I'm always wondering how the True Life producers find the subjects of their reports.
A lot of research and pre-production work went into making this show. One of the biggest things we tried to prepare ourselves for was the perpetual uncertainty of working with people with mental illness.
Our policy from day 1 was that any of the subjects could drop out at any stage, if he or she felt like being a part of the show wasn’t ok in any way. Health first was the rule. To avoid this scenario (and because it was required by the lawyers, when casting for the show), not only did we speak with potential subjects at length, but also with their parents/guardians and their doctors. All of them had to sign an agreement permitting us to move forward. Because of the dropout policy we shot with four people. In the end, despite a variety of hardships and challenges, none of them dropped out.
We really wanted to include all four in the show. However, because of time constraints we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be possible. But we felt Sarah’s story was so important that we wanted to make it available on MTV’s Web site. She continues to really struggle with her illness. Her daily cocktails of medicine are largely ineffectual. Even with three anti-psychotics in her regimen she still hallucinates. These hallucinations are terrifying: faces come out of the walls, bats fly from the ceiling, menacing voices tell her tell to do awful things. Sometimes she hears so many voices at once that it’s a constant din, and she can’t sleep or concentrate on anything.
We asked Cathy, Sarah’s caregiver, if she was ever afraid that Sarah would harm Cathy or either of Cathy’s daughters. Her response, without hesitation, was “no.” If anything, she said, she was afraid Sarah would hurt herself. It only takes a few minutes of hanging out with Sarah to realize what a nice girl she is, and to see why Cathy so firmly believes that she isn’t capable of hurting anyone. She, like more people with schizophrenia, is not dangerous; she’s just scared, exhausted, and frustrated.
Emotional flatness is one of the side effects of the meds and also one of the symptoms of schizophrenia, but that doesn’t mean Sarah doesn’t have feelings. She told us at one point that she knows she can be a good friend, if someone would be willing to get to know the girl behind the illness. Sarah and I text each other a fair amount, and the young woman I’ve gotten to know is kind, enthusiastic, and funny. It’s her illness, not her personality that makes her seem that she lacks expression and motivation.
Before we met Josh, Sarah, Ben, and Amber, we spoke with so many terrific young people who really wanted to tell their stories. Truthfully, the number people who wanted to come forward to help dispel the many myths surrounding schizophrenia surprised us. But others had serious reservations. In one case, a young man who was doing very well on medication thought maybe it was time to “come out” to the public. While he never kept his illness a secret, he didn’t advertise it either. When I spoke with him, he was moving out of his parents’ house and into an apartment with a couple of his pals. He was also finishing up EMT training with hopes of one day going to medical school. His first response was that he would like to serve as an example of someone with schizophrenia who was still pursuing his dreams. Then, the more he thought about MTV’s huge audience, the less sure he became. He was worried that future employers would always see his illness first and his qualifications second.
Early in production, we were about to start shooting with a very sweet young woman. She was enthusiastic about telling her story, and we had the requisite “ok” from her doctor and her parents. Just before we booked our flight, the young woman’s parents told us that they did not want to be on camera themselves. She was living at home and we felt that they were integral to telling her story. But as much as they loved and supported their daughter, they said, they could not risk their community knowing that they had a child with schizophrenia—that socially and professionally, it was way too risky for them. We decided not to shoot.
There was another young woman we tried to work with. She and I had been talking on the phone for a couple of weeks, then she suddenly stopped returning my calls and her voicemail was full. Her aunt got in touch with me to let me know that the young woman was in the hospital after a serious suicide attempt. The woman wanted to speak with me, her aunt said, and she gave me the number for the hospital. After filling out all the HIPAA paperwork, we spoke and she told me what happened. She told me that she was on her way to work when starting having a persistent thought that it was her time to die. It was something for which she had been preparing for years, and now she knew it was time. She turned the car around, went home, filled a punchbowl with cat food (so her cats would be ok in case it took a while for people to find her), and proceeded to take all the pills she had stockpiling. She related the event in a very matter-of-fact manner, and said that, after the initial shock of waking up, she was grateful to be alive and eager to get back to her life.
She had been in the psych ward for weeks at a small country hospital, and it wouldn’t release her unless she agreed to undergo Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) at a more modern teaching hospital nearby. So these were her only options: Stay in the psych ward where she was miserable or leave and receive ECT. Ultimately, we all agreed that navigating hospital red-tape and maintaining emotional stability was more than enough for her and her family to manage without having a camera recording it all.
The main elements we were initially concerned about never played out. No one withdrew. No one, not even Amber who once believed that the screws in her glasses were really cameras, had any paranoid thoughts about us with our video cameras and microphones. Far from revealing a typical experience of living with schizophrenia, Ben, Josh, Amber, and Sarah represent the reality that there is simply no such thing.