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The Truth about Madness

Meghan Caughey

On that final evening, after helping a friend celebrate her

birthday, my friend David Romprey started to drive off in high
spirits, on his way to a date at the movies. He was excited
about the future. Over the years, he had successfully dealt
with his bipolar disorder, had been recognized for his
determined efforts as a mental health advocate, and would
soon be starting a wonderful new position as coordinator of
the Peer Bridgers program at the Oregon State Hospital.
But then something went terribly wrong: his car backed out
and struck an electrical box on the curb. People rushed to
the scene but it was too late: David was dead. His friends
would later speculate that he had had a massive stroke or
aneurysm. We mourned: we had lost our friend, the state of
Oregon had lost a national mental health champion, and his
family had lost a son and father.
The fact that David had longstanding mental health
challenges and was only 42 years old points to a stunning
problem that is a stubborn part of the landscape of madness
in our contemporary culture: those of us who have serious
mental health issues tend to die younger than other people.
A study by the National Association of State Mental Health
Program Directors in 2006 found that persons with serious
mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than the
general population. The fact that it is worse today than it was
10 years ago suggests that the trend is going in the wrong
direction. The leading causes of death include
cardiovascular disease, smoking, diabetes, suicide, and
obesity. Some of the same medications that allow these
persons to live relatively normal lives also contribute to heart
disease and diabetes.

I know about this firsthand: when I was 19 years old I was
diagnosed with schizophrenia. For years, my self-identity
was “the Mental Patient.” I lived up to this “truth” by my
frequent hospitalizations, some of which were involuntary,
some voluntary because I knew no other way to cope with
my pain. There were electroshock treatments, insulin shock
treatments, seclusion rooms, even four-point restraints on
my ankles and wrists when the emotional pain grew so
intense that I could not contain it.
There have been years of medications, which have had
devastating side effects. The weight gain that is so common
to many of the medications has been a real blow to my self-
esteem. I still struggle with it: despite having lost over a
hundred pounds, I worry about getting diabetes. With the
medications, for many of us, it is a trade-off. I do not feel that
I have the option of completely going without the
medications, but I know that there is a cost to my physical
health. With exercise and a healthful diet, I do everything
that I can to minimize that cost.
The miracle of all of this is that I have emerged from the
painful “war” of my life despite attempts to end my life, and
the life force in me cried out and has found expression. Over
time, I have healed and created a way of being that is well
and whole. Slowly, I discovered that my true identity was not
“The Schizophrenic,” and I fashioned a new sense of self. I
am living proof that even a very deeply disturbed soul can be
resurrected from the despairing depths of a pained condition,
and that pain can be a fertile source of creativity. Through
my drawings and paintings, I celebrate the rich soil of both
the dark and light aspects of myself. My “shadow self” is a
part of me that I firmly value.
Today, at 53, I have a full-time job; for the first time in my
life, I am no longer supported by government entitlements.
My title, Peer Wellness Coordinator, is a bureaucratic term
for my passion, which is to find ways to help those of us who

know madness to live the lives we want to live, with greater
health and without dying early. As we have struggled so hard
to recover from our mental maladies, it seems beyond cruel
that we should not have the opportunity to live a normal life
span and enjoy our hard-won freedom. We want to live. We
want to live well.
So, now, there is work for all of us together. Those of us who
have been through the mental health system or who are still
going through it must learn to demand that our providers
give us recovery- and wellness-based programs that we
ourselves are the force behind, not some other driver. We
call these programs “consumer-driven” or “person-driven”
services. Such services give us the voice that we need to
help shape our present and future. Next, we need to support
each other in the expectation that we can and will be
healthy. I call this “creating a culture of wellness.” People
with serious mental health issues often understandably focus
on their emotional pain, with the result that even after their
mental condition improves, they have forgotten, or never
learned, the art of taking care of their bodies: eating right,
exercising, a spiritual practice, maintaining connections with
others. Every choice that we make for ourselves will have a
ripple effect throughout our world; when we choose
something good for ourselves, we are lifting up everybody
else at the same time.
Reversing the statistics so that people with serious mental
health issues do not die young from co-occurring physical
ailments will not be easy. For me, it took nature, meditation,
therapy, the right medication, art, and persistence to help
create my healing, and the process took years. But what was
possible for me is possible for others--one person and one
life at a time. The human spirit strives to find a way to be
well, and there is hope for everyone because the life force
resides deeply within us all. By creating our culture of
wellness, we will turn around the awful trend that seeks to

take our lives prematurely, and replace it with a new
expectation of vibrancy and wholeness.
My friend David Romprey died much too young. Let us not
be content with a reality that says this is how things are.
Instead, let us work for a world where recovery and health—
both mental and physical—is possible for all of us who walk
the land of madness. Our very lives depend on it.