2004-06-10 / Front Page

Understanding a disease of the mind

Mental illness survivor
relates a story
of hope to others
BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP
Staff Writer

Mental illness survivor
relates a story
of hope to others
BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP
Staff Writer

NORTH BRUNSWICK — Marc Stolzer emerged from a pit of despair and now has the strength to shed light on what drove him there.

Stolzer has fought the throes of schizophrenia since 1979, but this year he will join forces with the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) in North Brunswick to battle the stigmas associated with mental illness.

Although the 46-year-old Edison resident characterizes himself as a bit shy and acknowledges that he sometimes had a hard time socializing as a youth, prior to 1979 he had a bright past and looked forward to a prosperous future.

The South Brunswick High School track and cross country scholar athlete went to Penn State University, where he remained an honor student and joined numerous activities such as yoga, star gazing, and spelunking.

However, in his junior year of college between 1978 and 1979, Stolzer began to experience periods of extreme shyness and anxiety.

The episodes overwhelmed him and ultimately caused him to stop going to college.

"I remember going to the doctor and telling him of these episodes, and he asked me if I was taking illegal drugs," Stolzer said.

After returning home to live with his parents in Kendall Park in an effort to relieve these feelings, Stolzer said his condition got worse.

"I didn’t want to, but I always found myself arguing with my parents," he said. "I would do things like rent a hotel room or sleep in my car just to avoid that."

Not only did his behavior become uncharacteristic, but also Stolzer said he would often experience "mental breaks from reality."

During these episodes, he said he became disoriented and would often have visual and auditory hallucinations.

"I felt like my mind was always drifting," Stolzer said. "I couldn’t even keep up with normal activities or conversations."

After an annual family reunion in 1979, Stolzer said he descended into a dark place within himself.

At the reunion, he would look on as family members conversed with one another, but felt he no longer had the capabilities to communicate with them, he said.

After the reunion, Stolzer said depressing thoughts and suicidal feelings overcame him.

"I told my parents I felt like I was just barely hanging on," Stolzer said.

While looking out of a window to see children laughing and playing one day, Stolzer wished he could just go outside and play with them.

"I just wanted to be carefree, and at the time I thought I would never feel like that again," he said.

Stolzer said he felt an expansive distance between the children and himself.

"I remember thinking that although they were just outside, I was far away and moving even further away from everyone into myself," he said.

Stolzer said he spiraled into an irrational overemotional state, in which his behavior became abnormal.

On the day Stolzer’s parents checked him into a hospital to get help, his father, Allan, found his 21-year-old son in the back yard digging up a wild apple plant.

Having studied botany at Penn State, Stolzer said he knew eating the roots of the bush would have killed him.

Before seeing his son again, Dr. Peter Meuller, of the Payne Whittany Hospital in New York City, told Allan that his child was in a desperate state.

Mueller diagnosed Stolzer with schizophrenia, a chemical disorder of the brain with various biological and environ­mental causes.

A head trauma that Stolzer suffered in an accident when a car struck him on his bicycle at age 17 is believed to have triggered his symptoms.

Before an individual demonstrates full-blown symptoms, family and friends may notice changes in social behavior, sleep or eating patterns, self-care, school perfor­mance or emotional relationships, accord­ing to NAMI.

Stolzer began to take medication for his symptoms and entered a rehabilitation program.

During some bouts he would continue to have with the disease as his body became accustomed to certain medications, Stolzer said he would hear voices, hallucinate, and do illogical things.

"Once I tossed $1,400 into the river be­cause I thought that’s how I could rectify things with God," Stolzer said.

Among all of the unpleasant symptoms or side effects of his medication however, Stolzer said he never felt violent toward another person.

"The stigma with schizophrenia is that people who have it are violent," Stolzer said.

He said the media, including movies and television portray characters with the mental illness as violent with feel- ings and capabilities to murder.

"That’s not true at all," Stolzer said. "Most people with mental illness would rather hurt themselves than another per­son."

Stolzer explained his acute episodes as periods of very intense emotion that often took on spiritual meaning.

Many people think schizophrenia is the same as multiple personality disorder, he said.

"This is not true. Schizophrenia does not mean someone has a split personality," he said.

Symptoms of schizophrenia include ideas or beliefs that are strange, false or out of touch with reality, according to NAMI.

Hallucinations, disorganization, flat or blunted emotions, lack of motivation or en­ergy and lack of pleasure or interest in things may also occur.

Stolzer’s psychotic symptoms have been controlled with medication and he is in the long-term recovery phase of his illness.

"Thank God for the medication, because without it, I would not be productive," Stolzer said.

The long-term recovery phase consisted of remaining active in organizations, like The Club in New Brunswick, where people with mental illness could join activities, work, and socialize.

Stolzer has reassociated himself with society and currently lives in his own apartment in Edison.

Through The Club, Stolzer gained a part-time job at a New Brunswick Hospital 11 years ago, where he now works full-time with benefits.

"Each person with a mental illness goes through recovery at their own pace," Stolzer said. "It’s not real for people in so­ciety to compare individuals with mental illnesses and expect a certain timeline for their recovery."

Stolzer now works with NAMI to give lectures to corporations, professionals in the medical field, schools, nursing homes, and other institutions to help people better understand his and other mental illnesses.

"I have been blessed with parents, and family and friends that have done so much to understand this affliction and to help me in my recovery," Stolzer said.

Unfortunately, other people with men­tal illness do not have the relationships or resources necessary to combat their dis­ease effectively, he said.

Stolzer not only wants to make it easier for others with mental illness to incorpo­rate themselves back into society, but he also wants to make society aware of all of the resources NAMI and other organiza­tions have to offer.

"There are so many opportunities for families to get help, and for those that suf­fer with a mental illness to get better," Stolzer said.

After what he called one of his darkest nights, Stolzer said he awoke in the hospi­tal to see a sign that read "At the end of the storm there is a rainbow."

"I think I know why I went through all that I did," Stolzer said. "Now, I can lead others through their storms and show them the possibilities."


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