People Say I’m Crazy

by Tom Pyle

People Say I’m Crazy.John Cadigan. Directed by John Cadigan. Palo Alto Pictures, 2004.

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For a supposedly crazy man, John Cadigan is quite sensible, as he portrays in his 2004 documentary about his life called, People Say I’m Crazy. No, he is not crazy. But he is sick with schizophrenia–and he is certainly sick and tired of its effects.

John was a promising student at Carnegie Mellon when he experienced his first bout of psychosis during his senior year. Before the crash John had the world as his oyster. In fifth grade he was voted the triple crown of “most popular”, “most athletic”, and “most artistic”. But the antecedents of his illness started creeping in by senior year in high school, when he was voted “most quiet”. Now his world is turned completely around, as this autobiographical film attests right from its beginning by showing John in his late 20s frozen and immobilized by an attack of paranoia.

His illness is severe, first classified as “refractory schizophrenia” immune to most treatments. After riding the roller coaster of various medications, he finds a better place with a good psychiatrist and with Clozaril, an effective if last resort anti-psychotic medication which requires weekly blood samples to check against potentially lethal side effects. But his relative psychiatric improvement came at the great expense of gaining 100 lbs. of weight onto his previously lithe athlete‘s frame. Now he lives in a group home in Palo Alto. Fortunately he has supportive family. His two sisters are lovingly tender. His brother helps John with things. His mother relocated from Boston to be nearer to him. His father, even though now divorced from Mom and living with his new wife along the Texas coast, is frequently in the picture even from afar.

The film portrays John’s daily routines–and frequent struggles. He relays his “morning dread”, a daily torment of anxiety that he must get through. He relates his condition. He is having a particularly bad day. “Nothing inspires me”, John laments. “I am depressed all the time.” His visible affect tells his tale: weary, anxious, burdened, worn. Schizophrenia has robbed John not only of his old identity, but also his semblance of joy.

John’s artistic abilities are his salvation. Most afternoons, when not napping off the fatiguing effects of his medications, he is at his local studio sketching his intricate (and sometimes harrowing) designs and carving them into woodcuts that he eventually puts out for show and, indeed, a few artist-affirming sales to the public. Listening to John describe his torments as he focuses on his art exemplifies the benefits for recovery of having at least a passion to frame and fill one’s daily life. Many in John’s situation are not so endowed,and thus not doing as well. John is fortunate to the extent that he has a good place to live, has his family nearby, has his strong interest in art around which to frame his daily life, and apparently has very good psychiatric help. Many with his illness have none of these–which is why people with schizophrenia constitute, it is said, about 50% of all who are homeless.

People Say I’m Crazy helps us feel the heavy millstone of the schizophrenia burden. It is a useful lens with which to see into the world of a loved one struggling with this perplexing disease. Understanding that world will increase a viewer’s empathy for the stalwart victims who suffer in it. It is not a happy experience. All the rest of us must try to feel their pain.

The film leaves us with the same angst that John’s mother poignantly expresses in a simple scene in her kitchen while cutting carrots to cook for dinner. About the effects of his illness on her personally, John asks his mother from behind the filming videocam, “Mom, what was the hardest part?”  The cutting stops. Her body goes limp. Teary eyes and pursed lips appear on Mom’s forlorn face.

When she pulls herself together, she mutters the saddest aspect of the entire experience. Despite all the external support that she has no doubt provided, Mom confesses the ultimate frustration that all us parents feel. When it came to relieving her dear son of the torments, tribulations, and terror that racks a loved one’s mind in the maelstrom of schizophrenia. Mom heavily sighs and says: “…That I couldn’t do anything to help you.”

Link to the film’s website at www.peoplesayimcrazy.org.

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