Simulator offers Walla Walla-area residents a thin slice of madness

A traveling program that spent the day locally simulates the sights, sounds and smells of schizophrenia.

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I brush my teeth and put on a clean shirt, then head into the kitchen where the fresh coffee smells delicious. Glancing at the day's newspaper, I relish the soft breeze blowing through an open window.

In a split second, however, there's a thunderclap inside my head and the voices begin.

"He's waking up," an unseen female warns, hysteria building in her voice.

"Worthless," a man says. Somewhere.

The phone begins ringing with harsh insistence.

"Don't answer ... they'll know who you are," two women's voices say.

Even as I know I am sitting in a room at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, wearing headphones and staring into a virtual viewer, the simulated episode of schizophrenia raises the hair on the back of my neck.

The voices go on and on, telling me I'm stupid, so stupid. A waste of space. I push the button on the phone but only listen.

"Rain," the voice says. "Coming for you. Pizza."

Twin dangers of weather and food, the voices warn. "Don't eat. Poison."

When I turn on the TV, the news anchor seems to be talking about me. Did I rob a store and can't remember?

Back in the kitchen, my medication is on the counter. My mug of coffee, untouched, is burping like a toxic waste site.

It smells terrible. A prescription bottle is next to it.

"Don't take your medicine," the voices demand.

The newspaper headlines have changed. "DON'T LEAVE THE HOUSE," one headline screams.

"RENEW PRESCRIPTIONS" trumpets the article below.

I'm worthless. I keep hearing it from somewhere outside my head, so maybe it's true.

Simulation brings illness home

Thanks to technology supplied by Janssen, a division of Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, I can actually smell the coffee and feel the breeze as I sit through the six-minute, portable 3D presentation.

The experience mimics the sights, sensations, scents and sounds heard and felt by someone suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations.

Hallucinations are some of the most outstanding and disruptive symptoms people with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders can have. About 70 percent of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations and one quarter have visual illusions or distortions.

The Walla Walla chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness sponsored the Janssen virtual hallucination on Wednesday.

"Part of our NAMI mission is to promote education to the public and to reduce stigma," said Dale Goodson, board president. "To help educate people so they can feel firsthand how it is to hear things and see things that aren't real."

Goodson has 10 years of experience in working with Walla Walla's population that lives with mental illness. In general, the virtual presentations do a good job of exposing folks to the experiences wrought by several forms of mental health issues, he said.

"Although this is probably a watered-down version, if anything. This is six minutes, but some folks are attending to this all day long, attending to something or someone who, in their mind, is real and right there."

The public may see people mumbling to themselves and unable to pay attention to their immediate surroundings, Goodson explained. "This (virtual experience) can help people understand those people are attending to something that is out of our realm of understanding."

Mindstorm, as Janssen calls the program, was developed using input from individuals with the disease and a panel of expert psychiatrists. The program debuted in 2007 and has been shown all over the nation.

Barrage of voices, fear

I turn back to the television. The weatherman is joking about weekend weather. Suddenly he looks at me, mocking. "You hear that, Worthless? The weather is coming to get you. What are you going to do about it? You just going to sit around, with your stupid mouth open?"

A sudden knock on the door is sharp, loud. It hurts. The voices beg me not to answer it, but I pull back the curtain. A man with a pizza box stares at me and says this is for me.

"Don't eat it," the invisible woman cautions. "Poison."

When I flip open the lid, the cheese bubbles like a tar pit and I sweep the box off the table with my arm.

I can hear my own rapid breath in my ears. The thunder is unbearable.

Oh, no! Keys are jangling at the door.

Oh, oh, no, no, no, the voices say to me. "You should have used your mind to stop it."

The TV anchorman knows, too. "They're here," he says from the screen. "And it's all your fault."

The door flings open. A woman carrying two bags of groceries bustles in, talking as if she knows me. "Hey! You alright in here? I called you, why didn't you answer? I was, like, screaming, 'It's Lorraine, it's Lorraine' into the phone at the top of my lungs. "

Her face changes when she spies the pizza box on the floor. Then she sees I haven't taken my medicine.

"You know it's never good to miss a dose. Well, it's not too late to take it now," Lorraine says. She's not angry.

"Let's get back on track. And why are you standing here in the dark? It's a beautiful day outside."

With that, she's pushing open my curtains. The room is lighter, the voices are finally quiet.

"You need to get outside and enjoy it," Lorraine says with a smile.

Opening door to enlightenment

This is the sort of world experienced every day by millions of people, said Travis Harken, the Janssen representative who brings the presentation to Walla Walla every few years.

"When people experience this for the first time, I see shock. I see enlightenment. They usually mention their perspective has grown or changed."

It's easy for most people to relate to physical ailments in others, Harken said. "But to not really understand what someone is going through when they hallucinate ..."

He has seen people react during the six minutes when it hits "too close to home," he said. "People sigh. Or there is a change in their breathing as they realize how intense it can be to suffer from an illness like schizophrenia."

He likes this part of his job, Harken noted. "Taking this around is creating more awareness. It's sad there isn't more understanding. Oftentimes that creates a barrier to care overall."

A copy of the Mindstorm virtual hallucination program will be available for loan at Rising Sun Clubhouse. For more information call 529-0120.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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