By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC

He started hearing male and female voices inside his head at 15, which didn't bother Charles Steinbach, now of Parachute, Colorado, until those voices turned negative and demanded he do dangerous things. He kept the voices a secret. One day after his high school graduation, and while he was working at a welding job, a voice told him to stick his hand in a place where he most certainly would have been electrocuted.

That frightened him, and he called a crisis center hotline. A mental health professional eventually diagnosed him with schizophrenia, which the National Institute on Mental Health defines as a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder that can involve delusions and hallucinations.

Today at 50, Steinbach has become a rarity: a person with schizophrenia who over the last 25 years appears to have “figured it out” and, though still having delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia, does exceptionally well in differentiating between real and unreal experiences. He speaks to groups of professionals and college students about having schizophrenia (see YouTube) and even has referred to his mental illness as “a gift.”

In a telephone interview, Steinbach said, “Even though at the very beginning my life with schizophrenia was quite hard, I (eventually) figured out the ins and outs of how my brain works. I now believe living with schizophrenia has been a gift because I have been able to learn many things others haven't had the opportunity to learn. I help other people manage their lives with schizophrenia.”

He said one key to his being able to manage well was learning to unemotionally live with and “experience” his delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia rather than fear those experiences and thoughts.

To illustrate, Steinbach said, “(My way of handling schizophrenia) is like a person being very, very scared of going on a roller coaster ride and yet taking the chance of going on anyway. After getting off, he's glad he did. You never know what's going to happen (with schizophrenia), but you need to keep your eyes open and experience the ride (of delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia) instead of having your eyes closed throughout in fear.”

He attributed his overall success managing schizophrenia to having a strong will. He advised people with schizophrenia, “Give yourself permission to take the time to try to understand what happens to you and grow from it. You can grow through it, if you allow yourself.”

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