University of Minnesota Alumni Association


'I Saw an Angel'

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in law school, alumnus Bruce Ario writes about his long road back to mental health.

Photo credit: Michelle Bruch / courtesy Southwest Journal

Jesus always guided his followers without looking back. Jesus is relevant here because at my most euphoric and lowest points, that’s who I thought I was.

After earning my economics degree at the U of M in 1978, I started to have mental health issues, and I became convinced I might be Jesus. After all, I’d had a visitation from an angel—and to this day, I believe that really happened.

However, a Messiah delusion is very common in the mental health field and in psychiatric wards. My psychiatrist in the ward into which I’d admitted myself at the time couldn’t see the angel and said she was a delusion. He diagnosed me with schizophrenia, and the medicine prescribed for my condition did alleviate the worst of my symptoms.

Although my diagnosis has followed me over the past 40-some years, I’m still ambivalent about it. (I also had a car accident and a head injury around that time, which may have helped contribute to the ongoing confusion I’ve struggled with for years.)

With the help of my medication, I managed to get myself together enough to get into law school at the U of M. But after “white-knuckling” my way through two years of it, things began to unravel, I went off my meds, and I started drinking again.

That ended my formal law school career.

After leaving school, I felt like I had failed monumentally at life. I had based my whole personality and imagined future on being a lawyer. Unable to even talk about what I was going through with anyone, I went from law student to homeless. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge of accepting a mental illness diagnosis and I continued to reject it—along with the drugs that helped me manage my symptoms.

I was on a hellacious roller coaster ride.

During this time, I started telling people I was Jesus. Then in 1984, I was arrested for taking off my clothes on a skyway in downtown Minneapolis. I needed the world to feel my “love” and I thought something magical would happen when I disrobed, like a Second Coming, or that I would “arrive” somewhere beyond shame.

After my arrest, the judge ruled that I was “not guilty by reason of insanity.” In return for not going to jail, I was required to accept my diagnosis, and court-committed to a group home.

While there, a psychologist helped me redirect myself and acknowledge my illness.

I very slowly began to accept and integrate my diagnosis into my life. Before that, I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for or knowledge of those with mental illness, possibly because I didn’t truly respect or know myself. I thought people who had mental health problems were strange, without knowing the influences that made them that way.

In most cases, it’s brain chemistry.

By 1988, I’d ended up in a program called Tasks Unlimited that employs and houses people with mental illness. It became the “home” I had searched for on the streets. My mind began to come in from the cosmos and things fell into place.

At times grudgingly and at times willingly, the clients of Tasks started to command my respect. At Tasks, the individuals I worked with and have been supported by asked me to accept their stories of how they too had been on journeys, and then accepted their diagnoses as illness. I learned much more about living with a mental illness just by observing others. I normalized the situation in my mind. That’s recovery.

This road I’ve been on has been tough. I’ve had to do many things I didn’t want to do, such as accept some of my ideas as illness and take medication. But lest my life sound too harsh, today I am also auditing courses in pursuit of my lost “third year” of law school (although I won’t be able to get a J.D. because too much time has passed). I’ve also developed joy from loving family, friends, and a church behind me. This has given me what I need to facilitate stability.

I’ve become a supervisor in two federal government mailrooms; run seven marathons; traveled on mission trips to Haiti, India, and Sierra Leone; own a fully paid-for condo; attained a purple belt in karate, and my proudest achievement, published four novels, and become an advocate for the Fairweather model of recovery, which is what helped me.

I came into contact with the Fairweather Program in 1988 through Tasks. In the 1960s, George “Bill” Fairweather, a California psychologist, developed the concept of the Lodge, a group home that functions like a family or a commune, where four or five people with a mental illness live together and become employed in the community. Fairweather’s theory was that individuals with mental illness can recover with the support they give each other, and the recovery they experience would be superior to the traditional methods of treating mental illness.

Through long arduous talks with the people at Tasks and my church, I found my life again. I began to share my knowledge of mental illness. I found many places to speak about Fairweather, including NAMI-MN, a grassroots mental health organization.

As a now 65-year-old, recovery for me has been a lot of looking back, and I’ve left no stone unturned. Recovery is also believing in a future, and I figure I have some quality time left before me.

Bruce Ario has written City Boy, a memoir; Help from Above, Push from Below, Fight for the Middle, a story of Tasks; Everyone is a Star; and Changing Ways, a story of growth. You can learn more about him and his writing at

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