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People Top 5
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- January 19, 1998
- Vol. 49
- No. 2
Peter Wyden Fought for His Son's Sanity for 25 Years—and Won a Miracle
It seems a small victory, especially for a man who has written 15 books, edited for a host of prestigious magazines and seen his older son, Ron, elected to the U.S. Senate from Oregon. But while Peter Wyden enjoyed those achievements, his greatest challenge during the past 25 years was helping Jeff, now 46, battle schizophrenia—a devastating mental illness that leaves its victims unable to distinguish between reality and a world of fantasy and delusion. Like the parents of many of the estimated 2 million Americans who suffer from the disease, Wyden saw his son bounce between therapies and institutions, sometimes in a stupor, sometimes angrily thrashing and usually, it seemed, beyond all reach. "It has not always been easy to not give up on him," Wyden admits.
He did not give up. And as Wyden proclaims in his new book, Conquering Schizophrenia: A Father, His Son, and a Medical Breakthrough (Knopf), a new antipsychotic drug called olanzapine has given his son a major boost back toward normalcy. Jeff, who now lives with minimal guidance at a San Jose, Calif., halfway house, cautiously agrees. "Success is not my middle name. I've been called a paranoid schizophrenic," he says, adding, "I've been out of the hospital for a lot longer than I have ever been." Which isn't to say olanzapine will have the same effect on every schizophrenic. "No single drug is going to be the magic panacea," says Dr. Glen Stimmel, a pharmacologist at the University of Southern California. But along with a handful of new antipsychotic drugs, olanzapine offers the possibility of a breakthrough.
Jeffrey Wyden's life first went haywire when he was a teenager. Once a scrappy, energetic youngster, he turned anxious and withdrawn during adolescence. By the time Jeff got to Stanford University, his spells of depression and mania signaled the onset of a serious psychiatric disorder. In the summer of 1972, Jeff, then 22, suffered a complete breakdown, slashing his chest, throat and wrists while attempting to evade imaginary enemies.
As his son lost touch with reality, Wyden dedicated himself to years of frustrating, sometimes desperate efforts to oversee Jeff's treatment. The author was astonished to find how little was known about treating schizophrenia. Jeff was exposed to a range of wildly contrasting regimens: psychoanalysis, electroshock, hypnosis and punishing drug therapies. Experts repeatedly told Wyden the disease was incurable. While riding herd on his son's case, he says, he often encountered overburdened doctors who seemed to care little. "There were a number of people who did dismiss him as a hopeless vegetable," Wyden says.
Such defeatism was a complete departure from Wyden's high-powered life. Born in Berlin in 1923 to the late Erich Weidenreich, a businessman, and Helen Silberstein, a concert singer, Wyden and his family fled to New York City in 1937 to escape the Nazis. After World War II service as a writer for the U.S. Army's psychological warfare division, Wyden became a journalist, eventually working as Washington correspondent for Newsweek and as an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal and McCall 's before turning his full attention to writing books.
He was married to Edith Rosenow in 1947; the couple had two sons, Ron, now 48, and Jeff, before divorcing in 1959. And although the family split up—Edith and the boys moved from Chicago to California, Wyden and wife-to-be Barbara went to New York City—Wyden remained close to his sons, delighting particularly in the achievements of Ron, who represented Oregon in Congress for 16 years before winning his Senate seat in 1996.
While his elder son won elections, Wyden continued to fight for the mental health of his younger son. And though progress came slowly, or not at all, for more than two decades, the leap Jeff has taken recently while on olanzapine seems a sweet reward indeed. "Peter just hung in there, year after year, until success was finally achieved," says Dr. Harrison Pope, who has helped Wyden oversee Jeff's case. Sen. Ron Wyden, whose political ads have long featured his basketball prowess, is just glad to have his one-on-one partner back. "Jeff squares up very nicely," he says of his kid brother, who hadn't shot a hoop in years. "He's got a good jump shot. He always did."
PETER AMES CARLIN
JOHN HANNAH in San Jose
- John Hannah.
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