns to the one person he figured would know most about brainwashing, the base psychologist, who was only too keen to smile and listen, flanked by large men in white coats.
“I’m psychotic, remember, so it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make sense, but to me it made beautiful sense,” Dr. Frese said in an interview this week in Toronto, in advance of a lecture hosted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. The Chinese “had to have something, and the only thing I could crystallize on was hypnosis,” he said.
He recalled the terror at his immediate incarceration, and his belief that the nurses were assassins. He demanded a priest give him the last rites, and surprisingly one did indulge him, going so far as to leave him material about how he could join the priesthood. Even when he accidentally saw his own chart, with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, he thought this was a ploy by the government to protect him from the Chinese, and so he should pretend to be insane to keep the ruse going.
In a way, everything made sense.
Two years later, discharged from the military and living in Ohio, he had another in a series of relapses that would see him institutionalized by the state as “insane,” but also set the stage for his unique story of redemption, in which schizophrenia was merely an obstacle to a successful life, a disability, but not the mental death sentence it can often seem.
Twelve years later, he had completed his doctorate in psychophysiology, and was appointed director of psychology at Ohio’s largest mental hospital. The inmate was literally running the asylum.
That improbable process began with a crisis in a church, as the disoriented and floridly psychotic young man — then unemployed with uncertain housing, like many schizophrenics — walked up the aisle to stand beside the priest, his head awash in terrifying superstitions about the numbers 13, 3 and 4. Someone called police as he fell to the floor by the altar.
“I was like a snake writhing around on the floor. Then I was like an amoeba, then an atom,” Dr. Frese said. “I had to be the hydrogen atom [the smallest and most basic], but isotope three, tritium, the kind used in the hydrogen bomb, the kind that would be “split,” which in Greek is “schizo,” the linguistic root of the disease. I had become the instrument to usher in the holocaust.”
That was the summer of 1968, and his mind was engaged in what he now calls, quoting the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, an “expanded horizon of meaningfulness.” In such a mindset, coincidence becomes sinister and all conclusions are grandiose. His brain “over-connects.” For example, two major assassinations happened that summer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which fed his delusion that he would be next, to complete the trinity.
He was put on thorazine, the original anti-psychotic, the side-effects of which can still be seen today in his “bucal movements,” the strange twitching of his jaw that makes him talk like a cross between Bruce Lee and Christopher Walken, with a southern accent.
He expected to be institutionalized forever, but instead managed to apply to graduate school, and over time was hired by his former host, Ohio’s Department of Mental Hygiene and Corrections, to write pre-parole personality evaluations for inmates. Gainfully employed, and by then married, his abilities started to win out over his disability.
In that process, he flirted with the anti-psychiatry movement, helping to publishing the Madness Network News (“All the fits that’s news to print”) and making T-shirts with the slogan “Shrink Resistant.” Now, however, he is more integrated and cordial with the psychiatric establishment, and sits on many prominent boards, some as the “token psychotic,” although he continues to make jokes about how “chronically normal” people misunderstand schizophrenics.
That joke conceals his singular medical accomplishment, which is to provide psychiatry with a first-hand scientific account of psychosis, one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted medical conditions.
He understands, for example, why the bizarre writings of the prophet Ezekiel, “one of our people, no question,” are most often favoured by schizophrenics, followed by the naked preacher Elijah. As for angels, he reports that Muslim schizophrenics tend to prefer Gabriel, and Judeo-Christians prefer Michael.
Dr. Frese cites the question of suicide in schizophrenia — often by falls from a great height — as a particularly misunderstood phenomenon, with so many investigations lacking the kind of sympathy his personal experience provides. He means that if someone believes he can fly, jumping off a bridge is not suicide, and in cases such as former U.S. Defense Secretary James Forrestal, who jumped out of a 16th-floor hospital window, what looks like suicide might in fact be medical negligence. Ever since that death, in 1949, windows on U.S. psychiatric wards are fitted with “Forrestal screens.”
This week, in a lecture that is so well-rehearsed and folksy that it verged on stand-up comedy (although, he notes that a standard script keeps him from getting too excited, which risks a relapse), Dr. Frese also offered a re-analysis of the common image of a schizophrenic talking to himself. Sometimes this is because he is hearing voices, and there is truly some kind of hallucinated two-part conversation going on. But in Dr. Frese’s experience, schizophrenics are especially sensitive to social interactions, and tend to replay them over and over again in their mind, just as everyone sometimes does, finding some solace in this role-playing.
He also cited social exclusion as an important factor in psychotic breaks. “When you get into these things, you know you’re acting a bit weird, but you think you’re OK, and if no one around you gives you feedback, you are convinced you’re normal,” he said. “I’ve been learning that you can’t really tell when it’s happening to you. If you knew it was a delusion, it wouldn’t be a delusion.”
Dr. Frese’s last hospital admission was in 1977, but he is not cured. In the years since, he has been stopped by authorities for such strange behaviour as trying to dance among a group of Hasidic Jews at an airport, and his wife Penny is on a constant watch for the signs of psychotic onset, which she can manage with extra medication. He said it usually begins with a pleasant excitement that builds a momentum of its own.
Their four children are grown, but when they were at home, “Rule number one was that when Daddy’s like this, the kids can’t have any friends over,” Dr. Frese said.
Strange as it may seem, dance is an important part of how he manages his symptoms, often retreating to his basement to play ABBA records and dance until he sets himself back on the path to normal.
When he was in the grip of his psychosis, Dr. Frese never really had intense visual hallucinations. Nor did he think he could fly. His delusions were coloured more by his fixation on numbers and his role in the military. But with his uniquely scientific bird’s-eye view of the cuckoo’s nest, he stands today as an especially powerful inspiration for anyone whose horizon is expanding out of control.