Walking around on BYU campus in 1998, Sarah Price Hancock (BA ’02) saw an unusual sight: covered wagons, campfires, and people in pioneer garb. Despite the warm weather, the people Hancock saw were huddled together and shivering as if from cold. Feeling compassion on them, Hancock approached one group, asking if anyone would like her sweater.
Two days later she woke up in the hospital wearing a straitjacket.
Hancock had experienced her first psychotic episode, but it wouldn’t be her last. Her vision of pioneers marked the beginning of a 20-year journey that would take her from a being successful student and happy returned missionary—through misdiagnosed schizophrenia, catatonia, electroshock therapy, and total memory loss—to becoming a wife, professor, author, and mental health advocate.
Growing up in San Diego, Hancock enjoyed a normal childhood and adolescence. She went to Ricks College, where she earned an associate’s in elementary education. She served a mission where she learned American Sign Language. When she returned she enthusiastically started working on a bachelor’s degree in English at BYU. She was a Relief Society president, worked with the Humanities Publication Center, did ASL interpreting for devotionals, was an accessibility office representative for BYUSA, and had a fiancé. She was going full steam ahead and was looking forward to the life she was planning. Then, the stress of her engagement ending and a bout of pneumonia triggered psychosis.
After her pioneer-themed episode, Hancock’s doctor determined that she had schizophrenia, a diagnosis that by all accounts matched the symptoms. She began taking medication to treat schizophrenia, though with little success. Hancock was always “treatment compliant,” but her condition continued to worsen. Going to school part-time she was able to finish her degree in 2002, but she grew more isolated as more psychiatric symptoms developed. Over the next 12 years, Hancock would take nearly 40 different combinations of medications, none of which had any positive effects.
Though support from family and friends helped Hancock carry on, eventually, the parade of medicines left her in a catatonic state, unable to function or communicate at even a basic level. This led to even more drastic treatment, with catastrophic consequences. “None of the medications was working,” says Hancock. “So . . . I had 116 bilateral shock treatments, which erased [all memories of] my childhood, my mission experience, and my BYU experience.” With no relief from her psychiatric symptoms and now having to cope with massive memory loss, Hancock was in a hopeless situation. But even in this dark time, Hancock saw the hand of God in her life. As a 12-year-old, Hancock had learned that Wilford Woodruff had been an avid journal keeper, and she was challenged by a young women’s leader to do the same. And keep a journal she did, faithfully writing 39 volumes over the years and effectively preserving her memories. Hancock shares, “A lot of my coping was reading my journals. Not really committing them to memory, but re-getting to know myself by reading.”
But the struggles kept on. Hancock recalls the last straw, the turning point in her recovery: “Eventually my psychiatrist said that they had yet to invent the medication that would work for me.” Now what? With the bleak prognosis of her doctor ringing in her head, she confided her fears to her father. Hancock says, “My dad said, ‘I don't have the answers but I know someone who does.’ I looked at him and I'm like, ‘Who's that? And he said, ‘Heavenly Father.’” Feeling dubious and more than a little jaded, Hancock remembers thinking, “Well, I sure wish he'd tell me how. . . But I went home and I really got to thinking about it. I realized that Heavenly Father taught us everything we needed to know to be successful in this life before we came to earth. So it was my job to get as close to Him as possible so that I could have the guidance of the Spirit to enlighten me as to what I needed to do to find my path. In doing so, I began seeking out other people who lived with similar symptoms and learning as much about them as I could to find out what worked for them.” Her father’s advice, though it had initially seemed trite, became a springboard for proactive change in Hancock’s life.
Hancock found a peer employment training program where she could learn practical coping strategies from people who were living successful lives with symptoms like hers. “I learned more in that class than I had learned in 12 years of counseling,” Hancock says. And things started to turn around. Using the advice she got from her peers about managing symptoms and side-effects, she was able to get and hold a job, complete a Master’s program in rehabilitation counseling at San Diego State in 2012, and was even asked to stay on as adjunct faculty, teaching classes and designing curriculum. Relearning ASL and taking copious notes helped Hancock improve hand-eye coordination and promote her memory. Then, while interpreting for an ASL group at church, she met her future in-laws who connected her with her now husband of almost eight years, a man particularly suited to understand her situation because of his own experience with a brain tumor.
Though she was now able to function in society, Hancock was still dealing with the fallout of her illness and treatments. But a “chance” meeting with a doctor in her ward became the final piece of her recovery puzzle. After hearing her story and symptoms, the doctor suggested she may be suffering not from schizophrenia, but from toxic encephalopathy, a neurological disorder caused by prolonged exposure of the brain to toxic substances. Further testing confirmed the doctor’s theory, and after more than a decade of struggles, Hancock finally knew the root of her problems.
It turned out, years earlier at BYU when Hancock was treated for pneumonia and broke off her engagement, the combination of antibiotics she took and stress a caused bacteria called candida to proliferate in her stomach and liver, where it began releasing toxic byproducts that inflamed her brain and caused severe psychiatric symptoms, including her hallucinations. After that initial episode, unneeded psychiatric medications were prescribed to treat her diagnosis of schizophrenia, which led to extreme neurotoxicity and years of pain.
Now on an antifungal diet to control the proliferation of the bacteria, Hancock is truly on the way to recovery. “There is no easy answer to just getting better . . . I've learned a lot of things that work, and I'm still learning to recognize what doesn't work,” she says. Though there are some things that will never get better, Hancock believes that her challenges have given her opportunities to bless others. She has a podcast called “Emotional Self-Reliance” that is dedicated to helping others with mental health challenges. She has also written a book called Daring to Dream—a practical guide for people experiencing employment difficulties, whether those difficulties result from mental illness, other disabilities, or even just a change in career or circumstances. “There is no deadline on potential,” Hancock says, and she is living proof. Beyond her larger scale efforts to help those around her, Hancock says she has gained a better perspective on a more intimate scale. “It's been hard,” she says, “But it has given me an insight into how to develop compassion. How to develop an understanding of my peers. How to not judge others.”
Her advice to others who are struggling? “If I could give advice to anyone I would just say hold on . . . when you live with symptoms of acute anxiety, acute depression, the psychosis, all of the PTSD, time slows down. Time slows to a cold tar. So it's very, very difficult to keep things in perspective . . . [But the] angels that we are promised are around us when we are living through terrible things. I know that Heavenly Father does not leave us alone . . . We can find strength beyond our own capacity when we turn to our Heavenly Father and our Savior. And call out asking for our angels to lift us up.”