Friday, October 21, 2011

The Danny Diaries: Overcoming Schizophrenia - a mother's experience

The Danny Diaries: Overcoming Schizophrenia
by Ann Cluver Weinberg

This is a memorable schizophrenia story, written from the point of view of the mother. Why "great"? Because there is no other schizophrenia memoir, written by a mother that shows by vivid example how, by understanding and supporting another person, full recovery can happen. "Danny" has been well for over twenty years and works in a professional capacity in an extremely challenging workplace. They say that the younger the age when schizophrenia symptoms appear, the less optimistic the prognosis. Danny's troubles started in early adolescence, but he eventually recovered, proving how wrong this prognosis can be.

Today's parents are told by doctors and psychiatrists that that their relative has a biochemical imbalance, a damaged brain. They believe that their children are mentally ill. How do you think the child will react to a parent who thinks that there is something wrong with them? Will they gain confidence in themselves? Not very likely. But where do parents turn to for information that runs counter to the medical model of the so-called illness? Memoirs written by ex-patients are a good place to begin. This particular memoir is unique, because it is written by the mother.

We are introduced to Danny as a child through delightful words and conversations that the author wrote down every night in her journal. She did the same for his older sister, Nicola. Both children are the precocious offspring of artistically-inclined parents. The family is South African and living in London in the 1960s. When Danny is a small child, they move back to their homeland. This is a critical time in South African history, as it was still under government enforced racial segregation. The memoir is brimming with South African English words and Afrikaans dialect, which gives the book its special flavor.

Lucy gives Danny lot of freedom to be himself, even if himself is problematic.

What his problem is initially appears to be pot, or dagga, the local term for it. He's smoking too much of it way too young. He's a precociously talented guitarist, and with the freedom that he has, drugs are easy to come by. He lacks the self-discipline to break away from dagga, and the parents, being self-professed liberals and artists, by nature are not disciplinarians and are not effective at stopping the smoking. The mother knows that dagga is only part of the picture. Recreational drug use never helps psychosis, but it adds unneeded complexity and angst to an already difficult condition.

The doctors and psychiatrists are not helpful. As Lucy remarks after a visit to one psychiatrist, "he gave me a stern and gloomy diagnosis, but no practical information about how to help." She is confident in her mothering skills and in her judgment of Danny, and is rightly critical of doctors who are grim about the prognosis for schizophrenia, seeing them as part of the problem, not part of the solution. She knows Danny, the doctors do not. She rarely wavers in her belief that Danny will be well one day. The trouble is, drugs are always within easy reach for Danny. He backslides a lot.

The early 1980s was yet another transition period in determining what schizophrenia was and how to treat it. This is a diagnosis that is subject to trends. After a break of two years, Lucy takes her son back to see the psychologist, "Jeff" who was so helpful with the family the first time. Now he tells her that he believes schizophrenia is a lifelong chronic illness that needs to be treated by medications. He no longer thinks he can be of any help, based on new information. Potential support denied. Lucy is on her own once again to figure this out for herself. Her optimism puts her at odds with the medical community. One psychiatrist in England wants her to institutionalize Danny for life. Truly shocking advice for someone who is only 17. On a plane trip she happens to sit beside a psychiatrist who says that some people with schizophrenia do recover and a good thing to do is to support the person's interests.

Today's treatment for schizophrenia and other mental health problems is skewed disproportionately in favor of medication. If Danny's treatment took place today, instead of in the 1980s, the author's strategy would not change, but she would also have to battle the by now well-entrenched biochemically determined treatment model of the so-called illness. At first, Danny was not on any medication, and then he was occasionally given sleeping pills at night. He was on lithium for a short period of time and was on an antipsychotic for a short time. Lucy comes home after Danny was doing very well and discovers him in a knife-wielding rage. She attributes this more to pot smoking (his rages usually lagged pot smoking by a few days), than to the fact that she had abruptly discontinued his antidepressant a week earlier because he was doing so well. In those days, there was no information about the dangers of going cold turkey off these medications. Dropping them quickly can cause rebound psychosis.

Lucy encourages her son in many ways—to drive a car, to be involved in music, to develop more self-discipline through Karate, etc. She reads Erik Erickson, and frames what Danny is going through as a difficult, extended maturation process. There is an astonishing statement by Danny towards the end of the book, which I won't reveal, that, if I interpreted it correctly, backs up the author's contention that Danny's problems were a child's struggle to become an adult in his own right. Doctors call this struggle "schizophrenia," but they maintain schizophrenia is a "disease."

Do you consider your own child "mad"? Have you ever considered that changing your attitude may change the outcome? Here is what the author does:

I explained to him (Oliver, her husband) my now clearly formulated philosophy of not even thinking Danny mad, or an addict, or helpless, or hopeless, etc.

Early the next morning Lucy finds his bed empty and Danny in the garage with his new Kawasaki.

"Danny!" I exploded, "Haven't you been to sleep all night?

"No. Me and Anthony rehearsed late late. And then I was just too fascinated by my bike. I couldn't leave it."

I thought. He is like a farmer sitting up all night with a horse.

Like a farmer sitting up all night with a horse. Exactly! The author shows the reader how to change what may be disturbing or unusual behavior to an understandable motivation, and then keep up a cheerful attitude even though you may have doubts. The child will adapt well to this strategy over time. I've done the same for my own son. Read this book (please!) for many of these insights.

I would love to see this book widely disseminated because here is a mother telling you that yes, schizophrenia is an understandable condition. This condition, seen here in the light of a difficult transitioning from childhood to adulthood (many people have said this, not just the author), can be overcome by seeing the person, not the medical model of the disease. Her viewpoint is very relevant today, when the purely medical model of the disease is being challenged as never before.

Consider asking your local library to order a copy.

Order this book online at or / email, or in South Africa contact the author at
Product Details
Paperback: 420 pages
Publisher: Trafford Publishing (February 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1426919603
ISBN-13: 978-1426919602
Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 1.3 inches

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