Virginia Man Won't Let His Mental Illness Define Him

THURSDAY Dec. 29, 2011 -- Loren Booda experienced his first psychotic break when he was 19 years old.

Then a sophomore studying physics at an Ivy League university, Booda had struggled with feelings of anxiety and depression for years. He said he'd self-medicated by drinking and smoking marijuana. But then he tried LSD, and all of the demons that had been gnawing at his soul for years burst forth and took over his life.

"The LSD basically brought out all of the symptoms of mental illness that I'd grown accustomed to," said Booda, now 52 and living in Arlington, Va.

He eventually was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, an illness that combines psychotic symptoms with mood disturbances.

During that first psychotic break, Booda said, he heard voices that weren't there and became increasingly paranoid. He also experienced his first brush with the stigma associated with mental illness when the school asked him to leave after doctors first diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that others refined later in his life.

"Once I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, people like that supposedly do not study at an Ivy League school or live on campus or participate in the university," Booda said.

He ended up living a life apart. His parents had enough money that he didn't have to work, Booda said, so he spent most of his time working volunteer jobs. He got a bachelor's degree in physics from George Washington University, but he's never worked in that field.

"A lot of times I think a volunteer job can be ideal, in that people are able to overlook disabilities," he said.

He volunteered for an energy company, for the Boy Scouts and for Goodwill Industries. "Finally, for 17 years, I worked at a park and worked my way up to the point where I could operate the park and nature area," Booda said.

Booda said he tried to get paying jobs, but his diagnosis often got in the way. He remembers one boss, who ended up becoming a good friend, treating him as though he wasn't suitable for the job.

"I worked for him two to six weeks," Booda said. "I was paid at the end of that period, and he said to me, 'Loren, you work better when you're not paid.' What kind of comment is that? It was hurtful."

Booda now works as a call-taker at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), where he started as a volunteer in 1995 and began being paid for his work in 2003. He receives treatment for his illness, which includes taking four different medications, he has a girlfriend and steady work and tends to look on the bright side when it comes to his condition.

"My illness has given me an opportunity to work in places I might not otherwise have," he said. "I've been with my girlfriend for about nine years. I have two new cats, and they're knocking everything over hither and yon."

"And my work with NAMI -- I relish it," Booda said. "It's like a sustenance. I am making a difference."

More information

A companion article has more on overcoming the stigma of mental illness.

Posted: December 2011


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