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Awakenings with the New Antipsychotics

Awakenings with the New Antipsychotics

The explosion of neuroscience developments in this "Decade of the Brain" now provides people with schizophrenia a new generation of antipsychotic therapies. For many, these medications (e.g., clozapine [Clozaril], olanzapine [Zyprexa], risperidone [Risperdal], and quetiapine [Seroquel]) produce an improvement over their "old" antipsychotics in terms of side effects and, for some, clinical response. For a select few, however, these medications can produce dramatic improvement, akin to what Sacks (1990) termed an "awakening." These medications create exciting opportunities to use psychotherapy, group work and rehabilitation with a population historically relegated to back wards or triaged to "case management."

As people awaken to a new mental state and a unique set of psychological challenges, our clinical service at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) has become interested in the experience of these robustly responding patients. MMHC has a large population of people on these medications, and the center has a strong tradition of attending to the psychological experience of people with psychotic illness. We interviewed 15 long-term outpatients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder who were living in the community and who had shown significant clinical improvement on these new compounds. Our findings were published in the November/December 1997 issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

We found that, because of the extent and longevity of their psychotic symptoms, many awakened patients have experienced a process of psychological redefinition and have confronted developmental tasks that were dormant prior to their improvement. When the hallucinations, tangential thinking or delusions are quieted, patients are "free" to reassess their status in life. The internal world that they have known is considerably different, and the external world has changed from the way it was before the last time they were not dominated by psychotic thoughts or experiences. Based on our interviews and observations of patients from this sample, we posit a three-part conceptual scheme for the issues that challenge this population:

  • Sense of self
  • Sense of connectedness
  • Sense of purpose

The psychotherapeutic work at hand for some patients is filled with both grief and hope as they come to reassess themselves, their relationships and their purpose in life. Such work is supportive, reality-based and practical, but is also mindful of the psychodynamic concepts of loss, adaptation and defenses. That agranulocytosis or a change in finances could threaten the loss of these essential medications at any time adds to the challenge for patient and therapist alike.

Sense of Self

The struggle to redefine oneself as the psychotic process remits is a staggering task for any patient. Assisting in this task requires considerable therapeutic dexterity. If the work of therapy is to "acknowledge, bear and put into perspective" (Semrad, 1966), then a revised sense of self challenges the therapeutic endeavor to integrate the current mental state with the previous illness history, reviewing losses and setting realistic goals.

One 32-year-old man who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder 15 years ago told us:

"I had this psychotic pattern of thinking which was usually circular and dealing with one issue at a time, things like what we would agree to be day-to-day reality. My other experience is relating everything to myself subjectively. My brain was preoccupied with discerning whether this is real or this is not real.

"What clozapine has done is to break up this pattern or thought process. I had certain behaviors that I had adopted in dealing with being an inpatient. With clozapine it was... sort of like waking up. In a lot of ways, the psychosis acted as my defense and was my way of relating to the world for so long. It was a relief initially not to be crazy. But it is also painful...like being crazy kept me innocent in a way. Sometimes I can't bear the weight of my own grief."

This process of integration of a healthy identity with a hopeful future is even more difficult when patients hit a ceiling in their recovery. Such is the case with one 33-year-old woman who began to have auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions in her early 20s and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She experienced no significant response on conventional antipsychotics but did develop severe tardive dyskinesia while taking these medications. She has shown considerable but finite improvement over two and one-half years on olanzapine.

Her fantasies of a cure had been raised by optimistic researchers and clinicians as her initial improvement kept her out of hospitals for the duration of her treatment. But, she reminds us, she lost the love of her life during her illness and she is still on disability. She is grateful that she is no longer dominated by psychotic processes but is unable to reach her "old level." She often asks if new medications are coming out.

Finally, a young woman who repeatedly starts and stops her atypical antipsychotic treatment explains that the weight gain she experiences on clozapine is sufficiently unpleasant to her that she takes breaks from it. Her mental state is strikingly different on clozapine, and she is also able to avoid using drugs when she takes it. "It seems I can only have a mind or a body," she reports.

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