When I was a kid, nobody told me about mental illness. It seemed to me, as it may still to you, to be some sort of a myth, something that existed only to create fodder for campfire stories or compelling movies. I had never, to my best recollection, spent any time with someone who had a mental illness. Iíd always avert my eyes whenever I happened to see somebody in the strange and epic throws of mental illness, talking to themselves, or acting out of turn with what I considered to be normal. These people were not people to me; these people were gone, mere shells that looked like human beings but with a wild ether of otherworldly intent in place of an actual human soul. Inside Iíd feel both a pang of fear and a deep pity, which together were like a wretched black mass that tore at my gut. I can remember always wondering what exactly had gone so wrong for these people that now the normal human characteristics that had once been were gone. Iíd feel a compulsion to help but I was both too scared and knew too little to do any good. So I shut them out, trying so hard not to look when they passed, struggling to not make eye contact for fear that they would suck me in to their world.
Iíve always been interested in figuring out what makes things tick. After a childhood of taking things apart, toys, electronics and what have you I came to the ultimate fascination of people and their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Just what in the hell made people tick? Suffice it to say that I was fascinated by Hollywood accounts of mental illness, internal struggle and psychology. Iíd enter movie theatres always excited by the possibility of retaining some kernel of understanding about what exactly made people behave the way they do, and even today I still only have a general understanding. Iíll put it lightly, nobody told me that one day Iíd be one of those poor afflicted people walking down the street with no clear indication of what was real and what was not. Nothing in my life before my "break" prepared me for life in the shoes of a schizophrenic.
Today I look back on my life as two separate and distinct phases, one being who I was before the episode and the other being who I am now. I see it as almost two separate lives instead of one. I recall how I was gregarious, extraverted and carefree in the teenage years of that life that is now gone. Who I am now is a virtual 180. I am quiet, reserved, a bit paranoid, and prefer to be alone. Granted, as I am merely four years out of the gauntlet of schizophrenia I regard myself as shy 4 year old, still just learning how to interact with the world. Perhaps ten or fifteen years down the line when I am a seasoned pro at dealing with the disease things will be different, but who can tell? Iím sure that things I struggle with on a day to day basis seem infantile and obvious to most people but as I said, Iím still learning how to interact with the world as a virtually new and different person. I still have as strong a desire to connect with people as I did before, but due to my illness, a spring of overwhelming fears and paranoia keep me from doing so. I also have the tendency to overanalyze every single tiny interaction until itís cold and dead. Sometimes, until it means something entirely different than it did originally. I find that many times I overanalyze something to the point where itís taken on an entirely different life. Now instead of an obliged polite smile from a girl that meant nothing Iím dealing with the emotions of a desperate unrequited love that exists only in my mind. Iím learning more about the world every day though and those who know me best describe my progress as slow and steady.
I suppose I should take you back to where things started to change though. I was in freshman year of college in 2004 having left a high school where I was runner up for prom king. I had received accolades ranging from a journalistic award for my work on the school paper to the touted biggest applause at my graduation. I was friends with everybody. Those whose names I didnít know still always received a warm smile from me in the halls. As a freshman in college I desperately tried to make connections and form friendships. To my dismay, all the tricks I had used in high school werenít working with this new and unfamiliar crowd of faces. Instead of making simple friendships it seemed the only motivation these people had was to get drunk or high and have sex. Nobody responded to me the way they had in high school. They all seemed nervous and wary of a friendly smile. I had dabbled in marijuana and alcohol in high school but had never made it as much a priority as it seemed to be at this college. Desperate to make friends though, I began to use alcohol and pot much more frequently seeing it as the only way in to a daunting social hierarchy. Before long I was smoking marijuana every day, multiple times a day. It hadnít quite occurred to me what was happening but as a result of the pot I felt dreadfully insecure. I amped up my goofiness in an attempt to make people laugh so I didnít feel so bad. Accordingly, I was ridiculed for it. I finally realized what was happening one night when I overheard what the guys I had smoked with were saying about me. Itís as though my world broke in half.
I began to worry constantly what people thought of me. In an attempt to self medicate I smoked more and more pot, and I became more and more afraid to go outside and be among people. The paranoia was crippling and nothing I tried to squelch it out worked. At the end of the semester, I moved back home and transferred to my local university. Still smoking a lot of pot, things only got weirder. I began to personalize things thinking the only reason they existed were for me alone to see. I started to think that everything I saw was some kind of code or indication meant only for those who could recognize it and I was one of the lucky few. Foremost, I started to recognize the connections everything had to everything else. The interconnectivity of every innate thing, animate or inanimate, was profoundly apparent to me. It was as if an entirely new world had opened up and I was the only one who could see it. Before long, I realized that every bit of media, TV, newspaper or otherwise held messages apparent only to those who could read them. I coined it "reading between the lines." A lot of it seemed to be gibberish but there was a good percentage that spoke to me personally, as if it was meant for me alone.
Soon I began to believe that whoever was putting this stuff out there knew me intimately or had been watching me for quite a long time, even in my most private of moments. They knew things about me that I had never told anybody. I questioned everything. Why me? Why was I so important? Why was I the only one that could decipher what they were saying? I had conclusions but I was hesitant to jump to them as I wanted to remain humble. I wrestled with these notions for months, resistant to what they were saying and fighting them to stop. They never went away.
Eventually, I accepted defeat and decided to go with it, to assist whoever "they" were because they were sure as hell not going to stop bothering me until I did. This led to a period of careful analysis of every piece of stimuli I encountered as I searched for messages and indications towards what they were driving at. The amount of fluff I sifted through made it increasingly hard to discern what they were saying. So I decided to trust the things that I had always deemed worthwhile - my favorite musicians, my favorite news sources, and my favorite TV channels. It was still hard to determine what they were saying but I searched for patterns and repetition and it soon became apparent that I was a very important person who had a lot of work to do. From all that I gathered I was meant to save the world by bringing a message of peace and understanding to the government. In essence I was a secret leader, higher up than the president. Iíd watch C-SPAN for hours interacting with the TV until I saw someone that represented me saying something that I said. This was apparently on my behalf.
Before long, I knew Iíd have to leave my old life of comfort in Boulder, CO and get to where I could do the most good. It seemed that the world had taken notice of me. My first thought was to go to D.C. but I knew later that Iíd do the most good at the U.N. in New York. I knew theyíd be waiting for me. I struggled with these indications for a long time until eventually, I left with no word to my parents. I knew theyíd understand once they realized who I was. Full of delusions and a quite healthy dose of paranoia I set out. Iíll say this, I got nowhere and was found on the side of a new England road by a kind and gracious woman who took me in and paid for my ticket home. My journey is chronicled as fiction in my novel Connections.
When I returned home, amidst jabbering about aliens, conspiracies and connections, my parents, knowing no other option, took me to the Psychiatric hospital where I remained for a week. It was there that I was diagnosed Schizoaffective and eventually accepted my diagnosis. I was returned to my parents still full of delusion and paranoia and I have since been on a long and arduous journey back to normalcy and stability. As I said before, itís been a slow and steady battle and everyday I make small improvements.
In the four years since my diagnosis one thing has become blaringly clear to me. That is the travesty of misconception when it comes to the label of mental illness. Inherent in those two words are an overwhelming fear on societyís part of the implications that the label carries with it. Society is misinformed of the overwhelming amount of success stories of mentally ill people who faithfully take their medication and have some sort of support structure established. The fear that comes with the label is due to decades of misinformation on the mediaís part about the mentally ill. Rarely do you hear stories on the news about how well someone with mental illness is doing. The media coverage on mental illness seems largely dominated by stories about how violent or out of control someone with mental illness can become when un-medicated. The result of all the negative news is a stigma so strong against mental illness that those who suffer may have as hard or harder a time re-acclimating because of the stigma, as they did when they suffered with symptoms. Organizations like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and BringChange2Mind are actively working to battle the stigma showing that mental illness is no different than cancer or diabetes, but thereís still a lot of work to be done. According to the National Institute of Mental Health 26.2% of adults suffer with some form of mental illness. Thatís 1 in 4 people that are afflicted.
Iíll leave you with this, what exactly is normalcy? We as a society have a set of rules that we adhere to mainly out of respect for others but also partly out of fear of others. We all have burdens to deal with and the strange man walking down the street talking to himself only does so because heís found no other option of dealing with his disease. Some people are stubborn and some people are submissive. Some people deal with their problems by bottling them and some people scream or cry to express themselves. Everyone you know or ever will know is just trying to get by in this world of confusion and heartbreak without surrendering their illusion of control. Those with mental illness, however they act, are no different. They merely have different brain chemistry than you. People joke about going crazy and some are already but have never have been diagnosed.
Keep this in mind, People with mental illness are still people, they still have thoughts, feelings, ideas and guilty pleasures. They like ice cream, long walks on the beach and they want to be loved despite their condition. They are no different from you, they simply have an affliction, an illness or a disease. How would you treat someone who has cancer or diabetes? Why would you treat someone with a mental illness any differently? People are people no matter what the circumstances.