Schizophrenia is a type of psychotic disorder characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disoriented thinking and excessive negative symptoms that affects up 200,000 people in the United States yearly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because of the sheer amount of ways in which the illness manifests, those afflicted often experience schizophrenia and its associated symptoms very differently, similar to those affected with different manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and the like.
This week’s column will be dedicated to elevating their stories: Those of hope and those of despair. Regardless, there is help available if you are struggling with schizophrenia and it is possible to live a full, happy life no matter your diagnosis. Just take it from survivors who have learned to be at peace with schizophrenia and are breaking down the mainstream stereotypes surrounding the illness.
“Schizophrenia seems to be the ‘black sheep’ in the world of mental health challenges, with little public discussion about what it’s truly like to live with, leaving us with inaccurate media representations to shape our cultural image of the illness.”
“Schizophrenia seems to be the ‘black sheep’ in the world of mental health challenges, with little public discussion about what it’s truly like to live with, leaving us with inaccurate media representations to shape our cultural image of the illness,” wrote Tyler Dabel for Bridges to Recovery. “And yet if we are to support our friends or family members living with schizophrenia, it’s vital that we first do our best to understand what they are reallygoing through.”
A woman by the name of Sandy wrote in to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website describing her experiences with schizophrenia, which started when she was 44 and gradually worsened before she sought out help.
“I began to feel watched and suspicious of people. The delusions grew in intensity until I began to see all these amazing connections and clues leading me to the conclusion that I was part of a CIA covert operation,” Sandy wrote. “This continued for six weeks until one night, I found myself by the river’s edge in agony, trying to freeze to death. Something in me found a corner of disbelief…some fire that got me up off the ground and walking towards the hospital. There, they forced an admission, which began my journey into this difficult new chapter of my life.”
Sandy relapsed six months after her first release from the hospital, and initially described her delusions as giving her a sense of safety and protection, which is why it was so difficult for her to fight them off. However, she is now able to actively live her life while remaining cognizant of her triggers.
“To honor the delusions, I boiled them down to their core meaning; protect and serve. I want to be of service to others. I choose to add that back into my life. I don’t know yet how to protect and serve beyond everyday kindness, but it’ll happen,” Sandy wrote. “Another thing I’ve chosen to keep on doing is working. My work is only cashiering and stocking, but being forced to pull myself together and to fight residual paranoia keeps me fighting my illness.”
Alex, a guest writer for MQ: Transforming Mental Health’s blog website, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20 while studying at the University of Leeds in England. She described a feeling of intense disconnection from her usual self while attempting to separate reality from the war in her mind.
“I couldn’t relate to my friends any more. I wanted to, but I was unable to function with the deep terror the voices quickly installed within me. The voices were the first symptoms I experienced, and were to signal the intensity of the schizophrenia and psychosis which followed,” Alex wrote. “It was so overwhelmingly weird to sit in a room surrounded by all your friends, and to be experiencing two levels of conversation. The first would be happening in the room around me, and the second seemed only to be taking place in my mind. Moreover, the paranoia would make it really hard to distinguish which was ‘real’ and which wasn’t.”
“the paranoia would make it really hard to distinguish which was ‘real’ and which wasn’t.”
Almost three weeks after her first symptoms appeared, Alex’s friends contacted her parents. Her dad came to pick her up from her college dormitory, but the mission to do so was not without resistance and agitation from Alex.
“I was sure dad was being influenced by the devil and was going to have a heart attack,” Alex said. “I thought he was going to crash the car, and that we were being pursued by enemies and dangerous people. I screamed, and cried and railed against him all the way home.”
Alex was eventually brought to the hospital, where she remained for intense inpatient treatment for 28 days, an experience she describes as necessary and life-changing.
“As much as it was horrendous, it was the best possible course of action. I was too far removed from reality to be able to function, and my parents simply couldn’t help me on their own anymore,” Alex wrote. “I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia a few months later and began my long road back to recovery.”
Alice Evans, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of 30, said recovery from the illness is possible and it is often therapeutic for her to incorporate her experiences into her work.
“I’m beginning to enjoy life. I’m running a business taking photographs alongside working as a visual artist. The work I make is largely film and poetry. I’m pursuing a PhD in filmmaking and am trying to get my life together,” Evans said. “I work in schools to try to combat the stigma attached to having mental health conditions. I make artwork and poetry now, which sometimes reflects on my experiences of psychosis.”
Katy is another survivor who wrote in to the Talk Health Partnership about her experiences. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 18, in her first year of college away from home. She described the voices she heard as becoming demanding and terrifying, eventually becoming debilitating.
“I was walking through town on a break from college when a male voice started talking to me. In the months that followed, this voice would tell me to harm myself but it also told me to harm other people,” Katy wrote. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and so I never did, despite some commands being unbearably loud. Two years after the first symptoms started, I neglected myself so badly that I was sectioned as a danger to self.”
Katy eventually sought help and recovered through talk therapy, which allowed her to break down and gain a better understanding of her delusions. Still, she maintains the negative thoughts she experienced were not and are not indicative of her posing a threat to other people, a common misconception in the media that paints those with schizophrenia as violent.
“Nowadays, you wouldn’t know I had schizophrenia, unless I told you. A lot of sufferers are quiet and shy like me, and we wouldn’t and couldn’t hurt anyone. Yet the attitude towards schizophrenia, and paranoid schizophrenia in particular, seems to be that we’re all murderers-to-be who should be locked up for the safety of others,” Katy wrote. “But schizophrenia doesn’t mean I have evil eyes or an array of weapons. I’m just me. As Lewis Carroll wrote, ‘I’m not strange, weird, off nor crazy; my reality is just different from yours.’”