Editor’s Note: OC87 Recovery Diaries is proud to welcome Mike Hedrick to the team as a regular contributor. We will feature a piece of Mike’s writing on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, in addition to essays from our guest writers. Mike writes openly, candidly and often humorously about his mental illness with the hope that his work provides strength to millions worldwide who are like him.
Mike’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Salon.com, the Washington Post and several other major publications. Published in 2013, Mike’s book, Schizophrenic Connections, is available on Amazon.com.
Having schizophrenia hasn’t been a picnic. Over the last ten years I’ve struggled with so many different complications, nuances, symptoms, side-effects and annoyances that it would take a multi-volume encyclopedia to lay everything out. Lucky for you I’m limited to 2,000 words.
Whether it’s been complications from feeling paranoid or delusional thoughts that have all but crippled both my self-esteem and my ability to function, I’ve seen just about every curveball that the illness has in its back pocket. One of the more striking realms of frustration that I’ve experienced in living with schizophrenia has been the ways in which my symptoms and the illness have manifested themselves in my personal relationships. From friends to family to romantic interests; dealing with schizophrenia has challenged me in a way that would be difficult to fully explain.
This essay is an attempt to try, though, so bear with me.
When you’re stable, as I have been for a long time, things do get easier but I can still remember when I first got diagnosed. I’ve often heard the adage about mental illness being a disease like any other, like diabetes or cancer: you’re in the hospital for a while and you slowly but surely get better. Things like cancer or diabetes don’t tend to go away, though, and living with a chronic illness is an exercise in patience in and of itself. The thing that’s different about mental illness is that nobody visits you in the hospital, save your parents or your siblings. Any word from friends or acquaintances goes completely out the door and, due to the stigma of the thing; you’re relegated, for the time being and a while after, as the friend who went crazy. Your friends have no idea how to deal with a mental illness diagnosis, and they either treat it as some defect of character or as some dangerous effect of drug use or circumstance.
Really, you come to realize just exactly what unconditional love is in those instances and you realize who will be there for the long haul whether you like it or not. That’s the reason I often espouse the importance of family because I’ve seen just how important they really are.
I’m blessed in that regard. I’ve heard so many stories about the families of people with mental illness either abandoning them out of frustration or thinking that the illness was some attempt to get attention or to gain control over difficult circumstances. So many people regard mental illness as a momentary, terrifying breakdown and the truth of the matter is that it’s a biological, lifelong thing to deal with and work through.
At the same time, however, while you may recognize who’s going to stick around, you have to contend with the overwhelming difficulty of paranoia in even those most dedicated relationships. With the rest of society, it’s a whole different ballgame, but in the close knit community of family you have to relearn rules, conventions, trust and ultimately honesty in learning to live with your illness and learning to share your anxieties and worries with your family. There will be moments where you’re in awe of the things that are coming out of your mouth and your parents and siblings will be looking at you like you’re crazy, but the most important thing is that you feel comfortable enough with them to share. Many times families of people with mental illness don’t get to that point and that alone is heartbreaking.
I live my life in regards to family with total and complete honesty. It has, however, taken awhile for me to get to that point, lest I feel I’m being a burden, I’m so glad that I have that openness with the people that I care about.
In that same vein you can imagine how it is for someone with a chronic mental illness to form new relationships. Friendship is at least manageable while romance is a whole different ballgame. In truth, building that trust with someone is extremely hard. If you don’t feel like you’re bothering them, you worry both how you’re being perceived and how they like you. On top of that, you’re worried about the myriad social conventions, tactics and rules that are automatic to most people in the dating world but are extremely difficult to you. This includes things like eye-contact, body language, tone of voice, timbre of voice, nervous tics, and maintaining conversation. If you get caught up in these things, which is so easy to do when one of your main symptoms is paranoia and you’re already extremely worried what people think of you, it can be debilitating to even consider meeting new people, making new friends or finding romance.
I can remember a date I went on a while ago where it was simple enough, coffee on a sunny afternoon. The girl was someone I had just recently met through a friend at the coffee shop I frequented. It started out great, I had made her laugh a few times although I was having a hard time with eye contact, looking in her eyes, then getting paranoid that I was making her nervous or that I wasn’t blinking and then looking down. My hands were nervous too, I was rubbing my fingers together as I have a tendency to do and then I got worried that she saw I was doing that and that she would think that I was nervous. It all came to a head when she asked me about my work. I told her I wrote about mental health and then she asked how I got involved in that. I was at a loss for words — finally something came out of my mouth resembling the words, “I don’t want to tell you because I’ll scare you off.” After that the awkward silences came hard and fast and in a matter of time the date was dead. I called her two days later but she never called back.
There are just so many different things to worry about when you’re living with schizophrenia. It’s pretty clear to see why many of us choose to isolate, smoke cigarettes, or seek relief in some form. I’ve done that stuff many times myself and, if I felt like I had the option, I probably still would. The people I’ve met with schizophrenia have always seemed worse off than me though and I guess I’m thankful for that but I see myself in them too. They seem to be struggling so much more than I am with their symptoms that it’s visible that something is bothering them, they display a blunted affect, a nervous stutter sometimes a complete lack of self care and awareness and I don’t know if It’s that I just practice so religiously with social and personal appearance that I’ve been able to act pretty normal. What they display outwardly though I feel almost exactly parallel inwardly. Most people don’t realize how challenging living with a mental illness can be and the thing that really sucks about it is that we live this way for years, under constant fear or delusion until we either accept it and get used to it or we lash out in some way which means it’s time to go back to the hospital.
I wish things weren’t like this, but this is the reality.
Of course dealing with all of this while under the delusion that people are out to get you or that you’re a prophet or that the TV is talking to you takes a long time to come to terms with. That’s the thing about schizophrenia though: it’s not just anxiety, as so many people have suggested to me before, it’s the deep, seething fear that people are going to hurt you in some way. It’s more than worrying what people will think of you, it’s being constantly on alert that people are targeting you.
“Misanthropic” is a term I like to use and, while it’s most often used in reference to a dislike of people, I use it almost jokingly in an attempt to illustrate how I feel about social interaction.
I hate socializing but, sadly, I have to do it, as does anyone else living in society.
Even interactions with gas station attendants or baristas have me on high alert and I’ve learned to live with that fear by accepting and learning how to take its power away. I’m still scared but I’m used to it now and I can move on without being debilitated by it.
It is extremely difficult to live with this paranoia and though I’ve gotten good at it and am skilled socially, it will always be a part of my interactions and my life.
For me to describe all of this to anyone would seem like a burden but honesty has saved me more times than I can count. I’m so thankful for my brothers and my parents, to whom I’m able to tell my craziest momentary thoughts about someone tracking my car or hacking my computer or talking to me through the media.
These little crazies appear less and less now that I’ve gotten good at dealing with my illness, but I know that the people who have unconditional love for me will be at least willing to hear me out and talk me down if that’s what the situation requires. It’s taken an immense amount of self-reflection to get to that point where I can separate my crazies from my conscious mind but I’m getting better at it with each passing day.
I’m ten years out now and, while I’ve dealt with my fair share of problems, I’ve come to a point where I’m good. I don’t live in intense fear like I used to but I still have moments, and the funny thing is: I’m thankful for them. They’ve given me character and they’ve given me strength that you’d be hard pressed to find in most other people. My Illness has also shown me that people are still fearful, and at times put off by the label of schizophrenia. I can remember two instances where people have asked me if I’ve ever killed anyone and other instances where their brow furrowed and a hint of disgust moved across their face. People are afraid of something so often portrayed as out of control that they don’t know how to interact to the word schizophrenia or to the words mentally ill. It’s as if they see the lengths to which something can happen if they lose their carefully calibrated sense of control and they see that it can happen to other people. It shows them the reality of a fear they have for themselves. Hopefully I show them, through my control and my care, that you can come back from the brink. It’s not a death sentence, but it is a long hard road and most people don’t understand what it’s like to live with something like this before they make judgments based on the unstable, dangerous portrayal of mentally ill people they’ve seen throughout their entire lives in the media.
Schizophrenia is an illness unlike any other and it’s shown its true colors not just as something to deal with but something to overcome. I’m on my way there now and, even after ten years, I’m still learning about what makes me and this illness tick. It’s been hard, and that’s an understatement, but I’m learning and I’m getting better.