In a recent conversation, a friend asked me why I refer to myself as “a schizophrenic” and not as “a person living with schizophrenia”. Their main concern was that I was associating myself too closely with the illness, which, while that was inaccurate, I completely understood. When I write, I frequently state that I have schizophrenia or that I am living with it. Still, I felt their question provided a solid focus for discussion.
I am not my diagnosis—about that I am adamant—but I will use its name to define myself when appropriate, much the same way a person living with diabetes might claim to be “a diabetic”. I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and I call myself “a schizophrenic”. It’s my choice to use that word.
The name of my disorder means, literally, “split mind”. Not of two minds, like the ON/OFF switch or the dissociative identity disorder which it is often mistaken for, but a mind fragmented, as the term has come to be understood in the profession. There’s the real split: the clinical terminology versus the incorrect and often stigmatized public usage.
Semantically speaking, am I schizophrenic? No, I am not. I have schizophrenia and I am a schizophrenic. I choose to address my illness in the most available way possible. I’m comfortable with the terminology because it’s accurate. It’s also my choice. I’m not allowing someone else to define my personality or my contribution to society by labeling me. I’m simply using a word to communicate something about me. If the person I am speaking to is uncomfortable with that, then they’re the uncomfortable party, not me. I stand firm in the knowledge that I am so much more than my diagnosis. Stigma and discrimination might wear me down, but not at the cost of my self worth.
I have to maintain my dignity and control of my communication when I speak about living with schizophrenia. I have learned to make choices about who I share my diagnosis with and why. Some random stranger at the bus stop? Not unless I’m in a situation where assistance might be necessary. In a case like that I would keep the information to a minimum, perhaps just to anchor myself to reality while I feel it drifting away. Has this happened to me? Yes, it has. When I’ve asked strangers for help when I was having a panic attack, I generally received nothing but cold shoulders. Only once did I receive help in a situation like that. I let the person know that I had schizophrenia. They helped me out of the kindness of their heart. To have been worried about wording would not have achieved the goal.
Having a working knowledge of my diagnosis helps me communicate better about it, and I would recommend to anyone with an interest in their mental health to do the same. The more one knows about their disorder, the better. For example, I have learned that immediate short term memory loss, or “working memory” suffers greatly in the mind of a schizophrenic. I recently had to work with three different attorneys for legal counseling, and I told each one that I had schizophrenia, that my working memory falters, and that I would likely need to have them repeat themselves so that I could understand the information they were sharing with me. All three were respectful of my disclosure and treated me accordingly because I trusted them to do so.
When I meet a new person, sharing details about my diagnosis is the last thing on my mind. I want first to get to know them, later to form a bond, and then, if it’s appropriate, tell them about my mental illness. If it’s not going to affect the relationship, then I don’t need to go blabbing it about. But if it’s relevant to the friendship, then of course I open up.
Schizophrenia is a chronic and debilitating genetic disorder. Were it that society understood this simple medical fact, perhaps the storied serial- killer-in-the-hockey-mask stereotype would disappear forever from the fabric of our culture, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. So it comes down to opening up responsibly and keeping it real with people that we trust—our therapists, doctors, psychiatrists, best friends, family, and loved ones. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from forming and maintaining solid relationships.
The asthmatic has asthma, the diabetic has diabetes, and the schizophrenic has schizophrenia. Simple terms used to define complex medical diagnoses. The glitch lies in the stigma attached to the word. When mental health is accepted on a level playing field with physical health, then parity can be achieved and stigma can be broken. I take full ownership of the words I use to describe my self and my disorder, two separate issues requiring two distinct descriptions. I have no reason to shy away from speaking openly. We change the course of a thing by discussing it. Sharing our stories is the perfect first step.