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‘Lost in Schizophrenia’: Bethel Man Shares Story to Help Others Cope With Mental Illness

  • Van Bennett walks outside at his home in Bethel, Vt. Bennett has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

    Van Bennett walks outside at his home in Bethel, Vt. Bennett has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. have a smoothie at their home before going to a morning appointment. He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

    Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. have a smoothie at their home before going to a morning appointment. He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. wait at the Clara Martin Center in Randolph, Vt.  He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia, Bennett had an appointment that day.  Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

    Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. wait at the Clara Martin Center in Randolph, Vt. He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia, Bennett had an appointment that day. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Van Bennett walks outside at his home in Bethel, Vt. Bennett has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck
  • Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. have a smoothie at their home before going to a morning appointment. He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia. Valley News- Jennifer Hauck
  • Van Bennett, and his wife Margaret, of Bethel Vt. wait at the Clara Martin Center in Randolph, Vt.  He has recently self-published a book about living with schizophrenia, Bennett had an appointment that day.  Valley News- Jennifer Hauck

During his first psychotic episode, Van Bennett saw the face of God.

He was in Santa Barbara, Calif., about to start college classes, when he began to hear chanting in the languages of various religions. The intensity of the vision grew.

“My spirit was brought out of my body,” Bennett said in an interview. “I felt this euphoria of omniscience and omnipotence, and for a brief moment I knew what it was like to be God.”

He soon pulled himself out of the moment — this happened outdoors, on a sidewalk — and experienced intense paranoia in the comedown. The episode started a battle with schizophrenia that Bennett has chronicled in a memoir, Lost in Schizophrenia, which came out last year and is available in physical form from Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., and online from Google Books.

It’s a two-decade look at Bennett’s day-to-day struggles with the illness, from his initial dealings with it as a 20-something student, to various hospital visits, to ruminations about its effects.

As evocative as Bennett, now of Bethel, said his first episode was — “that was the fun one,” he joked — he knew he was manic in the moment. When the vision faded, things got darker.

“That night, I tried to get some sleep but all I could see were all these spirits, souls or angels leaving my body,” he writes early in his book. “I could feel my soul shrinking in my body. I could feel the life leaving my flesh. It was as if all the people I loved were leaving me. I was scared. I did not want to die.”

Bennett has not had a major hospitalization since 2006, he said, and has found a set of medications that has helped him settle into a safer mental space. On a recent Wednesday, he fielded questions from behind his desk at the Royalton Transfer Station, where he’s weighed trucks and collected money for about a year.

He grew up in Laconia, N.H., and was raised Mormon. He’s Mormon now, and his religious affiliations are one of several constants in his life. Another constant is his love of education.

After a freshman year spent at the University of Rochester, he moved to Santa Barbara, where he had his first episode. That got him briefly involved with the Church of Scientology, as he tried to reconcile his love of religion with his love of science.

But Bennett said Scientology’s directive of re-experiencing trauma to get over it, and its discounting of psychiatry, rubbed him the wrong way.

“I know without medication I would never get well,” he said.

He began to gravitate to the teachings of the life coach Tony Robbins, who traffics in positive affirmation. Bennett’s studies led him in different directions — architecture in Boston, for instance, or anatomy and physiology now, through the Community College of Vermont.

He was studying the latter recently during downtime at work. In the next year or two, he plans to matriculate at Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus, potentially to work toward the field of osteopathic medicine. He’s also interested in psychiatry.

That’s because he feels he has the ability to empathize with the people who would come to him. Bennett has been “homeless, abandoned, mistreated,” and knows “what it was like to lose a parent or a friend,” he said.

According to Bennett, the catalyst for many of these life events — his schizophrenia — came from a higher power. He said he believes that God specifically activated the genes that caused his illness.

“He wanted me to learn certain things about how to help people,” Bennett said.

Lost in Schizophrenia is his first attempt to do that. It’s a project literally decades in the making, as Bennett started cataloging his experiences shortly after that first California episode.

He has more books planned, including two more in a planned Lost in Schizophrenia series. There’s the science fiction novel he finished a couple of years ago, and a few more he’s started.

But Lost in Schizophrenia, and the promotion of it, is his current goal. It’s a book that’s unafraid to delve into dark spaces to illustrate life with the illness, a fact that Bennett’s wife, Margaret, made sure to note.

“It took a risk to tell (his) story and put it out there, especially where not everybody in the world understands mental illness,” she said.

The two married in 2011, several years after the book’s timeline ends. They met at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin about a year beforehand. They were both patients and bonded quickly. Margaret Bennett said she was impressed by his ability to speak confidently about his faith (she is Mormon as well) and goals.

He also spoke confidently — and often — about attempts to publish his book.

“It was really written to help people,” Bennett said. “I was ready to process my emotions to heal myself, but at the same time it’s a healing process that can help other people as well.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.