A man strolls happily down a back road near Ithaca, leading a large animal resembling a furry steer with pointed horns on a leash. He’s going home to open a petting zoo with his new friend.
This is one of the stories Terry Garahan, a sociology professor and mental health and counseling instructor at Ithaca College, has accumulated over the years as a counselor for the mentally ill. Using experiences from his work, Garahan published his first novel, “When Truth Lies: A Journey with Schizophrenia” in October.
The book has been in the works for 20 years and is an internal view of the life of a schizophrenic. The book features Kevin, a fictional character who fights mental illness as he experiences hospitalizations, life on a commune and homeliness in New York City. Kevin is also seen at his best, living with a woman he loves and working as a property manager.
“Over time, with all these notes, a character began to emerge in my mind,” Garahan said. “Someone who would be a compilation of all these stories that people told me over the years.”
The story is set in an upstate New York university town similar to Ithaca. Kevin, described by the author as a “townie,” is a recent high school graduate when a construction saw first talks to him. Hearing voices from inanimate objects is a common initiation into schizophrenia.
The journey begins in the 1960s in the midst of the Vietnam War and mass paranoia caused by the draft. The topics of war and a lack of freedom are thematic, Garahan said, and relate to Kevin’s inner turmoil and the independence he lost during his hospitalizations.
“If you read the book, what you’ll find is that you enter Kevin’s world,” Garahan said. “You enter the world of voices and visions and delusions. You sort of start to understand what the illness is like in a way that I have never seen presented before.”
Garahan said his intention was to educate as well as entertain because he noticed a large literature gap concerning his topic that needed to be filled.
“If you Google schizophrenia fiction, nothing comes up,” he said.
A secondary objective of the story was to examine the end of the state hospital system. Garahan said there are more mentally ill people sent to prison than into treatment centers, and that this trend of incarceration instead of hospitalization is dangerous. Jails and prisons for the mentally ill are vulnerable to predators and prisoners often do not receive treatment for their illness, he said.
Judith Rossiter, an Ithaca City Court judge, works with Garahan to help mentally ill citizens of Ithaca avoid incarceration and receive treatment. She said education is key to solving social problems involving mental illness.
“Putting a face to the stories, as with Terry’s novel, it’s providing essential information that people don’t have,” Rossiter said.
The average person, Rossiter said, will avoid someone who appears to have symptoms of schizophrenia. The assumption is that the mentally ill person is dangerous — when in reality he or she is probably more afraid of the observer than the observer is of them, she said.
“Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest social problems we have,” Rossiter said. “It’s the reason people are racist. It’s the reason why people fear anyone else. It’s the idea that ‘I don’t know anyone who acts like that or looks like that, therefore I am afraid of that person, therefore I won’t interact with them.’”
Garahan’s wife, Bonnie Shelley, is a social worker in the mental health field and designed the inside cover of the book. Shelley said understanding is key to eliminating the misconceptions about schizophrenics that often exclude them from society.
“It’s so important to understand [mental illness] from the inside as well as the outside, to find a way to educate the rest of the community,” she said.
Garahan said he will continue to write about his experiences and to attempt to educate the public about the mentally ill.
“I felt really honored that people would share stuff with me that was so difficult and frightening for them,” he said, “I have a chance to pay back all the people who trusted me with their stories.”