I remember it vividly: twelve years old, sitting on a bench, watching the floor morph into moving pictures. First a face, slowly turning from left to right; next, a sailboat on choppy waves. I thought everyone saw the world like I did, that everyone’s reality wiggled and squirmed when scrutinized for too long. To me, it was as normal as crossing my eyes.
From a very young age, I knew my mind worked differently than it was supposed to. At first, it was just a corner deep in my mind where “here there be monsters.” Every so often, dark thoughts and emotions would pop into my brain and I would force them back down into the muck. I learned how to quadrant off the abnormal parts of my brain in order to function normally. It worked through middle school and most of high school before my grasp on solid ground began to slip.
During my freshman year in college, I had a sort of nervous breakdown during my first month of classes. Classified as a bipolar mixed episode, I was given a high dose of antipsychotics and returned to school the following semester. It was a struggle, but I seemed mostly fine until my junior year. I started having difficulties doing the simplest things—getting out of bed, going to class, and interacting with other people. It was just easier to be alone. I had all the outward symptoms of depression, but I wasn’t depressed. I was just…blank. I couldn’t trust my emotions or my thoughts, and my mind was no longer reliable. I began to blame it on Seroquel, my prescribed antipsychotic, and after four months of fighting to maintain interest in even the smallest of things, I stopped taking it. Suddenly, I had energy. I was able to get out of bed for the first time in months. I thought I had found a solution. Unfortunately, the energy faded in its entirety when my body finally recalibrated to the drug’s absence. I was back to my previous state of isolation and listlessness.
It is amazing how easy it was to convince myself I was not sick, just lazy. My weight dropped drastically when I stopped cooking for myself. I could eat food, I was just feeling lazy. I told myself I was capable of leaving the apartment. I was just too lazy to do so. I hardly showed up the entire second semester of classes, and I started to feel like my school’s whole community was whispering about me behind my back. I dreaded going to class and feeling people’s eyes on me, and I stopped leaving the apartment altogether in order to avoid anyone I might know. When I did go to class, I stared off into the distance waiting for the clock to tick its way to the thirty-minute mark. I never heard a word the professors were saying. But, of course, I was just lazy.
I quit school the following month.
I began to hear things that nobody else could hear and see things that nobody else saw. I felt like my thoughts were trapped behind a translucent wall—I could see vague outlines of ideas and words, but I couldn’t tell what they contained. It took forever to form a sentence, and even longer to complete one. I felt fuzzy, idiotic, simple-minded. I rationalized my way through each and every symptom. The church bells ringing at 2:51am: overactive imagination. The shadows on the walls: bizarre afterimages, like the ones you get from looking into the sun for too long. Inability to talk: eh, I’m just tired and forgetful. I started to compulsively write. The first dozen pages of my journal ramble on about medieval battle strategy, quantum mechanics, religion. Then, one page stands out: a list of possible symptoms with “AM I GOING CRAZY?” scrawled across the top. Flipping the page, however, brings one back to a scrambling of notes on the Feynman lectures and the effectiveness of chemical truth serums.
The dark corner of my mind, ever-present since my preteen years, was no longer the amorphous “here there be monsters” of uncharted territory. It became an Other. It put urges in my mind—powerful urges—demanding that I kill myself in the most gruesome way possible. I didn’t want to die, and so I appeased it with intense amounts of pain. I self-harmed. I was smart about it, though, and congratulated myself on my coping skills—it’s impossible to die from self-flagellation. I knew it was wrong, but it was better than the alternative. By this point I knew something was wrong, but I still thought I was in control. In truth, I was drowning.
During a moment of clarity, I called my mom in tears: “Mom, I think it might be schizophrenia.” I said the word, I said schizophrenia. I was on a plane flying back home the next day.
The next few months were a dark mess of doctors, hospitalizations, and therapy programs. My thoughts were pressing against the back of my eyes, and it was giving me headaches. The Other, ever-present, was putting self-destructive urges in my mind: light yourself on fire; run away; stop eating; drive off a cliff. I accepted that I was sick, but I still couldn’t take the medication and I didn’t know why. To me, it felt like 1984’s doublethink: two contradicting ideas held simultaneously in the mind, both ideas understood as indisputably true. I was shoving myself deeper and deeper into my own psychosis, when all I wanted was to recover.
“Is this self-destructiveness coming from me?” I wrote in my notebook, as I wondered at my inability to take medication. “I’m fucking possessed. It gets inside of me and tricks me. It comes from the dark place that is growing and separating.” That day, I realized that the indescribable urge to flush my medication down the toilet was all a subversive plot created by the Other to kill me. I believed I was being hunted by Death, and that the Other was the infiltration of Death itself into my mind. I truly wanted to take my medication, I realized, and was prevented from doing so by an outside force. This one singular breakthrough enabled me to place the pills in my mouth and swallow. I’m a stubborn person, and I wasn’t about to let some bizarre, amorphous creature in my mind win. Death clearly wanted to feed on my extinguished life, but I wasn’t going to let it. I didn’t want to die. I took my meds.
Unfortunately, things didn’t improve.
Finding proper medication for schizophrenia is a life-long struggle. One medication may work, but comes with awful side-effects. Another may just make things worse. The Abilify I was given made it impossible for me to sit still—imagine downing forty cups of coffee, and you’ll understand—while simultaneously doing very little to help my symptoms. I fought every day to take the medication hoping it would work, but it never did. I checked myself into the hospital again, terrified that I would lose control of the Other and kill myself. I was placed on Latuda this time, which worked like a dream. When I was released, I actually managed to leave the house—an activity that had eluded me for weeks. It didn’t last. I developed severe leg cramps, and was taken off the Latuda the next day. My next medication, Geodon, made me twitch and lose half my eyesight. I was given Risperdal next, but it was akin to swallowing tic tacs. I begged my psychiatrist to put me back on Latuda, with a new medication to deal with the side effects. I am still on the Latuda as I write this, and am hoping for the best.
That’s all I have to go on at the moment: hope.
When I was a baby, I had a tiny shopping cart I used for balance as I toddled around the house. Every couple of minutes I would wedge myself into a corner, scream bloody murder, and bang the cart against the wall. The wall was in my way, and I wasn’t going to stand for it. To hell with turning, I was going to create a baby-sized hole in the wall and continue on my merry way. My parents would run up and turn the cart around to avoid too much damage to the walls, and three seconds later I was stomping down my new path with single-minded determination.
At twenty-one, I have so many things I want to accomplish in life and I hope I can conquer even just a quarter of them. I want to travel and see the world. I want to go back to school, but perhaps pursue a degree in psychology or neuroscience this time around. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail, and see Crivelli’s Annunciation with St. Emidius in person. I want to live, not just survive, and I want to help others do the same. It’s hard to imagine a future when I’m never sure if tomorrow will be a good day or a bad one. It’s hard to see progress when simply leaving the house is a major accomplishment. But I’m me: new directions and seemingly immoveable walls have never been too intimidating. I just need to get my cart out of the corner.