June 06, 2005

Beating Schizophrenia

This may or may not be printed as a LIVES column in the New York Times Magazine, but since many of you do not or cannot get the Times, I thought I'd put it here early (and also since it has not yet been accepted, if or when it is). I wrote the first part and my twin sister wrote the second part. Mac users please note: this and other entries cannot be read properly using the Safari browser. Please use Netscape or Explorer.



On November 17, 1952 I slid into the world with barely a whimper. Five minutes later, my twin sister tumbled out after me, kicking and squalling like she’d been hit by a thunderstorm instead of oxygen. Alike as two spoons, we knew without a doubt that we were identical. We answered in one voice, spoke each other’s thoughts, completed one another’s sentences. We were bound to one another as firmly as any conjoined set of twins. But others insisted on seeing in us polar opposites, as the world so often does. To them, we couldn’t have been more different than if made from elements on opposite ends of the periodic table.

And this set the pattern for the next two decades. I was the steady, stoic twin, the twin who had no problems, no needs, no anger, no tears. I could be counted on to soothe my more needy twin whenever she went on a weeping jag or had a fit of temper, which seemed to me to be all the time. When we went swimming, she got ear infections and couldn’t hear for a week; my ears were fine. She had tonsillitis many times until she saw The Surgeon, and ate pistachio ice cream until it came out those delicate ears. I had neither. She was the screamer; I was the placid, untroubling, untroubled twin. But I shone at school; Lynnie didn’t read until fourth grade. I won swimming races; Lynnie came in second best. I was the capable one, I was the golden girl; Lynnie was the social one, she just had to be pretty.

But when JFK was assassinated, the voices started, and though I told no one, terrible thoughts haunted me: I was sure I was to blame for the president’s death. I was supposed to be invulnerable. I was not allowed problems so I didn’t let on that my world was falling apart. My grades suffered under the fears and pressures of public junior high so I transferred to a private school, without Lynnie. There I experienced a brief reprieve, but soon withdrew from extracurricular activities and refused to talk unless it was absolutely necessary. In one class, instead of conversing in French as the course required, I replied to direct challenges from the teacher with the words: Je n’ai rien a dire, “I have nothing to say”...and I remained mute the rest of the hour. Nothing got through to me. They called me The Zombie. But my parents couldn’t see that I was in trouble. They interpreted my difficulties as an adolescent phase, mere “acting out.” It took an overdose in college and five months in the hospital before they acknowledged something was seriously wrong.


In junior high Pammy stopped being someone to look up to and became weird, withdrawn, “out of it.” She didn’t shower or change her clothes until I reminded her; as her twin, she made me look bad, she embarrassed me. Then in college when she fell apart completely, I came together. In the past, looking at my future meant looking around Pammy. In her unexpected absence, I challenged myself, became “smart,” became her, went to medical school, went beyond.

People often assume that I went into psychiatry because of my sister’s illness, but the truth is I went into psychiatry because I loved it and I knew I would never be bored.

But, in my eyes, Pammy was still the brilliant twin and, for many years, I saw her as a threat to my accomplishments, even my separateness. It was only a matter of time before she would reclaim her position in the family and expose me as a fraud. I was in my twenties when she confided in me about the Japanese living inside her apartment walls, about Brother Luke, the spirit who guided her, and about her role in the Kennedy assassination. I was twenty-eight and a psychiatrist myself before I realized that Pammy’s oddness in high school, her multiple hospitalizations in and out of college and her adult quirkiness, her bizarre and “antisocial” behavior were symptoms of chronic schizophrenia. Chronic.

Gradually I told these things to my family and in the 1990’s Mom started to help me buy Pammy food, clothing, supplies. But Dad still refused to deal with her.

In 2004, Pammy became dangerously suicidal. Her medication would have controlled her psychosis, but because it caused a huge weight gain, she refused to take it. She was hospitalized for months at a time, restrained frequently and endured countless medication changes. Though I visited often, it was never enough. Finally I was made her conservator and did one of the hardest things I have ever had to do: I authorized ECT – shock treatments – against her will. I thought she would never talk to me again. Instead, she got better. Later, she thanked me for making a decision she could never have made herself.

For the first time, the family rallied to support her and one day that summer Dad walked into her hospital room and back into her life as if he had never left.

Since then, we have finished writing our joint memoir, Divided Minds – the story of how we fought and how we beat schizophrenia. Pammy isn’t cured, no, but we’ve won, because she and I and our entire family have been healed.

Posted by pamwagg at June 6, 2005 09:16 AM


I don't have words to say! Absolutely amazing about how the whole family was reunited again...i guess people think the same about the same at my side too. take care. lots of love to you and lynnie (if I may call her that :) puzli

Posted by: puzli at June 7, 2005 06:21 AM

Oh, Pam,
The moving eloquence of your voice, followed by Lynnie's reminded me of the incomparable harmony of the early Simon and Garfunkel songs that live forever in the music of my mind. Two voices, so different in tone, yet when blended together, produce a unique and lyrical beauty. Once more, I am humbled by the combined talents of the Spiro twins. My darlings, I salute you.
So sincerely, Your Paula

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at June 6, 2005 11:20 PM

Post a comment

Please enter this code to enable your comment -
Remember Me?