How Mensa Helped Me Deal With Schizophrenia And Depression

By Neesa Suncheuri

I have a confession to make: I qualify for Mensa, that dreaded enclave of arrogant “smart people.”

Officially, Mensa is an organization comprised of people who have an extraordinarily high IQ. In order to join, you must take a Mensa-approved intelligence test and score in the top 2% of the general populace — at an IQ of 130 or higher. If you qualify for Mensa, you are welcome to pay the annual membership fee to become an official member.

Mensa seems to have a fairly bad reputation in broad society; posts on random message board threads about how members of Mensa are “smart enough to join, but too dumb to not join” abound. The general perception is that the organization is filled with elitist snobs, or at the minimum socially awkward, bespectacled nerds with high-waisted pants and suspenders, gathered around a table playing Risk. From the gossip, one could surmise that Mensans are not an inviting group of people at all.

And yet, at my most depressed and loneliest, the organization has played a pivotal role in my life.

***

My personal perceptions of Mensa have always been different, given my mother’s ties to the organization. When she was 12, she took an IQ test and received an astronomic score, later qualifying for Mensa. My own Mensan journey began in the summer of 2006 at the age of 20. I was taking extra undergraduate summer courses at the music conservatory at Indiana University Bloomington and participating in various research studies to generate some extra cash. One study required that I take an IQ test, for which I would earn $30. Naturally, I wanted to do my best — and was also curious about my score.

On the day of testing, a friendly Midwestern woman greeted me at the testing grounds. For the exam, it was just the two of us, sitting across from one another. Throughout the exam, my brain functioned with speed, tapping into an internal sense of “flow.”

The last set of four questions — showing patterns comprised of intersecting lines and red dots — however, absolutely stumped me. I devised an impromptu strategy to approach the section, quickly looking at each answer as if it were a living entity. I observed all five answers at once, and then one answer would emerge above the rest, saying “Pick me! I’m the answer!” I didn’t hear the shapes talking audibly — they were more like thought waves.

Ultimately, after about two hours of testing, the woman told me that I definitely scored within the top 2% of the general populace, and likely in the top 1%. I was not given a score, but a Google search told me that these percentages would put me at an IQ of either 130 or 135. Part of me was proud of myself for this, but soon I forgot about these results and went back to earning more money doing other science experiments.

The following year my mind began to descend into a state of psychosis, little by little, over the course of several months. Inanimate objects began “speaking” to me with “thought waves,” the same way those answers on the IQ test had spoken to me. But while the IQ answers were benign and even helpful, these subsequent voices were more overwhelming. They told me that they were revealing to me “spiritual wisdom,” and that I was becoming Enlightened.

During winter break of 2007, I returned home after my first semester of graduate school. But instead of relaxing, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the streets of New York, overstimulated with these psychotic “messages” from objects. On one snowy December evening, as I was on my way to Carnegie Hall to see an orchestral concert, my mind became panicked, terrified . . . and I shut down. For respite from the cold, I staggered into a pizza place, whereupon I started crying uncontrollably. Then suddenly, cops approached me, and I was whisked away to a hospital.

I soon found myself in a psychiatric unit, utterly incoherent. I was slapped with a new diagnosis on top of my anxiety and depression: schizoaffective disorder — a combination both of schizophrenia (a condition that causes one to experience hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia) and bipolar disorder (which causes one to have periods of both depression and mania).

After being discharged from the hospital, I returned to college in a complete daze. I was unable to practice the viola, and I had no remaining interest in becoming a professional musician. In May of 2008, I left Indiana for good and headed back home to New York to live with my mother again.

I remained shell-shocked for months thereafter, and unable to leave my home. I merely saw my psychiatrist for medication every month and had weekly talk therapy sessions.

In February of 2009, I got a part-time job teaching violin at a local music store. I changed my career aspirations to become a public school music teacher, and applied for a two-year post-baccalaureate program in music education. I began classes in the fall of 2009.

And then, schizophrenia knocked me down again.

Halfway through the school year, in January of 2011, I descended into psychosis, this time thoroughly convinced that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. I even told my boss at my teaching job that I was He; she responded by promptly driving me to the Emergency Room.

I was reduced to an incoherent mess. My face maintained a flat expression, and I had a somewhat vacant stare. While in the hospital, I coped with my confusion and emotional pain by writing poetry. Much of it was abstract and even childish. When returning home, I made YouTube videos of myself reading these poems and immediately posted them on Facebook. Several staff members and parents at the private school saw these videos; I was not invited to return to my job and I had to drop out of college again.

I remained idle and unemployed, but nevertheless attempted to create meaning in my life. I trekked to Manhattan and attended scores of open mic events at various venues and began writing my own songs.

Months passed with no improvement in my spirit. I couldn’t bring myself to find a job and filed for disability. The competitive ambition I once had for success was now gone. Instead, all that remained was an empty shell of a person, resigned to a new reality: I will never be able to work again.

Then I started to gain weight. Lots of it. While I had been a twig during my childhood and college years, I saw my shape gradually become larger and larger as a result of my psychiatric medication.

I gained 90 pounds before my doctor took me off of the culprit of a medication, but my metabolism didn’t bounce back. The weight remained.

I felt as if everything had been taken from me, save for my very life. My career, my mind, my beauty, and even my identity were gone; the schizophrenia within me acted like some sort of sadistic entity that infected my soul. I was simply a host for this gigantic parasite.

Yet as gigantic as the schizophrenia was, it allowed for just a shred of the “real me” to remain — just enough to cultivate a horrible feeling of disenfranchisement. Why me? Why was I powerless against it?

Despite the grimness of the times, I dug deep within to empower myself as much as I could. I went to many open mic nights and wrote more songs, discovering my penchant for poetry and lyric writing. As I developed courage, I decided to tackle another challenge: getting healthy. Initially, I didn’t even have the ambition to lose weight. It was simply: I’ve got to do something with myself. I can’t continue to live like this. Even if I can’t be a productive member of society, I can still do my best to take care of myself.

In March of 2012, I joined a local women’s gym in my neighborhood and changed my diet from candy to fruits and vegetables. Although the pounds came off gradually, I didn’t focus on the “reward” of a thin physique. Instead, it was simply about moving my body and getting out of my head.

And then another idea occurred to me: I should take an IQ test.

***

The thought that motivated me was simple: As useless as I am, I’m still smart . . . maybe?

I figured I was no less intelligent than the first time I took an IQ test, so I signed up on the Mensa website to take an official exam. My goal wasn’t even to join the organization, but just to find out what my score was; if I got a high score, I’d have another reason to feel good about myself.

A couple of months after retaking the exam, I received a “congratulations letter” in the mail from Mensa, telling me that I qualified for membership. I was elated — I’ve not lost my intelligence to my illness after all. I’m still smart. I’m still me.

Initially I thought the membership fee — $70 — was too rich for my blood, but after further examination of the contents of this well-received envelope, I realized there was no score provided. I figured that if I became a member, I’d get it, so I shelled out the money.

After paying the fee, I opened an account on the American Mensa website. I now had instant access to the listing of Mensa events in my area. This piqued my curiosity . . . but as I browsed the site, I realized that I still didn’t have access to my damned score.

I called Mensa on the phone and made my complaint. I was told that I had to pay an extra $20, and then my score would be mailed to me in several weeks. I paid the money, resigned to the fact that I’d not find “how smart I was” for quite a while.

But nevertheless, I was a member now, so I figured I’d make the best of it by actually going to a Mensa event. I browsed the Greater New York Mensa web page and saw that there were dozens of events listed, including, even, a recurring polyamory group.

Instead, I chose to attend a daytime mixer in Manhattan with no specific theme. I RSVPed with the coordinator via email, and her immediate response was personable and socially acceptable — quite contrary to the “arrogant awkwardness” that is typically associated with Mensa.

When I arrived at the event and got comfortable, the negative stereotypes of Mensa’s elitism continued to fade. I realized there was a quick pace and unique sharpness to our conversation. I began to realize that these people were very similar to me in the way that they perceived the world. I thought to myself: Wow! There are actually people like me in the world . . . I fit in here!

The openness of the people at Mensa also allowed me to feel extremely safe. I felt that each person present had many layers and facets, and that they all appreciated these unique qualities within themselves. I also find joy in trying to deconstruct the complexities around me . . . Why do things happen the way they do? I was starting to realize that striving to understand life makes me truly happy.

***

Although my mental health was stable enough for me to attend that first meeting, it sadly declined shortly thereafter. My mind slipped into its old ways, and I started believing I was Beethoven again. I even began to stalk a certain man, convinced that he was my soulmate. I thought he was previously a woman that I/Beethoven loved, and that we had to be together if we were to reach spiritual Enlightenment.

I was absolutely in the worst shambles of my life, when that IQ score arrived from Mensa in the mail. By this point, my mind was obsessed with my “soulmate,” and I spent every waking moment in prayer, hopeful that we would get married. I eagerly opened the letter, hopeful to find out about how smart I used to be, perceiving the brain I’d had when I took the test to be gone. But instead, I was only presented with a dratted raw score, a meaningless two-digit number.

The paper directed me to a website where I could interpret this number, but I still could not make heads or tails of it. I showed it to my mother, and she couldn’t figure it either. It mattered little though. The next day, I became convinced I was being followed by a cult, so I took myself to an ER for assistance. I spent the next three months living in a psychiatric unit.

Halfway through that three-month hospital stay, psychiatrists told me that I was not improving well enough to leave. I had to face the possibility of being moved to a long-term facility. But I didn’t give up. Instead, I relied on my inner sense of curiosity to pull me through. I attended all of the group therapy sessions on the unit, and collected handouts in a folder.

During idle hours, I stayed in my room and studied, my brow furrowed, trying to absorb the information well enough so that I could leave. I approached hospital staff and asked questions about the handouts too, and eventually learned about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I asked questions about how to integrate CBT into my life, and then I started working with a therapist on doing such. Eventually, I improved well enough to leave the hospital.

Since then, I’ve slowly worked toward achieving permanent recovery in my life, with much success. I have a full-time job for the first time in my life, and in a field I am absolutely knowledgeable about: mental health. I work as a peer specialist at an agency that provides housing to people with mental illness disabilities. It is an incredibly rewarding job, and I feel that all my suffering was not in vain after all.

You could say that my love of learning, which Mensa helped me recognize, literally saved my life.

***

Lead image: flickr/Toni Blay

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