The chief obstacle to the progress of the human race
Is the human race.
Don Marquis
I have just read DEMONS IN THE AGE OF LIGHT, A Memoir Of Psychosis And Recovery by Whitney Robinson. This beautifully written, poignant account of a tortured soul was a compulsive read for me. As I followed Robinson’s anguished quest to become what others say she should be, I could not help but see myself in her words. Who among us has not felt out of touch with their world? Who has never thought the steps to success defined by an arbitrary impersonal world were impossible to climb?

As I read of Robinson’s descent into fragmented reality, I could not help but wonder how many of us have experienced the very disassociation she described. Were we too obtuse to see that sometimes it is a good thing to allow our imagination to lead us off the beaten track? Robinson’s account is both lucid and moving. She takes us with her into a struggle we all have faced at some point as we travel through life. We all must face our devils and conquer them if we dare to realize our unique genius. The difference here is that Whitney Robinson ‘s delusions interfered with her attempts to function in the real world. She sought help and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once labeled, she believed that she was a broken human being, one that need to be “fixed.”

The tragedy here is that society has narrowed the parameters of what it labels “normal”. The innovators, the original thinkers, the true beacons of progress all fall outside those boundaries. “In the end it's also important to remember that Freud, to paraphrase him, as he accepted the Nazi government for what it was, said, ‘Sometimes the Paranoids are right’,” observed psychiatrist William Hay. “That's even more true today given the changing perceptions of the fabric of reality, the economic crisis and the lack of faith in the truthfulness of government, a wide variety of competing sources of internet information, the continued predation of the mentally ill and the greater stigma attached to schizophrenia and psychosis itself in the overall stigmatization of mental illness in general.”

Schizophrenia effects 1% of our population and is among the top ten causes of disability in this country. Once diagnosed, the patient must balance his need for medication with its dulling, personality altering side effects. The question is not just what kind of balance a medication restores in your psyche, but, even more important, what it erases. When a pill stops your crying, it might also dull your laughter. That is huge price to pay for serenity. Hay goes on to say, “(Continued research) may indeed prove that patients will heal better than society at large which often appears more fragmented, psychotic and schizophrenic by the day.”

DEMONS IN THE AGE OF LIGHT paints a vivid picture of the author’s battle with demons that encouraged her to do away with herself. Somehow, she found her way in and out of the labyrinth her mind created. “I’d surrender myself entirely to this sickness,” she says. “But minds don’t want to be lost –they cling to their hosts despite everything.”

Schizophrenics are prone to killing themselves. According to The National Institutes of Mental Health, people with the condition have a 50 times higher risk of attempting suicide than the general population. In fact, suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with schizophrenia, with an estimated 10 percent to 13 percent killing themselves and approximately 40% attempting suicide at least once. The condition accounts for a fourth of all mental health costs and takes up one in three psychiatric hospital beds. It is not something to be ignored. Yet reading this book will convince you that each person’s battle is unique. There is no blanket ”cure” that will magically either prevent or erase this disease in everyone. “Often, the experiences of mental illness imply not a deficit of humanity, but an excess of the things that separate us from all other kinds of life,” says Robinson.

She describes her parents’ confusion and guilt when they realize that she is emotionally unbalanced. “How hard they have tried not to make the same mistakes with me that their parents made with them, but it doesn’t matter because I ended up a thousand times worse.”

But did she? She managed somehow to cope with her mind’s voyage in and out of the tangible world, and is now enrolled in graduate school. It is difficult to believe that anyone capable of writing prose as exquisite and compelling as Robinson’s could possibly have a defective mind. “All of us who have the privilege of working with the mentally ill, especially the schizophrenics know these individuals as frightened and a far cry from the way they have too often been portrayed by the media,” observed Hays. “There is indeed a powerful link between the sensitivity of those with psychosis or those who go onto schizophrenia and those with genius or special gifts. Family studies consistently show that the two run together.”
Life is a roller coaster for us all. The more intelligent we are, the more clearly we see its potential and fear its dangers. The brightest among us tend to become loners, their socialization skills muted because there is no one on their level to understand the pathways their thinking creates for them. “I believe that some people are simply better at being human than others and that free will is a conditional state,” says Robinson in her Afterword. “But I think that as long as we work in good faith with what we’ve been given and take up our freedom wherever we find it, arête (the act of living up to one's full potential) is never beyond our reach.”
Still, the only thing that is ours alone, is ourselves. Surely, society owes its members the right to indulge their idiosyncrasies and exploit their creativity. These qualities are the stuff of progress. If the only people we allow to flourish are the conformists, civilization will become stagnant. “Demons surround us,” says Robinson…. ”They make us interesting, they make us doubt. They form our souls from an undifferentiated light.”

This book written when Whitney Robinson was twenty-three years old will speak to every human being who evaluates his life. Her story will remind us that the very cracks in our façade that make us different are the blessings that give our lives color and shape. Everyone must learn the best way to be ourselves. No one can do that for us. It is up to each of us to determine when we need help to return to a less dangerous path. I for one prefer to follow Robert Frost’s footsteps:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I am nobody but myself.
Ralph Ellison