The Lunatic is on the Grass: : A schizophrenic golfer unwittingly removes stigma of mental health

I once worked at an Intense Psychiatric rehab facility.  Every week we would have our team meetings in which we would go over the treatment plans of the 16 patients.

We would have the mental health practitioner present the patients, their goals, and their progress. 

One day, we talked about this new patient, a schizophrenic, and we discuss his goals. It is said that this is a ‘career schizophrenic’ that goes to hospitals over and over. His goal is to marry Paris Hilton and play golf on the European golf tour. 

After this is said, everyone cracks up. The laughing is intense, everyone teases, ridicules, and assassinates his character. 

I am a little intrigued with this new case because I love golf. I am terrible at golf, however, to be outside in nature with the sun for 4 hours I love. 

The lessons golf taught me was like exercise for my mind. Every shot matters in the same way that every moment matters. If I hit the ball near a tree, then become angry and impulsive, and try to smack it out of the woods, it will likely hit a tree, and I will be in worse shape. However, if I let my ego down, and chip it out, then I will be better off. 

It all adds up, little things matter, have patience, and the only shot that matters is the one in front of you. Swing soft and the ball will go further, nothing is as it seems. Do the opposite of what the ego tells you to do. You cannot beat nature, go with nature. Use your talents, do not try to be like other players. Stay within yourself and be humble. 

This is why I loved golf. It was some sort of meditation for me. Those things I learned in golf, could be said of life as well. 

One day back at the psychiatric rehab facility, I walk upstairs, and I see these ratty old shoes hanging over one of the couches. I look over and there is the guy, the ‘Paris Hilton golfer guy’ we’d talked about. He wears the same clothes every day, it is likely all he owns.

 He says he’s not sick, but he has to take medications. He gets angry if anyone tries to talk to him about his “illness.” 

I just walk by him daily for about 2 months, the whole time thinking he is a typical schizophrenic, thinking to myself, let’s write our notes, get him out of here and go home. Let’s get our checks and continue living the lie. I was so embarrassed to be there, a part of this industry, I just did not want to talk to him….and I felt like a fraud. 

So, one time I talked to him about golf to measure his awareness. He knew a lot, so I was surprised. Then, I began to talk to him daily and they became just person to person talks. He had started coming down to talk to me more because it was more of a friendship than me acting in my role there – which would just be me asking him about his “coping skills” and his “goals,” and the other stuff they teach you to say in school, and at these trainings. 

He did not seem to feel threatened by me or assume I was prodding him in order to write things down in his chart. When patients act nervous or suspicious, we are taught to think: “See, they are paranoid.” 

However, is that really paranoid? We read their charts and decide who they are without ever getting to know them! I think their lack of trust and not wanting us to write things down is a perfectly normal response based on the circumstances they are usually in. If they say the wrong thing to the wrong person, then it’s another forced treatment and commitment. 

I swung my clubs inside one day that I had brought my clubs into work. He saw me, and said “Whoa, not bad.” 

 He then asked “Hey, can I take a swing?” 

This was the beginning of one of the most deeply profound experiences of my life – one in which my false selves would all die.  But there was more to come.  

This profound moment did not take place in a church, in a school, or as part of a momentous occasion.  No, I was about to learn about life from a lifelong schizophrenic at a golf course! 

Not quite as I had dreamt this moment of enlightenment would be! 

He swung the club, and it was one of the nicest swings I had seen in person. I was shocked. Of course, that didn’t mean he was a European pro. However, I did start to doubt my own pre-conceived notions as an “expert.”  

Could I, the all mighty one be wrong in my beliefs? It brought me back to a time when I was working at the county hospital. One of the doctors training me said, “You don’t treat the diagnosis, you treat the patient, everyone is different.” 

I had an idea, and I went to get support from the program director to take my new golfing friend (and anyone else who wanted to come) to the driving range. I chose the ‘the university’ where I got my golf lessons, it was close, and I was familiar with this place. 

I got the O.K, and we drove the van to the driving range. We arrive and there is a bunch of young kids — teens with fancy clubs and clothes, looking us over as we walk onto the course — a group of patients perceived as mentally ill. 

The college kids golfing had that look like “Umm I think you guys are lost” or the “Not in our neighborhood” looks. 

Here is a schizophrenic guy with 20-year-old shoes, long hair, and 10-year-old jeans. We had no clubs other than mine. All the course can offer my friend is a 9 iron for kids, which typically a professional golfer can use to hit a ball about 150 yards. I am sure they had more appropriate clubs on offer, but it seemed they did not want the lunatic ruining their clubs. In fact, they did not want the lunatic on the grass! 

The patient says “O.K.”, he was not arguing. This man is 6’5.  In addition to being an ‘ill-fit’ for a man of this height, this club looked as though it had been well used by kids for about 20 years or more, but my lunatic friend is just happy to be there…as is everyone else. 

Then came that moment, the one that changes everything! 

He puts the ball down. All these young teens, with their 3000-dollar clubs and their fancy clothes are all chuckling and watching, I am watching, the other patients are watching. The tension is building. 

He says “Wow, I haven’t swung a club in a long time.” 

I was so nervous at this point – I could see all eyes were watching, and I was wondered, was this a delusion?  By bringing him here, am I hurting this guy and embarrassing him? I felt my body get tighter, my teeth were clenched, my heart racing, I was really feeling it. 

I look at his face, I watch his eyes, they are not schizophrenic eyes. His tongue was tightly wrapped on the outside left side of his mouth. He has this grimace on his face – the look of extreme like focus. I glanced at his feet, they are not schizophrenic feet anymore, they are solid, on the ground, in perfect stance. His arms are not schizophrenic arms, the hand grip is right, but the club does not fit him. 

I sense the energy building as everyone was watching this “freak.” The thing is, he could not sense it – he already knew what we were about to find out. He was not hitting the ball for just himself, he was hitting it for me, to give me hope. He was hitting it for the other patients. He was hitting it for the watching teens — the bunch of 18 to 22-year-olds who already have their mind made up, and they wait because they want to laugh. He was hitting it for them! 

And then it happened – he hit the ball, it goes well over 175 yards, with a child’s 9 iron!  The ball flew so high in the air, in a manner a pro-golfer would hit it. It towered over the earth, and the ball was so beautiful in flight, it was like a magical TV moment. I could not believe it, and as for the others, well you could have heard a pin drop! Complete and total silence – everyone was still. The world had stopped, and mine had changed forever. 

It was all perfect! 

Had the first shot been a miss, no one would have watched any longer. The first shot was the key! But it was not a ball you could say was just struck well by an amateur. It had the look of a talented golfer. He had not swung a club in years, he had a junior club, he carried no fancy equipment, nor did he wear fancy shoes or a glove. He was in jeans, a sweatshirt, and those old raggedy shoes. 

He did not do it right just once though, he did it repeatedly!  Eventually people were not whispering anymore, and after a time they went back to hitting their balls. 

Then more magic happened! 

At a driving range like this, you see many golfers hitting many balls. They are all in flight and all hit well. But on this day, there was always one ball that towered over the rest and made the others look like little kids. I started watching the teens – they had started swinging and missing and hitting terrible shots. Our schizophrenic’s style may have been affecting their game, after all in their minds, schizophrenics who look like this guy are not supposed to do what he is doing. 

I could barely move. I had been shown the truth yet again. I hit some O.K shots myself that day, but it did not really matter anymore. Things had changed for me. 

My new golfing friend walked over and started giving me tips on my golf swing, and all those tips worked well. I could not believe this. Then I look behind me and see there is 20 teens watching him hit the ball – watching him teach me! It was all surreal and utterly impressive. Of course, watching from the side were our other patients, tripping and laughing, running around. The world had been moved – for all of us! 

Then came another moment – a moment that still tears me up as I write this account here now. One teen with extreme courage and bravery came up and asked my friend for advice on his swing. What courage to do this in front of his shaken peers. Instead of teasing, he came and asked for help. Earlier they had mocked and judged, but my guy did not care about that. He said “sure”, as it was obvious, he loved helping. Before we knew it, we had the schizophrenic giving golf tips to these college golfers. I would never be the same, and I knew it in that moment. 

I remember getting back to the facility and sitting down. My co-workers said, “You must really like golf, I’ve never seen you so alive and energized.” 

 I could not describe what I had just seen and my account here is still not doing it justice.  All I could say was “yeah I like golf.” 

We went to golf again maybe 3 times he and I, and we had long talks in the car. He started telling me about his life growing up, how he got involved in the system. I started teaching him about schizophrenia. 

Eventually, he said to me, “Well I have been going to these hospitals and group homes for over 20 years, and no one has ever explained it to me like that. I think I do have that disease, actually maybe they are right.” 

I think others had explained it to him, but he had not listened, because no one had ever listened to him. He was open and without fear with me.  Ironically, I only talked to him by chance really, and prior to that I had ignored him for 2 months. 

Everyone played a role in my ‘inner change’ at that time – from the negative mental health practitioner who tried to make a joke of his treatment plan, to the great program director. I started to listen carefully to what my golfing friend said when he went on a rant, instead of just falling back on preconceived notions as I would have done in the past.  He talked about the college he went to, so I decided to look it up online, and there it was, a picture of him, clean cut, well dressed and very well groomed.  He had a 4.0 and was captain of a division-1 golf team.

 My life changed forever with that first swing that stopped the world, and it happened at a time when I had given up on the ‘mental health industry’ coming to believe it was all a fraud. My life change made me realize the mental health industry was not always a terrible business. Yes there are terrible things that happen, and terrible abuses do occur, but that was not good enough reason to give it all up completely – I had been shown good reason to stay. I would work on the inside and do my best to create change. It is only a fraud if we allow it to be. 

There is a moral to this story… 

We have the power over every present moment we are in. Present moments will always build on the past moments, much like golf. We can always find evil if we look for it. However, as Socrates said “Our energy is better spent on focusing on positive future than on the negative past.” 

 And it was Francis of Assisi who said “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. “ 

The point of this article is to acknowledge that everyone is human, we are all connected, and we all have things to offer. If we put our being into treating others as equals deserving of love and respect (without the ‘superiors and inferiors’ nonsense), then things start to change for the better.  When you drop the facades and preconceptions, the ego allows you to see truth and that’s when magic happens. When we take that leap, (or are forced into it like those with schizophrenia), what happens is a type of freedom and beauty enters your life, that I cannot explain with mere words. 

But I can say this: Labels can destroy lives! 

My greatest teacher was a “schizophrenic” – a man who had been committed to an institution for over 10 years, by a court who deemed him “crazy”. Like others I worked alongside of, I had almost closed myself off to him because I believed the label he’d been given – that of sick and delusional man – could NOT be a teacher, let alone my teacher.  Yet there he was waiting for me – my greatest ever teacher – and all I had to do was ‘lose the mask’ and forget the labels to see him for who he really was. Is this not what seeking enlightenment is all about? 


Walking Daddy Home is a new book for kids and adults. Kids often ask difficult questions about topics we usually do not know how to address with them, leaving them confused and frustrated. This new book helps explore kids questions about spirituality, the meaning of life, and other challenging topics that are difficult to discuss with children
Taking the Mask Off: Destroying the Stigmatic Barriers of Mental Health and Addiction Using a Spiritual Solution

“Taking the Mask Off” is the new book by Cortland Pfeffer and Irwin Ozborne. Cortland Pfeffer spent years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals, treatment centers, and jails before becoming a registered nurse and working in the same facilities. Based on his experience, this story is told from both sides of the desk. It offers a unique and valuable perspective into mental health and addiction, revealing the problems with the psychiatric industry while also providing the solution – one that brings together science, spirituality, philosophy, and personal experience