Living with schizophrenia, I’ve run through the full gamut of symptoms; from delusions to paranoia, to hallucinations to side effects. I’ve written about these extensively, but one thing I don’t often write about is my depression which, at times, is just as prevalent as any of my other symptoms.
Depression can be a killer all by itself but, when combined with anxiety and paranoia, it can throw my whole world off its axis. Sometimes I can feel it coming; the middle of summer, as my birthday approaches, and in the midst of winter, when it’s cold and gray. There’s something about these two times of year that speak to the bleak passing of time that everyone experiences. When it gets cold, when the snow starts to fall in the quiet, my mind starts to wander into thoughts about the futility of life’s daily struggles. The grey skies match the shade of the hole that’s been in my chest for years, and I let myself ruminate on the things that bother me instead of forsaking them for a sunnier, more productive mood.
There are also internal factors that can contribute to my depression.
I’m worried about money.
I got rejected by a girl.
Somebody said something to me — I felt attacked.
Work’s piling up.
I try my best not to let the thoughts and insecurities of these situations get the best of me, which may or may not be to my detriment, but work, money, love, and social connections all require taking chances, and all carry with them the potential to get hurt. That hurt can turn, very easily, into depression.
For me, depression comes on subtly — like an auditory hallucination may start: with a whisper. I start to feel a bit of ennui, a French word meaning, “general malaise.” I’m bored or something didn’t work out and I frustrated. This can go on for a while — a month or two — until the ennui surrounds me and I feel worse with every passing day. I begin comparing my accomplishments to the achievements of others (this is a major reason why I don’t use Facebook or other social media). I feel like I don’t perform socially in “the right way.” The weather changes and, before I know it, the ennui has morphed into full-on depression.
For me, depression feels like getting hit by a truck. I am tired all the time, I struggle to function in public because my insecurities are getting the best of me and I feel worthless. I have the distinct notion that nobody cares about me, that they never will, and that I wouldn’t be missed if I killed myself or just died naturally. I struggle to tell anyone about these feelings because I don’t want people to worry. I also seem to get the feedback that there is an inherent misunderstanding about depression among many people, that when I do sometimes give voice to those feelings, some people respond in a way that equates depression with just having “a blue day.” This is not the case at all. Depression tends to get minimized, which stigmatizes the illness and negates the deep and real suffering of those impacted. I didn’t have much depression before my illness, but I can remember a distinct periods where I struggled with school and social life in high school and middle school. I didn’t have a name for those feelings then so I just lived with them.
Depression feels different for each of the 350 million people worldwide who are caught in its talons. Sometimes I’ll think about what it would be like if I killed myself. Twice in my life, I’ve scared myself with a clear plan to end my life. When that happens, I know it’s serious, and it’s time to seek serious help. Part of taking responsibility for my wellness is noticing that ennui and not letting it go un-checked. Here is what works for me:
I talk to someone about how I’m feeling; a family member, or a friend; someone who knows the program, (i.e., someone who doesn’t buy into the myth that depression = being down), and is non-judgmental. Sometimes talking helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always important to try. Following that, I always go to my therapist or my psychiatrist and, together, we figure out a way to get out of the funk. Sometimes it’s taking a break from work and responsibilities, sometimes it’s antidepressants, and sometimes it’s a prescription for healthier activities like walking or taking a nature hike.
I also try to restructure my responsibilities, as much as I can, so they take less of a toll on my daily mental health. I talk to my bosses about needing some leeway or a break, or I develop an adjusted routine that works with how I’m feeling at that time.
Finally, I treat myself well. I take care of myself with the steps I’ve learned to take it easy like taking showers, getting enough sleep and eating good food, all these things put a little joy back into life and, combined with a program of medication, talking, and prevention, I usually am able to maintain a sort of homeostasis. But there is another, more intangible facet of self-care, and that is how we treat ourselves in our minds and in our hearts. I still struggle with compassion for myself. I am way too hard on myself over things that really shouldn’t matter, and I know that. I try to be kind to myself; I tell myself that I don’t have to be perfect. Accepting yourself as you are is a major stepping stone on the way to finding comfort and peace. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Everyone has depressive periods at some point in their lives, and that there are strategies and supports out there that can help you get through those episodes. Therapy is beneficial, meds are helpful, and treating yourself well is essential. I wish everybody knew that self-care measures are perfectly acceptable and that seeking help when you need it doesn’t make you weak or “less than.” We all fall into a funk every now and again and we can all take steps necessary to lift ourselves up. The most important thing to know is: you are not the only one who feels this way. Even if you feel like complete, worthless trash, just know that, at the same moment you’re experiencing that thought; millions of people all over the world understand. We could all do with a reminder that we’re not alone. Depression is brutal, but you don’t have to suffer; and you certainly don’t have to suffer alone.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
It’s a beautiful spring day. You’re cruising along a stretch of ocean highway. The top’s down, the Beach Boys are crooning, the motor is humming, and the sun is streaming in. Things are good. Suddenly, the idiot lights on the dashboard come alive. The car stops dead in its tracks. That comfy ride you had been enjoying, perhaps without even realizing it, has ended.
In my most recent essay, I spoke about finding stability. But what happens when you have stability and you find that it’s still so easy to lose, given one or two unfortunate events? Finding stability is a challenge, but maintaining it is just as complicated and stressful. It’s an inevitable, and often cruel, tightrope act of living with a serious mental illness. I’ve been stable for a few years now, (and I’m taking a chance even saying that), and there are several things I’ve learned about maintaining that stability that may be helpful for you, or for someone you love.
The building of supports has helped me tremendously. If I am, in fact, walking a tightrope; my supports are that giant, inflatable cushion underneath so that, if I do happen to lose my footing I have a chance at a safe landing. Amassing and cultivating your supports is a process that can take years, but it is essential to have people and plans for when things may falter.
One thing I’ve done is build a career around people and organizations that understand if I need to take some time to myself to focus on my mental health. This includes organizations centered on furthering education about mental illness that have compassionate knowledge about how mental illness can affect a person. I realize this is not something everyone can do but being open about your illness to your superiors at work can open some doors for you in terms of providing the net that is so necessary. Of course, disclosing your illness is a very delicate matter that requires a considerable amount of thought. There may be consequences to disclosing and while, in a perfect world, there shouldn’t be, the reality is that disclosure may require some counsel on the part of your doctors and your support structure.
The people you choose to surround yourself with probably matter most of all. Both friends and family have my back through thick and thin and, while this network is small, (fewer than ten people), these people are there for me when I slip and need help getting back up. I recognize, too, that many people with a serious and persistent mental illness would do anything to have ten people on their side. My allies understand my illness and they know how to support me. Support, like all aspects of relationships, should be a two way street. My brother and I are in therapy dealing with our own individual mental health issues, and we help and support each other as best we can.
I also believe that maintaining stability without an abundance of education is nearly impossible. Education could mean reading relevant subject matter, or discovering new therapeutic modalities that I can then try out with my therapist, or researching coping strategies for the problems in my life. Coping with mental illness is my full-time job and, while it can anger me and cause me a great deal of heartache, it’s an endlessly fascinating “occupation.” There are many authors with diverse and intriguing perspectives who specialize in mental health and, when a new book on neuroscience comes out, I quickly get my hands on it. I’ll do anything to get even the smallest inkling on how to deal with the thoughts that careen through my head.
Educating myself about schizophrenia is perhaps one of the most beneficial steps I’ve taken since being diagnosed. The knowledge I have gained has helped me analyze the mechanisms in my brain that cause things to erupt or die down, and I’ve used plenty of strategies I’ve learned in dealing with my illness and becoming a productive member of society. Having these has helped me parse out my paranoia and my delusions from reality.
Implementing knowledge and skills gained from reading, research, and therapy is the final piece, for me, of the stability maintenance program. Acquiring tools is great, but, if you don’t use them; then it’s all for nothing. I use deep breathing almost daily when dealing with my anxiety and paranoia, and that’s something I wouldn’t have learned without reading about anxiety. Reality-testing, (the process of attempting to parse out delusion from fact), is another little nugget has saved me countless hours of frustration and anxiety. I learned about reality-testing from reading about the function of delusions, combined with countless hours of practice and talking with my psychiatrist and therapist about what things are real and what things are neurological impulses bent on deceit.
I have often talked about my delusions that I am, or will be, under attack from people that I deem to be shady characters. I fear that they will make fun of me or verbally assault me somehow. Working through these feelings in the safety of my therapist’s office has shown me that, the vast majority of the time; I’m projecting my own fears on these innocent people. It’s frightening when you can’t trust your brain, upon which you’ve relied to carry you through the world, because it is now telling you things, sometimes harmful things, that have no basis in reality.
In flashing moments of panic, the pulsating pressure of paranoia, or during extended periods of depression, it is critical that you have the tools and people in place to support your stability. As you live with an illness, you learn what is necessary to keep you grounded in reality. Like learning how to do a Sudoku puzzle or read a map, it takes learning and effort until using these tools becomes second nature.
Maintaining stability is a delicate dance that, at times, can be very unstable and can cause some strife trouble if you fall. However, building these support structures, educating myself and using the tools I’ve learned has kept me, for the most part, on the highway, my motor purring away.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
Finding stability, like anything else worthwhile, takes time and effort. It also takes an openness to learning, and and an openness to failing. Finding stability a process of nearly unparalleled complication as you work, practice, and commit to wellness and discovery. Achieving stability has been the overarching goal in my life up to this point and to say that I’m perfectly healthy and stable would still not be the truth. Living with schizophrenia brings the instability you feel as part of the illness. This includes not only the psychosis, delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms, but the overarching experience of living life with mental illness.
Maybe schizophrenia causes you to be unable to interact with people due to debilitating anxiety. Maybe it causes you to lose your concept of self and everything that you had going for you: school, work, family, friends; all of these can deteriorate slowly, or quickly, depending upon the severity of your illness. You don’t know how to keep afloat in the world because, compared to the things that are going on in your head, reality is so seemingly inconsequential.
You have a special mission!
The government is reading your mind!
You’re a prophet and you’re communicating with aliens!
In any of these cases, normal life has little to no relevance to you. Once you’re diagnosed and you come face to face with the reality that the things you experienced were only in your head; you are now on the long road of rebuilding your life and your relationships to a point that’s stable.
Stability requires a great deal of awareness and reflection, as well as the ambition to put the discoveries you make along the way into practice. It’s taken me eleven years to get to a point where I don’t have to worry every day about paranoia and delusions. It’s been incredibly challenging, but also endlessly rewarding. Many young parents talk about how having a child is a second full time job–I think that finding and maintaining stability is probably just as consuming, taxing, and life-affirming.
Looking back on when I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, I can remember the consuming confusion and pain I felt at having been told I was “crazy.” On top of that, I was still trying to cope with delusions and paranoia. I believed that words, song lyrics, or circumstances had special meanings, that everything was interconnected and intertwined and that I could figure out the secrets of the universe, if I just paid enough attention. That contributed to a heightened awareness that has stayed with me, but I also desperately wanted to forget my diagnosis and be normal, so I essentially devoted my life to practicing being “normal.”
What I mean by “finding stability” is getting to the point where I was as normal as they came. This meant working on unwinding my delusions and paranoia, but also studying and practicing human behavior. I had to come to terms with, and refute, the things my brain was telling me by analyzing my thoughts that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I had to learn to recognize these thoughts for what they were: a result of my imbalanced brain chemistry, and I then had to learn and accept that the things they were saying had little to no basis in reality. Essentially, they were just components of my own insecurities — haunting me with every social interaction and every public appearance. I had to confront these insecurities that were so deep-seated within me that I’d spend hours and days obsessing over them and cowering in fear.
In therapy, somewhere along the line, I learned about acceptance, but it didn’t really register until almost a year later. I was sitting on my porch thinking about how painful and harmful my own thoughts were to me. The notion that, if I accepted these insecurities, I wouldn’t have to fight them so hard appeared in my head, and this notion changed the entire course of my recovery. Instead of trying to find a way around my insecurities, anxieties and paranoia, I learned to embrace them as facets of who I am. Accepting my anxieties took an enormous amount of pressure off my shoulders and showed me that I could relax into being me. The meds helped, but these techniques– recognizing, analyzing, and accepting– improved my clarity vastly. Pretty soon after I learned to accept myself and my thoughts, I learned to relax and I found that social interaction and appearing “normal” came so much easier. I was allowed to not worry about how I appeared to other people and I was allowed to not worry about whether or not I was crazy because I had completely come to terms with the label of crazy. “Crazy” was a part of me, but it wasn’t all of me.
I was able to take a deep, powerful breath and see that I was okay.
I was perfectly valid as an individual, and my thoughts were valid. Realizing your own validity and worth– that you are not some disgusting animal for having mental health challenges– is something I wish I could tell everyone I come across. It’s important to know that you matter in this world and that your thoughts, though at times these can be terrifying, are just thoughts. That’s where I found the most stability; in that notion of acceptance alone. After that, things seemed easier, more real, and I was empowered to claim some semblance of control over my life.
As the years passed, I continued to practice my social interactions, and my attempts at normalcy in every interaction that I had with another human being. Even completely inconsequential encounters with the pizza guy or the lady at the gas station were opportunities to rehearse my act of playing a “normal human being.” While things got somewhat better, I still suffered from anxiety and fear of what people thought of me. I still tried hard to appear as normal as possible for a long time. I tried to appear friendly and gregarious– like the social butterfly I was in high school. But I was still afraid.
Finally, after a long day of trying, I was laying on my couch listening to a hip-hop record, wondering to myself where it was that these rappers got their confidence. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to try not to be afraid anymore. That was another major turning point in my journey to find stability. In every situation where I felt my anxiety levels rising, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “I am NOT going to be afraid.” This meant that I didn’t have to try to be normal anymore, I didn’t have to worry that people wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t normal. If you think about it, nobody’s normal. Everybody has quirks and crazy moments, but it’s okay because they are who they are, and you are who you are. I am who I am. Not being afraid meant that I could be who I am. What the process comes down to is learning how to be you, not learning how to be a perfect human being. I wish I had known that eleven years ago but, in the end, I wouldn’t change the whole process of self-discovery and finding stability for anything in the world.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
Imagine you had to trade health for happiness, and happiness for stability. Which would you choose? You have to make a choice, because that’s the deal when you take antipsychotic medications in this day and age. (more…)
When I was deep in the midst of a psychotic break, I was convinced that I was a prophet sent from God to save society from its ills. Many people I’ve spoken to about schizophrenia experience similar beliefs. When psychosis hits, there is often a function of thinking that you have been ordained with supernatural authority. Some people think they are Jesus or God himself and many others are convinced that they hear the voice of God. It’s easy to see why religion seems to take such a central hold in times of psychosis. Psychosis, in and of itself, is a kind of supernatural experience. Religious texts are filled with myths, stories, and folklore about people who communicate with God. The symptoms themselves, which seem to suggest that there’s something otherworldly occurring, through either a perceived telepathy or delusions of grandeur, make it easy to conclude that you are connected to something divine. (more…)
Living with schizophrenia, I’ve experienced all manner of delusions about the way I think things are, and the way they actually are. Delusions signal a break with reality and, no matter how seemingly insignificant they may be, delusions should immediately be addressed with a mental health professional. Delusions are almost always ridiculous iterations of reality. They are skewed perspectives on the way things actually are, and they can arise in any number of situations. Coming to terms with the ridiculousness of your delusions is a process of awareness, then unpacking and analyzing the delusion — testing it against reality. Finally, you have to accept the delusion for what it is: a strange construct of your mind. (more…)
In the classic story, Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara experiences the complexities and tragedies of love as she falls in love with a man and then marries his brother just so she can be close to him. Her husband is killed in the war and she meets and marries another man, all while still in love with first one. Eventually, she is left alone and bereft, only gaining true insight about the ways in which her heart works after it’s too late. (more…)
Imagine you have cancer, complete with nasty symptoms that flare up at inopportune times. Now, imagine that your cancer is in remission — you haven’t had symptoms for a few months — and then something big happens. You break up with a partner, or you’re moving, or one of your parents dies. All of a sudden, your symptoms flare up again and leave you reeling in pain. This obviously isn’t a reality for cancer but for mental illness it is. There’s something strange that happens when stress enters your life. Your risk of a heart attack increases, your risk of diabetes increases and your symptoms of mental illness intensify pretty significantly. (more…)
Living with schizophrenia presents some complicated challenges. In the midst of paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, chores like doing the dishes or doing your laundry, and basic personal hygiene routines such as taking a shower and brushing your teeth become nuisances and ordeals. These basic tasks you have to perform to be a member of society fall by the wayside because they just don’t seem to matter at all when chaos is careening through your mind. It takes effort to do the things necessary to keep yourself, your house and your situation in good working order. But how do you “keep up appearances” when you are so focused on parsing reality from the outlandish things that your mind is telling you? There are several things that have helped keep me fed and clean and somehow able to pay rent every month, and hopefully some of those things may help you or your loved one, too. I realize it may be too difficult for a lot of people with mental illness to completely take care of themselves but, like everything else, it’s a process. I’ve only incorporated these things into my life after years of repetition and I still don’t have them down completely. Still, self-care is important, for recovery and also for general wellbeing. (more…)
Living with schizophrenia, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll come up against barriers, some of which may seem insurmountable. You’ll face tough days, weeks, months or even years, and all that pushing for some semblance of recovery or normalcy can easily overwhelm you. Stress is the light switch for symptoms of schizophrenia. As the stress starts to build, your paranoia can increase, you may start becoming obsessive and delusional and you can easily lose yourself in the midst of all these symptoms and find yourself in scary situations. When curve-balls come your way, you have to know how and when to pull back. In essence, you have to be conscious of what you’re feeling, you have to recognize your mind’s reactions to stimuli and be aware that the things you are experiencing are mostly in your head. Having a “wellness toolkit” filled with strategies that work for you will help you figure out your limits and gain an essential awareness of the maximum you can take without falling into delusion. (more…)
Mike Hedrick with his father
“We knew something was just not right.”
In talking with my parents about my psychotic break, the one thing that stands out from their experience is the fear and their worry about their son. When I was twenty years old, I went on a trip to the U.N. because I thought I was a prophet of God. I left without telling anybody and I didn’t call my parents until a week later when I had finally had enough and I decided to come home. The phone call was very cryptic. All I said was that I’d be home the next day and that they should pick me up at the train station. During that car ride, I started to ramble about aliens and my mission and the hugeness of it all. I was in awe that my parents couldn’t see it. (more…)
Schizophrenia is an insidious disease. It can be difficult to parse even the clearest facets of reality from the delusions in your head. The delusions you have can wreak havoc on your concept of the real world, of relationships and your idea of well being. Schizophrenic delusions are persistent, which is one of the major reasons recovery can take such a long time. (more…)
When you have schizophrenia, a number of strange things happen to you ranging from extreme paranoia to delusions of grandeur to everything in between. One of the things people with schizophrenia do that isn’t that widely understood is the tendency to make connections out of seemingly random things. It’s rather like a child constantly asking “Why?” until their parent reaches the very edges of human understanding and all they can say is, “Because that’s the way it is.” (more…)
I get messages from people all the time about my work. Many times, they’re looking for advice on how to help a loved one with mental illness. Sometimes I feel that, through me, they are trying to find some magic cure that can help immediately. The only advice I give is to be there and, above all else, give it time. That can be hard to come to terms with when your world seems so chaotic, but time is truly the only thing that can heal in situations like these. (more…)
The belief that you are somehow more powerful or more important than you are, or perhaps anybody is, is a serious and sometimes dangerous misperception. When I went on my trip to the U.N. in the midst of serious psychosis I believed, though I was still resistant, that I was a prophet sent by God to bring peace to the world. I had a philosophy of light balancing out dark, good balancing evil and opposite extremes cooperating to form a cohesive whole. I was unclear then on how exactly this partial philosophy would bring peace to the world and now, ten years out, I’m even more confused by it. (more…)