'I Saw an Angel'
Diagnosed with schizophrenia in law school, alumnus Bruce Ario writes about his long road back to mental health.
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
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
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 bruceario.com.