Anderson Cooper Learns What It's Like to Be Schizophrenic
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Anderson Cooper Learns What It’s Like to Be Schizophrenic

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Last week, your imaginary boyfriend Anderson Cooper spent 45 pretty bad minutes as a schizophrenic. As part of an “exercise in empathy,” Cooper wore a headset that fed him a constant stream of voices, ranging from a tender whisper of “You’re okay” to what sounded like a sadistic yard duty braying, “You suck and they know it.”

Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

The experiment was designed by Pat Deegan, a clinical psychologist who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen. Deegan created the experiment to show what it’s really like to hear voices in your head as you try to function in the world. And as Cooper discovered, it’s pretty much the worst.

While wearing the headphones, Cooper found it almost impossible to complete simple memory tests. He even had trouble generating the name of fellow silver-haired charmer Bill Clinton as he worked through the presidents backwards. (Then again, when I remember George W. Bush I always need a moment of silence too.)

Experiencing the Struggle

The experiment starkly illustrates what an extreme handicap auditory hallucinations are. If I didn’t know who Anderson Cooper was and I watched his response to the memory tests out of context, I’d assume he was of subpar intelligence or just severely stoned. People suffering from all kinds of mental illness suffer twice over when everyone around them discounts their intelligence.

The voices in Cooper’s headset were specifically recorded to align with the experiment’s various tasks, crying out “Don’t touch that!” when he grabbed some paper for the origami boat he was instructed to build. The boat proved a little too much for our hero, and he found it just as difficult to converse normally with a newsstand vendor. Walking down the street, he felt isolated from other people and fought the urge to talk back to the voices in his head.

Results of A Day in the Life Reporting

Describing the exercise as “depressing,” and “very, very negative,” Cooper said he “couldn’t imagine doing it for an entire day let alone years of one’s life.”  This from a man who has no problem diving with Nile crocodiles—not exactly a low threshold of discomfort. There’s no doubt that anyone who spends time wearing these headphones will get a major empathy boost. But the sad thing is that the headset just provides the tip of the iceberg.

“I found myself wishing I could take my headphones off,” Cooper told Deegan during his post-empathy debriefing. No, really? But the reality, of course, is that he can. Even while suffering through the worst of the isolation, he at least could rest easy knowing it was just pretend. He knew that in just a few hours he could go back to taking down creepy smiling hate-robots, with nothing worse than “Timber” throbbing in his head.

Dismal Reality

Real schizophrenics don’t get that choice. They don’t get to take off the headphones. Ever. They just wake up one day with the headphones permanently welded to their eardrums, unaware of how they got there. And the awfulness is doubled as they try to function in a society that labels them crazy, stupid and dangerous—something Anderson Cooper will never truly experience. At least, by drawing the public eye to experiments like Deegan’s, he can help peel away a corner of those labels.

Courtesy of minds-eye (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.

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