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When your brain betrays you

A diagnosis of schizophrenia first frightens, then brings the daunting daily tasks of monitoring medications and therapy. One Oldsmar man finds some healing by writing a book about his struggle.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 15, 2002


For information
The toll-free Helpline for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is 1-800-950-6264. Log onto its Web site at www.nami.org.

To read Correll's story
Chip Correll's book, Overcoming OCD and Schizophrenia with God in My Life (Writer's Club Press, September 2000, paperback), is available at Barnes & Noble bookstores, or by mail by sending a check or money order for $11.95 (includes shipping and handling) c/o Dee Nelson, P.O. Box 16542, Clearwater, FL 33766.

OLDSMAR -- Almost a dozen pill bottles are aligned on Chip Correll's bedroom dresser. He takes 14 tablets every day. He never skips a dose. People who go off their medication, he says, go back to the hospital. He was there once. That was enough.

Correll was 23 and newly graduated from the University of South Florida when he became convinced people were trying to harm him.

"I got up in the middle of the night and woke everybody and said my grandmother was trying to kill me," says Correll of his terrifying delusions eight years ago. Correll's mother, failing to calm her agitated son, phoned police, who took him to Pinellas Emergency Mental Health Services.

He was sedated and committed for four days.

The diagnosis was schizophrenia, with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"That Chip never came home -- when he left the hospital he was a different person," says his mother, Dee Nelson.

"I was very scared," Correll says.

Today, Correll, 30, lives independently, lobbies for mental health legislation and talks about his illness to encourage other sufferers and educate the public. Last year he self-published a book about his experiences.

"I want people to know brain diseases are biological, just like diabetes," he says. "I wanted them to know the struggles."

In the months before his commitment in March 1995, Correll was seeing a therapist who had already made an appointment for him to go to a psychiatrist for medication. The therapist also alerted Correll's mother to the possibility of violence.

Schizophrenia can strike at any age but usually occurs between adolescence and 40, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an information and lobbying organization with more than 1,000 chapters nationwide.

Schizophrenia affects 2.5-million Americans.

A person experiencing a first episode may have been ill a long time but is finally treated because delusions or hallucinations trigger disturbing behavior.

Correll's nighttime attack was sudden, but he had had symptoms of mental illness for some time. He began counseling at 10, when his parents divorced. His thoughts grew increasingly bizarre in his late teens, his mother says.

"You never think it's going to happen to you," Correll says.

"I will have to take my medication for the rest of my life."

The pronouncement falls with a thud in Correll's tidy Oldsmar condominium. There are childlike touches to the decor, added by the 6-foot-4 man: tiny ceramic angels beside a manger on the dining table for Christmas, a picture of pop star Michael Jackson taped on the dresser mirror, above the pill bottles. A basket holds cat toys, property of Toby, a 11/2-year-old, all-white shorthair who came home with Correll from the animal shelter as a kitten.

Correll lives alone. But he needs help from others to deal with the limitations imposed by his illness. He drives, but infrequently. He has a bachelor's degree in English and has worked as a newspaper clerk and freelance writer but cannot handle a 40-hour job.

"It's too overwhelming. I start obsessing" and can't cope with the tasks or the people, he says.

In obsessive-compulsive behaviors, the brain gets "stuck" on a particular thought and cannot let go. People with the disorder say it feels like mental hiccups.

"I still check the stove 20 times," Correll says. "It takes five minutes before I leave to doublecheck to see the door is locked."

He volunteers about four hours a week at Tampa Bay magazine. If he were paid, he would lose critical benefits. His medications cost $1,350 each month, covered in full by Medicaid, he says.

"You're very dependent on other people," Correll says. "I'm dependent on my psychiatrist, my counselor, my pharmacist, my government. If I got lost in the woods without my medicine, in a matter of days I'd be hallucinating."

Dr. George Warren, Correll's psychiatrist and medical director of the Pinellas chapter of NAMI, says drug therapy, when combined with counseling, means the mentally ill can function well and happily.

The drugs "bring neurochemistry back to normal, so instead of being tortured by thoughts and feelings, the sense is one of being in control," Warren says.

Symptoms of schizophrenia can be divided into three categories: positive or psychotic; disorganized; and negative.

Psychotic symptoms include delusions, suspiciousness and abnormal thoughts. Sufferers may think others are plotting against them, or that they can control others' minds. They may hear voices.

Disorganized symptoms include confused thinking and speech. There is difficulty in making conversation and solving problems. There may be rhythmic physical gestures or rituals.

Negative symptoms are when a person is "flat" or has blunted emotions, perhaps even lacking the energy to bathe or change clothes.

Treatment has undergone a revolution in the last decade, say Warren and others. New antipsychotic drugs are much less likely to cause involuntary movements and other side effects, and better address withdrawal and lack of energy. The first generation of drugs in the 1950s were "chemical straitjackets -- they made you feel stoned," Warren says.

"I was like a zombie," says Correll of when he left the hospital. "My reaction time was very slow, my speech was slurred," he says. "Mostly, they were overmedicating me. It's like living in a fog, and you have to find your way out."

Feeling well is a process, not a cure, Correll says. His mother and stepfather initially paid for expensive therapy out of pocket to find the right doctors. He still goes to counseling every week. His medications, although effective, caused a 30-pound weight gain, 10 of which he lost by watching his diet and walking 35 minutes a day. Because of the drugs they must take, people with schizophrenia are at greater risk of obesity, hypertension, substance abuse, diabetes and heart problems.

But Correll says he would never go off the pills: Patients who quit -- they feel better and mistakenly believe they are cured or tire of the medications' harsh side effects -- are frequently hospitalized. Four out of five will have a relapse, statistics show.

"I've never been hospitalized after that first time," Correll says.

His book, Overcoming OCD and Schizophrenia with God in My Life, reads like a diary kept since grade school. Equal narrative weight is given to memories of going to church as a child and having violent delusions in his 20s. Correll writes of memorizing his lines for a sixth-grade play in the kitchen, timing his dialogue on the microwave clock. Within a page he is recounting "brutal" classmates who called him "queer" and "weird."

"As I write about my trials and tribulations," he says, "I just want to stop right here and thank Jesus, who shed his blood on the cross to bear all our sins."

Correll is working on a second book, to be entitled Chip's PATH, on his therapy, work and faith.

"I believe God's goal for me right now is to be an advocate for the mentally ill."

He is active in the Pinellas chapter of NAMI. NAMI is currently pushing for passage of a national mental illness parity amendment. Currently in conference committee, it would require employers with more than 50 workers who offer health insurance to cover mental illness on an equal basis with other diseases.

A recent government study found 87 percent of group health plans force patients to pay more for mental health care than for other kinds of care. Florida has no mental health parity law, although 35 other states have some type of provision.

In Tallahassee, state lawmakers wrestling with budget cuts this session may decide whether to continue funding a "ticket to work" program which allows the mentally ill to earn paychecks without losing government benefits.

"We still have the stigma," Correll says.

"I realize how important people are ... and my cat," Correll says. "I'm much more patient and compassionate and nonjudgmental now. A lot of people don't understand how easy their lives are because they don't have to deal with mental illness.

"It takes a lot of trust."

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