In NYT series, Colorado man takes on stigma of schizophrenia

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(Photo: Michael Hedrick)When he was 20, Michael Hedrick left his home in Boulder and set out on a mission. He believed he was a prophet and made a beeline for the United Nations building in New York City. Eventually, he would discover something that shattered him: He has schizophrenia.

But before the diagnosis came, he found himself at the doorstep of the United Nations. There, he planned to reveal his plans for world peace. Just one problem: the UN was closed that day.

So Hedrick wandered the city’s streets, trying to piece together a puzzle. When a stranger would randomly touch his hair or someone would wave a finger, Hedrick thought it was a message specifically for him. When someone tapped their head, Hedrick concluded he had a blessed crown upon his own. He thought he was divining messages that nobody else could decipher from television and radio shows -- even from simple road signs.

“I would automatically assume it was for me,” he says.

As night fell, Hedrick curled up in an alley next to a church. Then he meandered more, winding up in Boston, and, eventually, a place called Woods Hole at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Massachusetts.

“I thought it was a hole in the woods that would lead to Canada,” Hedrick says.

Instead, it lead Hedrick to town roads and when he stuck his thumb out to hitch a ride, a woman pulled over. She was concerned and bought him a train ticket to Denver.

When he arrived in Denver, his parents, who had filed a missing persons report five days earlier, were there to pick him up. They immediately realized something was wrong with their son. They took him to a hospital in Boulder, where he was held for a week.

Hedrick was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness that researchers are still learning how to treat.

He was “heartbroken" hearing it, "just knowing that I was crazy and I would basically be ostracized from the world because of this label.”

Now 29, Hedrick has come a long way since those early days of discovering his illness. He’s very open about it in his ongoing series for The New York Times and elsewhere, including his blog. In one post, he writes about what schizophrenia feels like:

My mind likes to play its tricks and me being the ever gullible struggling voice of reason, I can’t seem to tell between the tricks and what’s actually going on. The doctors call it schizophrenia and in the eight and a half years that that devil has been living on my shoulder we’ve become almost friends. Friends that conspire against each other yes but friends. Most of the time I know when that [expletative] whispering in my ear but sometimes I don’t and that’s when life starts to hurt.

For the Times, he writes on life from the point of view of someone with schizophrenia. In his latest piece, Hedrick says he struggled with substance abuse. What's helped a lot with that issue, and the challenges of his illness, has been simply to maintain a regular routine. He writes:

My story, as with so many stories of recovery, isn’t over. The biggest things in my life are now my friends and family, my work and my daily routine. I take my meds faithfully, and although I no longer attend regular therapy sessions, I find eight years of living with schizophrenia has made me well equipped to deal with future problems. I still get up early, do my work for the day, hang out with my mom or my friends in the afternoon and then ease into the evening. Most important, I still get to bed by 9 every night. I’m more stable, much healthier, and I’m happy. The routine of things set a stable foundation for recovery by providing me with familiarity. That familiarity was more than welcome when my mind was unrecognizable.

Hedrick says he also struggled to balance the negative effects of his psychiatric drugs. At times he has faced bizarre side-effects, such as the need to constantly move. And there have been more predictable ones, such as weight gain. He says he has taken many drugs over the years and has finally found a combination the works for him. It has been a “slow experiment," he says.

His mother, Ginger Hedrick, of Boulder, says she and her husband were surprised by the diagnosis when it came nine years ago. They judge his successes not by the day or the week, but rather by the year.

“We’ve learned great patience through this -- unconditional love,” she says.

Hedrick's next article for the Times will focus on his efforts to find meaning in friendship. He writes for a number of other publications, including Salon and Scientific American, and, in 2007, won the award for best premise at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference for his book, “Connections,” which is based on his own experiences.

"When you hear the word schizophrenia, it's scary word -- it's a scary word -- because you don't know you don't know if that person is unstable but most of the time these people are victims," he says. "They're suffering. It's not something to be so fearful of, I think. It's a diagnosis like any other diagnosis, like cancer or diabetes."

He says he writes, in part, to work to remove the stigma and isolation people with the mental illness experience.