Ordinary people, surreal plights

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Editorial by Margie Boule, from the Oregonian, October 16, 2009

Picture a schizophrenic.

What image comes to mind?

A violent man with a knife in his hand, breaking into a home late at night?

A virtuoso trumpet player, performing on a sidewalk?

A man scribbling a complex math theory on a blackboard, even though he can’t carry on a coherent conversation?

Myths.

In truth, schizophrenics are just “ordinary people,” says psychiatrist Dr. Bill Wilson, who teaches at Oregon Health Sciences University. “They’re really ordinary people who have problems with their perceptions, who hear things that aren’t there, who have difficulty distinguishing what’s real from what’s not real, and who have to live with that.”

People with schizophrenia “are not geniuses, and are not violent. People with schizophrenia are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime than to perpetrate it,” Bill says.

But the public’s idea of a person with schizophrenia is wildly exaggerated and often flat-out wrong because of “media accounts that sensationalize the illness.”

Bill wanted to change that, to show the public “how very human these people are.” Not with lectures or documentaries or public service campaigns.

With entertainment.

“I’ve been interested in theater for a long time,” he says. “I have a bachelor’s degree in theater arts.” So he approached some local theater folks to ask if they’d be interested in creating a play “that would counter the misperceptions.”

Michael Wehrli and Kristina Armetta, with New Moon Productions, were intrigued. “My favorite theater and dramatic form is docudrama,” Michael says. “And I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of arts and health care. I’ve not seen it done well.” Plays about health subjects “usually are extremely wordy and … feel like a classroom lecture.”

Bill found a Web site (schizophrenia.com) with blog entries from a few dozen people who have schizophrenia, or who have family members with the disease. He read them and found them “absolutely authentic. The sort of material I’ve been listening to for years” from his patients, “but had to be private about because it was clinical material.”

Bill contacted the executive director of the organization that owns the Web site and got permission to use the blog entries to create a play.

“The challenge in the writing was to find a story arc,” Michael says. “Blog entries are just that — random thoughts strewn over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of entries.”

They created a play with seven characters. “About half the characters are composite characters, two or three people melded into one person,” Michael says. But almost every word in the script was written by one of the bloggers.

As Bill, Michael and Kristina wrote, they got more and more excited. “Our primary focus was … how their human spirit is able to rise above this amazing challenge,” Michael says, “knowing the challenge is not going to go away.”

There is no cure for schizophrenia. “I’m sure there will be more effective treatment in the future,” Bill says. But for now, scientific breakthroughs “are small and incremental.” And there are “no new medications immediately on the horizon.”

Bill calls people with schizophrenia “normal people under extraordinary circumstances. … They’re hearing things. They’re not imagining them. They hear them the same as you hear my voice now. Imagine trying to make it through life when you don’t know” which voices are real and which aren’t.

“I’m interested in the struggle of human beings over adverse conditions,” Michael says. “And here is a condition most of us cannot even conceive of dealing with, in which we have to question our own reality.”

Yet people with the disease can lead functioning lives, if they get proper medication and have enough support.

Unfortunately, in this country, much that could be done for people with schizophrenia is not being done.

“It would be possible,” Bill says, “for people to be very much better overnight if the country would just commit to providing care using what we know now. But I don’t want to hammer away at system problems. If we present people who have schizophrenia as real people, I think that will move the public. And that’s what I want to do.”

The play, called “Found Lives,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Artists Repertory Theatre. It’s a benefit for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Tickets, for $25, can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/80662.

“Found Lives” is not a work of fiction. Actors will read words written by people who live with the disease; they will enact critical episodes from their lives. They will portray, as Bill says, “normal people under extraordinary circumstances. Which is what makes for good theater.”