The toxic mind: confessions of a schizophrenic

Elnora Van Winkle
Retired Research Scientist, Millhauser Laboratories, Department of Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine.

This article was submitted for publication as a First Person Account to the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, but was rejected by the editor. Please first read the scientific article, The toxic mind: the biology of mental illness and violence, E. Van Winkle, Med Hypotheses 2000; 55(4): 356-368 or the article with self help measures for recovery entitled: The Biology of Emotions.

After spending years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals staring at one-way mirrors, I am delighted you have taken the mirrors down and invited us into your conference rooms. I am grateful for this opportunity to tell you my story.

To you who so generously tried to help me when I came to you as a patient, I confess I did not really want your help. In truth I wanted to be mad — not 'mad' mad — but 'angry' mad. When abusive parents force their children to suppress justifiable anger, a toxicosis develops in the brain consisting of noradrenaline, adrenaline, and other neurochemicals that store repressed anger and grief.

The excitatory nervous symptoms of most mental disorders are periodic detoxification crises, which are usually followed by depression (Van Winkle 2000). During these detoxification crises repressed anger — now rage — is released, and because neural pathways are clogged up where memories of early trauma are stored, the rage is often misdirected inward or toward others rather than toward the original abusers. Because neural pathways are askew, thinking becomes distorted and the mind is prone to fantasies, delusions, hallucinations, and psychoses.

The afflicted person is likely to act in bizarre and unintended ways. But the symptoms, which are detoxification crises, are healing events. If the person can be guided to redirect anger toward all past abusers during these symptoms, the mind can heal.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Edgar Allen Poe wrote that insanity is nothing more than an overactive nervous system. He intuitively knew that his character was driven mad by the same force that caused the loud beating of his own heart, an activity associated with anger and fear and accelerated by the release of toxic amounts of noradrenaline and adrenaline.

What I want to show you is that the symptoms of my many psychiatric disorders were periodic detoxification crises. I further confess to you that I am playing amateur psychiatrist, have peeked at the DSM-III-R (American Psychiatric Association 1987), and sprinkled my story with parenthetical diagnoses.

So unconsciously eager was I to be mad that psychiatrists found my symptoms listed in most of the three hundred or more disorders described in that manual. As explained by the toxic mind theory all the various nervous and mental disorders are manifestations of the same physiological process of detoxification, differing only because of the location of the toxicosis and the function of the area of the nervous system affected.

As physiologist Herbert Shelton pointed out, "the brain can't vomit and the stomach can't become insane" (Shelton 1979).

I was born in 1928 and grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City. My parents were outstanding members of the community, provided for their three children in every way, and taught us the kind of moral values that are supposedly the makings of decent human beings. A picture of me at two weeks showed a faint but sweet smile.

From that time I tried never to smile again until I was in my sixties. My facial expression was one of fear and anger. Except for spankings and having my mouth washed out with soap at any attempts to vocalize anger, I was not physically abused.

But I was left in my crib to 'cry it out' and listened to my father rage at my mother, brother, and sister. I learned from birth to suppress my justifiable anger. My mind was made toxic by the kind of moral upbringing Alice Miller calls 'poisonous pedagogy,' a tradition of child rearing that suppresses all feelings in the child and maintains the godlike position of the parents.

When children are abused and forbidden to express their justifiable anger, "their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain will find expression in destructive acts against others (criminal behavior, mass murder) or against themselves (drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, psychic disorder, suicide) (Miller 1990)."

The fantasies in which I lived for close to sixty years were unconscious attempts to recreate early traumas and provide a stage wherein I could redirect my anger toward my parents. I retreated into this fantasy world when I was four or five.

Freud understood that fantasies and nightmares represented the release of emotions related to childhood trauma. What he did not realize was that these are detoxification crises during which toxic amounts of neurochemicals are released from neurons.

Because neural pathways are clogged up and nerve impulses are diverted, and because of the way the brain stores experience as characteristics, the fantasies become distorted reenactments of the early trauma. The human brain is brilliantly designed to create inner dramas for the healing of the mind.

But the brain cannot create new experience. Imagination is distorted memory. What the brain does is to put together new mosaics made up of bits of old experience.

My first fantasies were in the form of play with a young friend. We used chessmen as people and small blocks to build our scenery. One drama was in a castle ruled by a tyrant king (my father), and we were the children acting out our indignation. The other scene was an orphan asylum.

We built towers, each with a room on top where we were imprisoned by the wicked orphan asylum lady (my mother).

We would call to each other and plan our escape and revenge. My mother got the gist of this play and forbid it. After that I was careful to keep my fantasy world a secret, but unconsciously I must have sensed that the schizophrenic world I had entered was my salvation.

To maintain my fantasy world I was painfully shy, socially inept, and often mute (Elective Mutism). My mother said, "Why do you frown so?" and "Has the cat got your tongue?" I spent so much time daydreaming I was unable to concentrate.

I could not ask for comfort from anyone (Autistic Disorder). I was very upset if any minor changes were made in my room. Because of an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which facilitates the detoxification process, I was always fidgeting, taping my fingers, and if I did something with my right hand I had to do it with my left hand (Tourette's Disorder).

I loved to shake my head furiously from side to side and spin around (Autistic Disorder). Spinning is an ancient practice of Yogis and an instinctive detoxification technique. I often made funny faces. "Funny face" was one of my nicknames. I was extremely sensitive and nervous (Anxiety Disorder).

I startled easily and became hyper-vigilant (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Overanxious Disorder). I was terrorized by the nights and continued to scream for my mother until I was a teenager (Separation Anxiety Disorder). I had terrible nightmares and was a sleep walker (Dream Anxiety Disorder, Sleepwalking Disorder). At the Chicago World's Fair I was taken to the top of a play mountain where there was a slide through a tunnel.

My sister slid happily to the ground. I was so frightened and screamed so loudly I had to be carried down (Panic disorder, Agoraphobia). It was probably a reenactment of the birth experience, and I already knew I wasn't going to be welcomed in this world. My nicknames were "Scardy Cat" and "Cry Baby." I had to be coaxed, even bribed, to go to parties (Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder).

I was incapable of experiencing joy (Depression, Cyclothymia, Dysthymia). Sometimes my anger came through in real life as a temper tantrum or a hurtful attack on my sister (Intermittent Explosive Disorder). I became sulky and argumentative when asked to do something (Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder).

My mother called my stubbornness a moral failing, and I became consumed with guilt as I turned the anger inward. Craving the stimulation needed to activate the nervous system and initiate a fight or flight response, I became attracted to some rather dangerous play.

I liked to walk on a high railing over our concrete driveway, shoot pebbles from a slingshot at passing cars, and chase after fire engines (Attention-deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder).

I had a compulsive need to start a fire by setting a match to a plastic toothbrush container (Conduct Disorder). In school I had a teacher who locked pupils in the closet for punishment, and I purposely acted up so she would put me there (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

This was an unconscious attempt to reenact the long forgotten prison of my crib, and I misdirected my anger toward the teacher who substituted for my mother. My fantasies became my bedtime happy hour and kept me up for hours (Primary Insomnia).

In my teens I developed a tremor that lasted into my sixties (Parkinson's Disease). My mother dragged me to tea parties where my hands trembled so, the tea cup rattled on the saucer.

Summer camps in New England gave me an opportunity to put counselors into my fantasy world, and when I dared I would act out my fantasies. I knew they were creations of my mind, but I began to lose touch with reality in acting them out.

There was a counselor who put campers who misbehaved on a small island in the lake. I made sure I was often there — another re-enactment of the crib experience.

The counselors, who had wanted to award me 'best camper," were mystified by this erratic behavior from such a well-behaved camper and withheld the award. On the way to New England we drove north on the old Route 1 and passed by a large block of red brick buildings that I was told was an insane asylum. I saw people in bathrobes standing behind grim, dark porch screens.

I was drawn to this place and began to daydream about being one of the inmates. I wanted to be mad and I wanted to be locked up.

I continued to incorporate school activity into my fantasy world. Despite a higher than average I.Q., my communication and reading skills were poor, and it was only my perfectionism that got me through and even allowed me to graduate first in my high school class.

My teachers became actors in my dramas. They became the inner voices who told me what to do, and I began to believe those inner voices. More and more I lost the ability to distinguish between my fantasy world and the real world.

A favorite drama was about my high school math teacher, who was a tyrant like my father. In my mind I pretended I didn't know the answers so he would yell at me. My father had often quizzed us and would be angry if we didn't know the answers.

In my fantasy world I could get mad back at this teacher, but in reality I was afraid of him and knew every answer. I was labeled "Mr. Miller's Answer Book," in my high school yearbook.

I was terrified of social situations. I had one boy friend in high school — a disturbed young man who later committed suicide.

My year older sister Joyce was outgoing and very popular, and while we were best friends, I was very jealous of her because she had always been my mother's favorite. When she was sixteen she went off to be a counselor at a summer camp on Cape Cod Bay.

I had a letter from her about an exciting canoe trip on the bay and how the good looking coast guard boys rescued her during a storm. Shortly later a reporter from the New York Times told us my sister was missing in another storm.

The camp had failed to notify us. My parents waited anxiously for three days, hoping for good news. But deep in my mind I had a murderous thought that maybe if Joyce died my mother would love me. Rather than be angry at my mother, I wanted to destroy my beautiful sister. She drowned.

I not only lost my closest friend but my mother was never able to grieve that loss and expected me to take my sister's place and, in fact, to be my sister.

There was no way I could meet this expectation, and I withdrew even more into my silent world. I went to an ivy league college where I had no special academic interests and never read a book from cover to cover except for Jane Eyre in which I could live out my fantasies.

I spent the four years daydreaming. I recall trembling at the thought of having to make a short speech in a required speech class. The teacher said, "There's nothing wrong with the way you speak dear, you just never speak."

My parents died when I was in my early twenties, and at that time I married the first young man who asked me. It was a brief and unsuccessful marriage. It was then that I stood trembling at the office door of my first psychiatrist.

I confess I did want to be relieved of my terrible anxiety, but I also hoped he would find me insane. He told me I had an anxiety disorder and gave me some Milltown. I was disappointed with that minor diagnosis. Within a short time I landed in several small psychiatric hospitals, and then came the big time hospital in New York City — Bellevue!

I was thrilled to be there. I loved that place and did everything possible to try to get them to put me on the most disturbed ward. After six weeks my doctor suggested I admit myself to a private psychiatric hospital in Westchester. I was immediately diagnosed as Schizophrenic, Undifferentiated Type, later changed to Paranoid Type.

I see now that paranoia was a good device for starting a fight and getting my anger out. By now I had all the characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia — social withdrawal, deterioration in personal care, flat affect, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, increased absorption in inner thoughts, impaired concentration, changeable behavior, lack of initiative, and so forth. You know them all.

I was pleased they found me sick enough to give me shock treatments. Now that's a wish I regret. During one of the treatments-no anesthesia in those days-I didn't get the full amount of current, did not lose consciousness, and felt the agonizing pain of the electricity as it surged through every cell of my body. Specialists were called in.

Not knowing how to relieve my terror, which lingered until my sixties, they sedated me heavily and put me in Room 1 — the room for the most disturbed patient. I was finally back in the crib! I loved that room and stayed there for four years.

It was the room with no furniture except a bed and a straight jacket thrown on the closet floor. I raged against the tight linen sheets and screamed for the nurses, thinking they would come and comfort me as my mother never did. But this was a delusion since my unconscious reason was to get the anger out. One time my psychiatrist, now a principle actor in my dramas, found me well enough to go downstairs for a session in his newly decorated office. He had a beautiful new picture window. "How do you like my new office?" he said. "Very nice," I replied, and I raised my arms as high as I could and put my two fists through the window with a force that smashed it to tiny splinters.

I was never allowed to disturb my father in his office and here was a way to release my anger at that rejection. If the psychiatrist had allowed me to punch a punching bag and encouraged me to redirect my anger at my father I might have begun to heal. I am sure there are psychiatrists who help their patients redirect justifiable anger, but no psychiatrist in my forty years of psychiatric care ever suggested my illness was related to childhood trauma.

After four years on the violent ward of that hospital I ran out of money and tried to get admitted to the state run Psychiatric Institute in New York City, but they would not take me — poor prognosis they said. Generous relatives took me in for a while, but I soon landed in another psychiatric hospital where a nurse who was addicted to sedatives charted extra for me in order to get some for her self.

I met her again a few weeks later in another hospital where she was now a patient. I was put in restraint, had seizures, and was rushed to a general hospital where I had a near death experience. While I was in restraint one of the nurses who was intuitive about my needs gave me a tray full of plastic cups to throw at the wall. If I had known to picture my parents on the wall I might have begun to heal.

During the next twenty-five years I was given a variety of prescription drugs nonstop — sometimes six at a time — and became addicted to sedatives. I was treated by many psychiatrists and hospitalized more than twenty times for periods of three to six months. Whenever I was in the hospital I wanted the bars up on my bed and as much restraint as possible.

I unconsciously wanted to be in that crib and fight my way out. In between hospitalizations I worked in research laboratories, obtained a master's degree in biology, and published in the field of biological psychiatry. One of the laboratories was in a renovated kitchen at Bellevue just down the hall from where I had been as a patient, and was where we discovered a toxin in the urine of schizophrenic patients.

This discovery provided the original evidence for the toxic mind theory. But I had little understanding of the research and was absent from work for long periods. My mental functioning slowly deteriorated, and at my last job I didn't know how to work a simple copy machine.

I was eventually fired-tactfully let go on disability. At a court disability hearing the judge found me legally insane. I liked that judge. I was married to a compulsive gambler who took care of me in exchange for money. I became so phobic I left the house only to see my psychiatrist.

During those years I was rediagnosed many times. At one time when one of my psychiatrists was giving me a note to be released from jury duty, he pulled out the DSM and with a smile said, "Which diagnosis would you like?" Finally my psychiatrist recognized I was headed for the dreaded tardive dyskinesia since I had been on Thorazine nonstop for thirty years.

I was taken off all medication. Unable to function at all I sat cross-legged on my bed in a state of terror interrupted only by periods of suicidal depression. It was then that I entered my last psychiatric hospital. A moment I will never forget was when half a dozen doctors stood by my bed and I was told I was not a schizophrenic after all. They said I had a Major Depressive Disorder.

I was a bit disappointed. I still wanted to be insane, but my cortisol suppression test was about as abnormal as it could get and I liked that. I recall looking fearfully at all those doctors in white coats and giving the classic response, "there's really nothing wrong with me," and under my breath I muttered what I thought was the truth... "I made it all up."

This was the most grandiose of all my delusions. It was true I created the daydreams but no one can consciously make up the terrifying symptoms of madness, the wild ramblings of a fearful and insane mind living in a cruel and agonizing world of unreality, not knowing that this was an opportunity to heal.

If only someone had told me the truth — that if I redirected my rage during that madness my suffering would end and I would find the peace and joy that was my birth heritage.

I was sent home cured on an antidepressant. I had learned to string beads in the hospital, so I made beaded necklaces and tried to sell them to my druggist. He wasn't interested.

I also bought lots of paper cups, filled them with dirt, put a seed in each, and those that sprouted I tried to sell on the street corner. I got a non paying job with the Electrolux vacuum people and pushed postcards under doors all over the city. I tried to sell a vacuum cleaner to my psychiatrist — no sale. I volunteered at my church where I became a compulsive cleaning lady.

I spent two weeks scrubbing the underneath sides of all the pews. I had the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease and had to write down every instruction they gave me at the church. Finally I got a paying job cleaning a psychiatrist's office. For fifteen dollars a week his office never got so clean.

I even washed his windows on the outside. His office was on the thirtieth floor. My husband made a prophetic remark around this time. "Why don't you clean out your mind instead?" My psychiatrist rediagnosed me as manic-depressive.

Eventually I joined AA. I stopped all drugs but my dependency on drugs shifted to increased codependency on people, and looking back to my years in AA I see that I was not restored to sanity.

I was still delusional. I thought the twelve steps had something to do with the twelve days of Christmas and my slightly protruding belly might be a sign I was pregnant with John the Baptist. They told me in AA to do something nice for someone everyday without getting caught. So I took a plastic bag full of cleaning supplies and went to meetings all around the city. During the talks I slipped out, went to the ladies room, and cleaned the sinks and toilets. I believed this would be my life's work, and someday I would clean the pearly gates of heaven.

But in AA I heard thousands of stories like mine with different scenarios, and I began to realize I was not unique. I went to meetings for Adult Children of Alcoholics and then attended a one week residential program at the Caron Family Services in Wernersville, PA called "Co-Dependency Treatment For Adult Children From Dysfunctional Families."

In experiential therapy I learned to redirect my anger toward my parents. I adopted a diet of natural foods that helped me detoxify my body from years of bad food, drugs, and the endogenous toxins that still clogged the neurons in my brain.

Once a disheveled woman afraid to speak to more than one person at a time or walk around the block by myself, my sanity slowly returned and I began to emerge as a rational human being.

As my mind cleared I was able to correlate my recovery with the well established concept of toxicosis as the source of symptoms of most disease.

Reflecting back on my years of research in biological psychiatry and the work of other neuroscientists, I easily made the final correlation with catecholamine metabolism and developed the toxic mind theory of mental illness and violence.

A two year search of the scientific literature brought no evidence that did not support the theory. The research that proved the theory was already reported in fifty years of studies in medical journals, and many were articles I had co-authored.

But the conlusions in the past studies needed revision based on my discovery. The evidence was so overwhelming I originally wrote a book rather than an article for a medical journal.

What became evident was that the animals used had been imprisoned in cages, their fight or flight responses repressed, and their brains were therefore toxic and not a good source of understanding about the chemistry of the brain.

The primary evidence was from established physiological mechanisms, and researchers tend to bury the physiological textbooks under piles of reprints about current experiments.

The self therapy based on this discovery brought my remaining symptoms swiftly to an end. This self therapy is on the Internet in many languages, and persons from around the world with differently diagnosed disorders have reached virtually full and permanent recovery in periods from a few months to a year or so.

The article in pamphlet form has been sent to all prisons in most countries of the world and is being distributed to the homeless in the USA. Perhaps a homeless person sits on the very same bed where I sat fifty years ago in Bellevue Hospital, now a homeless shelter — those iron beds would last a lifetime — and is being helped by this discovery.

And now I stand again at your office door with no trembling, and this time I ask for your help without reservation. I ask you to read my article about this discovery of the biological basis for mental illness (Van Winkle 2000) and to study the self therapy (Van Winkle 1999), and that you offer this way of healing to those still trapped in the terrifying world of insanity.

If you are among the rare who do not suffer from co-dependency you will understand the need to give this gift of self therapy to your patients. I must tell you that most of my relationships with psychiatrists were co-dependencies — transference and counter-transference I think you call it.

If you find this article confrontational I hope it will trigger your personal recovery and bring you the indescribable joy that will come when you can bring another human being out of the torture of madness.

American Psychiatric Association, APA. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. revised (DSM-III-R). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1987.
Miller, A. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.
Shelton, H.M. Human Life: Its Philosophy and Laws: An Exposition of the Principles and Practices of Orthopathy. Mokelumne Hill: Health Research, 1979.
Van Winkle, E. The toxic mind: the biology of mental illness and violence. Medical Hypotheses, 2000: 55(4); 356-368

Author Note
I am a retired neuroscientist with many research publications in biological psychiatry, all of which support the toxic mind theory. I began my research at the Rockefeller University in 1950, and from 1961 to 1980 was on the staff and faculty at Millhauser Laboratories in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. Self help measures for recovery: The Biology of Emotions.