“This is it. My life is over. I’ll never be normal again.”
Does this sound familiar? For individuals who have recently developed a mental illness – or a substance addiction – it can feel like their old life is forever beyond their grasp. They will never be truly healthy. They will always need to carry special medication or ask for special accommodations. They will never be able to think the same way again, act the same way again, or love the same way again. Their brain has fundamentally changed, and thus, so has their life.
But does the world really end after diagnosis?
Countless stories of recovered addicts (e.g., Stephen King, David Carr) and people with severe mental illness (e.g., Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln and many celebrities) show that individuals with these challenges can go on to live remarkable lives despite their disorder.
The world is mourning the loss of John Nash, famous mathematician and the subject of the 2001 biopic, A Beautiful Mind. Nash is well known for his struggles with schizophrenia and for – in spite of everything – surviving the darkest moments of his life. So does the world end after diagnosis? Not necessarily. No.
A triumphant life
John Nash was born in 1928 in a small town in West Virginia. His parents had always recognized that he was bright and full of potential. He attended Carnegie Mellon University – then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology – and majored in mathematics, his passion. He soon graduated and joined a doctoral program at Princeton University where his doctoral thesis, entitled Non-Cooperative Games, fundamentally altered the field of economics. He then went on to teach at MIT, where he met his future wife, Alicia Larde, one of the few women in the class of 1955.
His early life had all the makings of a success story. But then it changed.
While his wife was pregnant with their first child, Nash began to display symptoms of schizophrenia. Most people develop schizophrenia between the ages of 16 and 30, with men tending to demonstrate their symptoms earlier. Schizophrenia is marked by the presence of delusions and hallucinations, as well as difficulties with cognition and emotional affect. Although antipsychotics can successfully treat most schizophrenia symptoms, convincing a person with schizophrenia that they are sick and need medication can be difficult. Like most people with schizophrenia, Nash refused treatment. He instead believed his delusions and hallucinations wholeheartedly.
“The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did,” Nash had explained. “So I took them seriously.”
Once a brilliant, albeit eccentric, professor, Nash began to withdraw from his family, his friends and his career. He resigned from his position at MIT and fled to Europe, where he sent cryptic postcards to his family and colleagues. When he returned to the United States, he roamed the Princeton campus, flittering from chalkboard to chalkboard on which he scribbled unintelligible notes and mathematical formulas. His wife left him. Some people assumed he had died. The students at the university gave him a nickname: The Phantom.
Then the storm dissipated. Slowly – more slowly, in fact, than if Nash had elected to take medication – he began to revert to his old self.
“I emerged from irrational thinking,” he once wrote, “ultimately, without medication other than the natural hormonal changes of aging.”
He returned to work, traveling from country to country where he gave lectures on his revolutionary findings in mathematics. He received the Nobel Prize in 1994. He remarried his wife and lived a long, fulfilling life.
On May 23, 2015, he and his wife were killed in a car accident. Although his death was tragic, he will not be remembered as a strange, homeless man who wandered among academic buildings. He will be remembered as a mathematical genius who triumphed over a serious and frequently deadly mental condition.
A full potential
Not many people are fortunate enough to be born mathematical geniuses. Most people won’t win a Nobel Prize, and most won’t have their obituary published in The New York Times. The lessons from Nash’s struggles, however, are applicable to everyone: