Content warning: Mental illness, suicide
The title of this post is a statement I find myself making quite a lot these days. I don’t mind it. It’s a diagnostic label that reasonably accurately defines elements of my life. I am comfortable saying it, even proud of my mental health survival story but this was not always the case.
The reason I have schizophrenia is simple to my mind – trauma closely followed up with drug addiction. I used the drugs which can result in psychosis (marijuana, amphetamines and LSD), not realising how dangerous it was. I was self medicating and was considered by my fellow addicts to be the most generous and prolific drug user in my suburb. I was living in a house with my dealer and a collection of assorted junkies. We decided not to pay the rent so we were all evicted. As the day came closer for the police to forcibly remove us, everyone else in the house found somewhere to go. I did not. I was anxious and constantly high. It was the catalyst for my first episode of psychosis. I ended up in hospital and was given the diagnosis there and then. I was 21. I didn’t believe it.
At around the same time as this I was given my autism diagnosis. I believed that these diagnostic labels were for other people, not me. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with me, it was the universe that was fucked up! I spent the next few years in and out of psychiatric hospitals and jails. I still didn’t accept my schizophrenia diagnosis. In my understanding at the time schizophrenia was for middle aged men who thought they were Jesus. Sure, I believed the world was about to end and the nurse with black hair was a demon but that wasn’t delusional – it was true!
I gradually clawed my way back from the excesses of my illness, enrolling in university and ending up in Canberra in 2007 as a newly-minted public service graduate. Public servants don’t have schizophrenia – I was fairly certain of this. And if that was true then why was I seeing a psychiatrist? When I moved to Canberra I resolved to just see a GP as my days of needing care from mental health professionals was surely over? This might have worked had I not become really unwell with psychosis three years later. My poor GP had a limited understanding of mental illness. I convinced her to reduce my anti-psychotic medication which I believed – in my delusional state – was causing my illness! Things got worse and worse and it became quite dangerous. I believed that nobody could help me and I was doomed to a life of being miserable and tormented by the ghost that I saw and heard in my house. There was only one thought beyond that but thankfully I didn’t reach that place in my reasoning. If I had I doubt I would be here now.
Thankfully my mum came to stay and got me admitted to hospital. I was in a right sate. And for those who don’t know, psychosis does not mean violent or psychopathic as it is often described in movies and TV. Psychosis is a state where reality slips away from you and things don’t make any sense. There are many kinds of psychotic experience but basically it is like living in a nightmare. Some people are in a psychotic state permanently. I can only begin to imagine ow awful that is. For me I can be acutely psychotic and need hospital, or I can be symptom free (rarely) or I can be largely OK but with some symptoms like voices, paranoia or disordered thinking. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It is terrifying and confusing.
Anyway back to the narrative… When I got to hospital the doctor told me I had schizophrenia. I had been told this – and not believed it – dozens of times before but this time the message sank in. It had only taken me, er 15 years to accept this diagnosis – twice as long as it took me to accept I am autistic! Why did it take me so long to arrive at the conclusion that I do in fact have schizophrenia? I had been taking medication for it since 1995 and doctors don’t just give out those kinds of medications for no reason. I think the main reason I couldn’t accept my ‘other’ diagnosis was all the stigma and assumptions around it. How many positive characters do you see in movies and TV that have schizophrenia? The only one that springs to mind is John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (and as an aside, nurses tend to compare me to him whenever I am in hospital!). Most characters who have schizophrenia are either violent, pitiful or destitute. Schizophrenia is rarely presented as anything other than something which will end your chance at a fulfilled life. When I look at this I look at myself and others I know who are doing well and think ‘but that is wrong.’
The assumptions around schizophrenia are in my experience as bad or worse than those around autism a lot of the time. I think a similar process is at work to drive both sets of assumptions. I remember going to my former chemist to pick up my meds and had them ask me how my mum was doing. Perplexed (as my mum lives five hours’ drive away and doesn’t know my chemist) I asked what they meant. They had assumed I was picking up my mum’s meds as I used to wear my work lanyard when I picked up my meds on my way home from work! Shortly afterwards the pharmacist said that ‘people who take your meds don’t usually work in the public service.’ I think she meant it as a compliment. It really wasn’t a compliment though!
Over the past few years I have done some work around accepting my ‘other’ diagnosis. It is a different kind of attitude than my feelings about my autism. There is not as big a positive schizophrenia community as there is an autism one and anyway I haven’t really tapped into it. I am quite comfortable talking about my schizophrenia and I will often talk about my work to people – paid job and advocacy – so as to help dispel misconceptions and assumptions. I do know that it is possible that one day I won’t be able to work due to my illness and I spend a lot of my life working on maintaining good mental health. I take very heavy duty medication – one of which has possible side effects of death by not one but three ways! (Don’t worry – this medication is frequently tested and monitored). I know I am at a high risk of suicide and that everything I have could one day be taken from me by my illness but I also know that thus far I have lived my life with all tis challenges very well. I have friends and family who love and respect me and I have a very helpful attitude to life. I think I’ll be OK and yes, I am happy to say ‘I have schizophrenia’.