Beating the “Plague of the 20th Century”
By Chuck Ander
Men’s District Leader
The worst day of my life occurred in late December 1968. It should not have been that way at all. It should have been just another normal, great day. After all, I was enrolled in Electrical Engineering at the University of Toronto, I was doing well, and on my way to fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a scientist.
Little did I know that instead of it just being an ordinary day—a day I would continue working toward my goal—it was to be the most terrifying day of my life. It would also be the day my life changed irrevocably—I would never be the same again.
The reason this day was so horrible was because I started to lose my mind. I did not know what was happening to me. This horrible feeling started around lunch time when I took a pill that I bought in a drug store. The pill was supposed to help me quit smoking, but it seemed to affect me strangely. I did not feel like myself; my thoughts started running away, almost out of my control. It was a terrifying experience. I hoped that the next day the effects of the pill would have worn off and I’d be back to normal. The next morning, however, I was even worse. Much later I found out that one of the ingredients in the pill was a stimulant. I also found out that stimulants similar to that one can precipitate a psychotic reaction in someone predisposed to them. In actuality, the pill had triggered an illness that was within me, waiting, so to speak, to come out. The illness, as I found out much later, was schizophrenia, named by Aldous Huxley “the plague of the twentieth century” (Doors of Perception Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley).
I stayed in school as long as I could; I even wrote my mid-term exams. But as time went on, I only got worse and soon I couldn’t stay in school any longer. I just could not concentrate. In one respect, I didn’t even care; what was happening to me was far more devastating and frightening than dropping out of school. I went to my family doctor, and when he could find nothing wrong, my father took me to a psychiatrist. Soon, I ended up in the psychiatric ward of the Toronto Western Hospital. I still held hope that the doctors would find out what was wrong with me and cure it. Sadly, 50 years later, there is still no effective treatment for schizophrenia, let alone a cure.
When my parents learned my diagnosis, my father embarked on a quest to find an alternative treatment, since the one I was getting (tranquilizers and talk therapy) did not help. He discovered “mega-vitamin” therapy which had apparently helped many people with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, it only made me worse. It seemed that everything made me worse!
I was seeing a doctor in New York State who gave me a combination of vitamins and tranquilizers. This doctor also tried electro-shock treatment to try to stem my depression and horrible feelings. The shock treatments were terrible and frightening, but I figured if they made me even a little better, they would be worth it. They helped, but for only a short while, and then I relapsed to my former miserable self.
It’s hard to describe my feelings and symptoms with this illness. There are just no words! Suffice it to say that each day was filled with such suffering and depression that I tried to sleep as much as possible, because when I was asleep, I wasn’t suffering. Hell could not be worse.
About this time in 1971, I visited my childhood friend, Bob. He was extremely excited and eagerly told me, “Don’t worry, Chuck. You are going to be just fine. All you have to do is chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon and you will be cured.” Well, I thought he was the one who was crazy, but I allowed him to show me what he meant. Bob was fantastic! He tried to teach me gongyo dragged me to Buddhist meetings, and even tried to get me to introduce other people. And he kept insisting that if I did all these things, I would be completely cured. I told him there was no cure for my illness, but that fact didn’t deter him at all. He still said, over and over, “If you do your best, you will be healthy.”
I really tried to practise, not because I really believed it would work, but because I felt I could not afford to not try something that was promised to work. I was very, very desperate to regain my health, even though I felt that it was impossible. In my condition, practising Nichiren Buddhism was extremely difficult. I just did not have the physical or mental energy.
Finally, Bob and I made a deal—if I would do the full practice (morning and evening gongyo, one hour of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo a day, going to meetings and introducing others), for three months, I would be well. If I wasn’t well, I could quit. Bob kept insisting, contrary to common sense, that after three months of practising, I would be well. I knew this was impossible, but I did it anyway.
I did everything I was supposed to do for the three months. Needless to say, it was extremely difficult. When the three months were over, I felt no better. I noticed very little if any improvement, so I quit practising. This is not the end of this experience, though! In Buddhism, and in life, things are not always the way they appear.
Unknown to me at the time, a few days after I made my determination to practise for three months, my parents went to a schizophrenia convention. There, several doctors gave presentations about what they were doing and about any progress they were making in treating the disease. Unfortunately, there was nothing new at this conference. After the presentations, my father was walking along and just happened to overhear one of the doctors saying to another, “Yes, and I’ve been getting 100 per cent results….” My father immediately accosted the doctor, who kindly explained that he had learned a fasting treatment for schizophrenia in Russia and was now doing it in New York City where he has indeed gotten 100 per cent results in treating schizophrenia.
My father asked him if he could get me on the treatment and the good doctor (Allan Cott[i]) said, “Just bring him down to New York and we’ll put him on it.”
There were still many hurdles to overcome before I could go on this treatment. Since I had to be in the hospital in New York for over a month, the cost would be enormous unless the Province of Ontario paid the bill. In order for that to happen, another doctor had to write a note that I needed this treatment and nothing available in Canada could help me. My family doctor did agree to write the note, although he really did not see any value in the treatment. After much pleading, the head of out-of-province claims for OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Program) agreed to pay 90 per cent of the bill. I was on my way.
To make a long story not quite so long, I went on the treatment, and for the first time in years, I started to feel better. It was unbelievable! I still had some difficulty, but I was so much better. I had started chanting again and this time, when I really fought, I was able to get on top of my bad feelings.
One day a few weeks after returning home from the treatment, I did morning gongyo (recitation of parts of the Lotus Sutra and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo). I felt so good, I got my guitar and went and sang on my doorstep. I had not felt so good in years! Then, I thought about what my friend Bob had said. He had said, over and over, “if you do your best for three months you will become well.” I did do my best for three months, and even though I saw no improvement at the time, I now was well. Then it hit me—he had been right all along! It worked out exactly as he said, not in the way I thought it would, but it worked! Nichiren Buddhism really is absolute. What the members kept saying, that you can overcome any problem, was true. At that moment I realized that the Gohonzon is indeed absolute and I determined to practise for my whole life.
It hasn’t been easy—I had a bad relapse in 1997. I felt like I was getting sick all over again and it was terrifying. Chanting didn’t seem to help. Nevertheless, I kept at it as best as I could and asked several leaders for guidance. Eventually, I began feeling better. It took almost two years.
Now, I am now doing fine. Of course, there are struggles and challenges, but because I overcame such a huge obstacle, I have great confidence in Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism.
So it really is true. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo you can indeed overcome any problem. As Nichiren Daishonin says in his writings:
“Believe in this mandala with all your heart. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?” (WND-1, 119).
What sickness indeed!
Because of my wonderful experience with this practice, I’m determined to help as many people as possible who may be suffering from similar problems.
I’ve always been close to Bob (and his wonderful wife, Esther). His unceasing determination to help me made me even more so. I was proud to be the best man at their wedding.
Note: This article published in the June 2019 issue of NEW CENTURY was a chronicle of an individual practitioner’s personal experience using Buddhist faith and practice as well as a form of medical treatment. The article was not meant to be interpreted as a commentary on the effectiveness of any particular treatment. Mental health diagnoses and their treatments should always be undertaken with the advice of medical/mental health professionals.
[i] Dr. Allan Cott wrote an insightful book called, Fasting, the Ultimate Diet. In the chapter entitled, “The Mentally Ill Improve,” I’m featured as one of his case histories.