Updated: Oct 15, 2020
When I was a freshman in college, where I studied English, I had a crush on a guy who I thought was flirting with my friend to make me jealous. It went on for a long time. Eventually, I confronted him about it and found that it was all in my head. The rest of my college years went on without any further issues.
My senior year I interviewed for an Assistantship at a university for Information Science and Business and was awarded one. Again, I had a crush on a guy who I thought was flirting with another woman to make me jealous. One day I started having these memories from previous nights that were distracting me from school. I would spend hours in my cubicle at work, talking out loud to myself to help me study, without success. I was struggling with memories of sexual encounters with this guy.
One day, my boss pulled me aside to talk to me. I couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me. He wanted me to see a psychiatrist. Eventually, I did. She diagnosed me with PTSD. After a short while, I had to leave the program because I couldn’t focus on my studies. I went home. Without the school’s resources I didn’t know who to talk to, so I didn’t talk to anyone. It wasn’t until 8 years later that I was hospitalized and spoke with a DNP (Designated Nurse Practicioner) about Schizophrenia and Psychosis.
NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, reports that psychosis is a symptom that usually occurs as interruptions to a person’s thoughts and impressions that make it difficult to interpret what is real and what isn’t. Often, people experience hallucinations or delusions. Amazon did an excellent job depicting these symptoms in the dramedy Undone. It is an animated story about a 28 year old girl who gets into a car accident and begins to experience things outside reality. She has conversations with her dead father, believing she is on a mission to solve his murder. I've had similar experiences. Once, I saw a very large hummingbird flapping its wings next to my Dad’s tomato plants. For a long time I believed I was on a mission to uncover a backpacker plot to stop them from abusing their mindreading powers and destroy my life.
NAMI continues to say that psychosis is not specific to people with Schizophrenia. It occurs in other mental illnesses. They report that in the U.S. around 100,000 young people face psychosis each year. As many as 3 in 100 people will have an episode at some time in their lives. Think about your High School graduating class. I had about 500 people in mine. That means that more than likely, 15 of my classmates were experiencing psychosis like me.
According to NAMI, schizophrenia is as a serious mental illness that affects a person’s ability to think logically, cope with emotions, decide how to act, and connect to others. They report that an estimated 1.5 million people have Schizophrenia in the U.S. alone. Symptoms that people with Schizophrenia experience include seeing, hearing, or smelling things that others can’t. There were times I would hear my own voice throughout my house, only I wasn't talking. This same thing happened at a nearby park. I would look around, thinking that someone was playing a trick on me. I thought that previous coworkers had taped a small blue tooth speaker in the ductwork of my house as well as placing them throughout the park.
Although Hollywood doesn’t do us any favors, people with Schizophrenia can and do lead rich and fulfilling lives. Elyn Saks is a Professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at the USC Gould School of Law. She does all this is while living with Schizophrenia. Eleanor Longden holds a Bachelor of Science and an Master of Science in Psychology from the University of Leeds, England, and works as a Consultant Psychiatrist. She is currently pursuing her PhD and frequently speaks about her struggle with Schizophrenia. Esme Weijun Wang lives with Schizoaffective disorder and is a writer and recipient of the Whiting Award. She has an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the author of “The Collected Schizophrenias.” I think it's important to point out that you don’t need to have a full time job to live a rich and fulfilling life but that doesn't mean you can't have a full time job and live with Schizophrenia. More importantly, you can have a diagnosis of Schizophrenia and be a productive and substantial benefit to society.
Although being diagnosed with a mental illness can at first feel overwhelming and isolating, there is hope. I take great comfort in the fact that my life can change. That I am not the person I once was. The law of nature demands change. When a stump of a tree is cut, it will try to grow again. Life tries to find a way. Look at the human body, it is constantly re-growing itself. NPR has a video called “How old is your body really?” It states that intestinal epithelial cells in the stomach are regrown every 5 days, skin cells every 39 days, and liver cells are replaced every 300 to 500 days. This makes me wonder about the brain too. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said the brain is the most intricate object, that we know of, in the universe; the human brain has around 100 billion neurons; it is able to make one hundred trillion neural ties. Sharon Slazburg, in her book Real Love, states that if a person were to place their neurons end to end, they would extend to the moon and back. The brain is working night and day whether a person is awake or asleep. It is even self-aware. The can actually change. It can change its shape. This is called neuroplasticity. According to Ph.D. Teresa Aubele, the brain can modify it’s physical composition, heal injured regions, produce new neurons, and reassign mental responsibilities from one area to another. It also can change the structure between neurons that allow us to recollect, feel, perceive, imagine, and dream.
In the Book of Joy written by Desmond Tutu, who fought for years to end apartheid in South Africa by calling on non-violence in the face of violent oppression by the government, he said, "I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.” If he, of all people, believes that there is no circumstance that is completely hopeless, then I believe there is hope for me too. This helped me after I was hospitalized. I had bought a plane ticket to Marrakesh, Morocco to help the CIA track down the backpackers who were abusing their mind-reading powers to ruin my life. My psychiatrist at the hospital advised me not to travel so soon after being hospitalized. A week after, I saw the hummberinbird next to the tomato plant, which was also a hullicanation. I thought back to my days in college and graduate school which brought me a lot of shame. I thought I was having sex with that guy I had a crush on which was a delusion. Fortunately, I didn’t travel. Instead, I listened to my psychiatrist, I read a lot, took my prescribed meds every day, and met regularly with my therapist. Eventually, the voice I heard in my house and park, which I thought was my voice, an auditory hallucination, died down. Kristin Neff's book about self compassion was another great resource that helped me deal with intrusive thoughts. I still have them, and it's a struggle, but I remember there is hope.