Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that is characterised by repeated psychotic episodes and this blog post is about my own personal experiences of psychotic episodes. You can check out my post about schizophrenia here if you just want to know more about the condition.
This is a long story, so I’ve broken it into three parts:
- Building Fictional Worlds: Developing Psychosis
- “Think Whatever You Like”: Rebuilding a Mind
- Is It All Over?: Returning to Normal Life
I’d like to start with a disclaimer of sorts. This is about my own battles with psychosis and by no means is meant to be a typical account, I doubt if there ever could be such a thing. Psychosis is subjective and variable by its very nature, if you had 100 schizophrenic patients in a room, the way that the disease affects and impacts each one could be completely different. The outcomes for people who are treated in early intervention teams for psychotic disorders vary wildly, and unfortunately, sometimes the interventions don’t work. I was one of the lucky ones.
Building Fictional Worlds: Developing Psychosis
I had my first psychotic episode when I was 19 years old. This is quite common; most psychotic disorders first develop in late adolescence. My psychosis presented itself in the form of delusional thinking at first, this can be hard to explain to people who’ve never experienced anything like it, but I started to move into another reality with different rules and a different worldview. This would come on suddenly, I would often get a sensation like butterflies in my stomach followed by a sinking feeling and a sense of impending doom. Then the racing thoughts would come, a rush of epiphanies that provided proof and collected evidence for my new, delusional, reality. These thoughts would snowball on top of each other, one leading to the next big epiphany that started the next chain of thinking off. Sometimes this would end with a panic attack and me rushing out of whatever situation I was in. Sometimes it would just stop of its own accord, leaving me shaken and confused about what had happened.
The delusions were often persecutory in nature, but the type of persecution would change. I would be in the middle of a vast conspiracy, like The Truman Show, where everyone around me was keeping up a façade of normal life whilst really they were actors. I’d hear someone talking on the radio and swear they were talking about me or an advertisement on the TV would be referencing the thoughts I was having. Sometimes I would be in a world where I was the only person who existed, everyone else was simply me at another point along my timeline, I would even “remember” being in the shoes of the person I was looking at.
The worst by far were the delusions where I was in Hell. I was being punished for all of my misdeeds in a past life, the people around me were demons and devils, all there to gain my trust, before leading me to ruin and humiliating me, this one was particularly bad because I could use it to explain the transitory nature of the other delusions. OF COURSE! The demons are pretending to be me to trick me! Or, they’ve made me think I’m in the Truman Show, it’s all part of my punishment.
As time went on, I started to collect “evidence” for my theories and figuring out what it all meant. I created a hydra in my mind. Each new episode would be like chopping off the serpent’s head, for each question answered, seven more would grow in its place. I started building a more complex web of coincidences that I had linked together with faulty logic. I spent many an hour in the grips of delusional thought, I felt like my mind was a tumultuous ocean and I was wrestling for something solid to hold on to. Even in my more lucid moments, when the confusing fog had lifted and I was thinking normally (or at least as normally as I was before this had started) I spent a long time, mostly when sitting up alone at night, simply debating the nature of my reality with myself.
All the while that this was going on, I was desperately trying to keep the fact that I was experiencing this from those around me. In the lucid moments I kept it hidden because I feared being labelled as crazy and locked away in some institution. In my delusional moments, well, they were part of the conspiracy, telling them would only let them know I’d seen through their tricks, and then what might happen? What new horrors would they unleash on me if they knew they’d been foiled?
So I tried to keep things together in front of those around me, but people aren’t so easily fooled. In hindsight, I often think back to how strange the conversations I had with my friends must have been. On the surface I’m listening to what they’re saying, but really, I’d be scanning their speech, looking for signs of deception, hidden clues they might be giving me or sly digs they might be making cryptically. This of course would be detected by them, my reactions just weren’t right for the situation. I started to distance myself from those around me, spending more time alone, or if I was in a group, staying quiet and just watching, being there, but not being “there”, so to speak. Those who knew me well could clearly see something was wrong, I had been extroverted and confident, now I was timid and anxious, but I dismissed any attempts to help, I still don’t really know why, I think partly it was because I didn’t want to show anyone how deeply broken I was, partly it was doubt that anything could help.
It stayed like this for a year before things really started deteriorating. The hallucinations started appearing alongside the delusions. I would hear two people discussing my actions as I did them, weighing up the merit of them and how close each action took me to “breaking out” of their trap. Sometimes these were neutral voices, sometimes they were the devil and God himself, fighting over me. Sometimes I would “just know” that everyone around me could read my thoughts, I would then of course start thinking of my most shameful moments, my deepest fears, all the things I wouldn’t want broadcast to everyone around me and I’d have to leave the situation immediately. I once got off a bus, miles away from where I intended to, because I was having such a moment and a man across from me had made eye contact and smiled. He was probably only wondering why the teenager across from him had suddenly started shaking with fear and staring around the bus with an expression of absolute terror on his face, but that eye contact and smile was all the evidence I needed in the grips of my delusion to confirm that I was right. I walked for nearly 3 hours back to my parent’s house, too scared to get back on a bus and too scared to go back to the halls of residence I was living in at the time. This was one of many such occurrences. The episodes had been infrequent at first, now I was in the grips of an episode more than I was lucid. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, my uni work was near impossible, my relationships were becoming strained. I was at breaking point.
What happened next changed the course of my life. I had started attending some local church services. I’d never really been religious in my youth but there were clear religious undertones to some of my delusions and whilst I was in the grips of some of my worst episodes, I’d desperately started praying and made promises to a God I didn’t believe in that if He helped me get a grip on my thoughts, I’d go to church. Plus, in my delusional logic, God was behind all of this, so I thought it best to go and find out more about Him.
There was a girl at this church who was about my age, and who one day very bravely spoke about her experiences with mental illness in front of an entire congregation. I’d met her a few times before and she seemed nice, I was in a fairly lucid state and her admission that she’d experienced something similar made me less afraid of her judgement, so I did what I hadn’t done with anyone so far. I told her what I was going through, as clearly and as fully as I could. She listened. More than that, she understood. She didn’t discount what I’d experienced or dismiss any of it. She helped me see that I really only had one of two explanations that from my perspective, could be true. Either I was the focal point of a divine conspiracy I didn’t know the full details of and was powerless to escape, or I was mentally ill. At least if it was the latter, I could try to do something about it. The very next day, I was sitting in my GP’s office, with her alongside me. I told my GP what I’d been going through and he booked an appointment with a psychiatrist who would start the process of diagnosis and putting together a treatment plan. The free-falling had stopped, but now I was at the bottom, it was time to start the long climb back out of the depths, it was going to be a long journey…
Part II and Part III (coming soon).