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Awakening to What Life’s About

This is the first installment in a three-part series on the onset of psychosis in young adults, its treatment and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Outreach and Support Intervention Services (OASIS) program. This series originally appeared last winter in The Carrboro Citizen.

By Taylor Sisk

“My heart and brain are in concert,” said David Binanay.

But there was a time, not so long ago, when Binanay felt as if cleaved to his core. Such is the nature of his illness.

David Binanay is a client of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health’s Outreach and Support Intervention Services program.

David Binanay is a client of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health’s Outreach and Support Intervention Services program. Photo by Alicia Stemper

The road on which Binanay, 28, has traveled has been switchbacks and straight ahead, then around again and on. It started out rough: a congenitally troubled heart. He endured four open-heart surgeries, the first while in preschool, before graduating from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh in 2001.

But that was just a thing, the heart trouble, something he was born to live with.

“I never was afraid,” Binanay said. “My mission was to survive.”

He survived and thrived – became class president, school president, top of his class, a talented violinist. He attended Villanova University, where he made dean’s list and was elected vice president of his fraternity while earning a degree in the humanities.

His senior thesis was titled “I found a continual aesthetic experience through music, and through music I’ve discovered the meaning of life, which is to love.”

Binanay returned to the Triangle in 2006, joined a band and took a job at Chapel Hill Violins.

But then it all went haywire, and in a great big hurry.

In writing his thesis, Binanay had studied a number of philosophers, and remembers an analogy equating life with being at sea, amid a fog, “and there are two ways you can take it,” he said. “You can be really scared, or you can hear the soundtrack playing, and be, like, this is an amazing adventure, and I’m surrounded by the fog.”

“That’s how it had been for me,” he said, “an amazing adventure. I would face death and not be scared. There was a fog around me, but I was living the adventure, and loving every second.”

Now though, something had happened, and he saw his hands – these hands that so skillfully traversed the violin – for the first time.

“I’d trained myself to be removed, like I was truly adopting nonattachment. Then when I had my schizophrenia, I awoke to my hands.”

“I awoke to being, to self-awareness,” he said later. “I was like, wow, I’m a human being.”

Binanay now wonders if the effects of schizophrenia were visited upon him, or perhaps worsened, by “all that pain that was built up from my surgeries. It’s just an idea.”

Therapists, he said, have told him it’s plausible.

‘The beginning of wisdom’

Schizophrenia translates, roughly, as a “splitting of the mind.” It’s most commonly first diagnosed in older adolescence and early adulthood. There is no cure, but it’s treatable, especially if confronted early.

Binanay had known success his entire life. He’d performed with the Raleigh Boychoir in Carnegie Hall and at the White House, done well in school and been popular.

Now his life was unraveling, and it was terrifying, and exhilarating. It was spiritual. He’d grown up a practicing Catholic. But this was a “heightened spirituality; it was like everything was spiritual, and it was running through all things.”

“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” he said of the first days and weeks of his psychosis. “I was being re-created. … I went from where I wasn’t sensing anything to 100 percent sensory overload. It was like … it was intense.”

He wanted it to stop, and he didn’t.

He was institutionalized for the first time. Medication became a part of his life – a source of dispute with his parents – on and off the meds. They dulled his senses, for better and for worse, to his mind.

“Everything that I was seeing and everything that I was hearing was confirming this spiritual experience,” he recalled.

But, “I was scared. It was like a baby cries. You don’t know why a baby cries, but sometimes you can see a baby’s scared because it doesn’t know yet. And I didn’t know; I didn’t know what was going on yet.”

Binanay paused in conversation to listen. A train whistle’s blowing, and it triggers a memory.

“I’d be at a barbershop, and we’d hear a train, and they’d be, like, ‘That’s an old one.’ Like, it’s an old spirit.

“In our book, we relate what we know and hear and see – in our book of life. Everything we see, everything we hear, everything we touch, everything we feel – that’s my book of life.

“And a sound has the power to evoke.”

He’d begun to listen, was hearing things. Not auditory hallucinations; just things being uttered, perhaps in a whisper. He couldn’t make out what, specifically, was being said, but, he now says, “there’s still some kind of understanding.”

The world out there

When David Binanay first came to the Outreach and Support Intervention Services (OASIS) program, administered by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, in Carrboro’s Carr Mill Mall, he had, he says, the stare – “the psychosis stare.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen many patients, but they have that stare,” he says. “I had the stare. When I talked to someone,I could see everything; I could see right through them. My eyes would not turn away, and I could see their shoulders, the weight they were carrying. I could see their eyes. I could see their faces, their auras. It was like a holy moment, completely.”

He had awoken, he says, “to the magnificence, to the exuberance that my paper was about” – his college thesis – “and the fog was lifted.”

He had awoken to schizophrenia, and had seen his hands for the first time. He was listening, feeling, for the first time.

“I was, like, whoa, there’s actually a lot out there in the world, and I was scared.”

So too were his parents, who stood by him throughout. Compliance with his meds came in fits and starts, and eventually took hold.

“I had fear for the first time in my life,” he says, “but they say fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

His mind was split open, and he was coming from a place in the heart. His work with OASIS had begun.

Tomorrow: Understanding, observing and treating schizophrenia

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