Heathen Chemistry

By Henry Boy Jenkins

colorful pillsWhen I asked him what he liked about my paintings, my friend answered, “The composition. The wordless poetry.” Not the art-school-confidential color theory choices? “Nope. I just see brown, or what the doctors tell me is brown. I wouldn’t know from brown. I was born this way. I’m color blind.”

I couldn’t comprehend it. “What if there was an operation that gave you access to color?” I asked. “If you could see like everyone else, wouldn’t you want that?”

He pointed at the sky. “Look at this beautiful sunset. The reflections, the twilight melting into clouds, the stars peeking out.” He was happy with brown. With no access to the rainbow, there’s no template for convention. No context to draw upon for contrast. A genetic palette. Born this way.

Six months ago he listened to me babble about dead people stealing my thoughts. He took me to the hospital. I kept that visit secret from family and friends, knowing that another relapse would make me undesirable in their eyes. I’d already been there just eight months before. I thought I’d lost my best friend because of that stay. A shift in my insurance plan cost me my caseworker. My therapist had changed her practice. My support network was morphing, and I was unprepared.

Stress can trigger a breakdown. It usually begins with somatic delusions, that my skull is changing, or my hands have been replaced. Beliefs like these build in intensity until they’re firmly embedded as fact. Delusions of reference get up in there, too. Ideas pilfered from movies and media take root as my own. I lose my identity. I find my way back. Being familiar with the snarl doesn’t make it any easier. It takes work. I need help. I reach out.

Something new is learned with each cycle, but the illness will take much of that away. As a part of my treatment, a support system is necessary to help monitor the course of my episodes. A lifetime of undiagnosed schizophrenia forced a veil of compensation over a sunrise of brown.

Four weeks ago I was back in the ER with a severe panic attack. My friend Coach stayed with me through the process. We talked about the challenges a mental illness can have on a friendship. That evening I made a decision. I would try medicating again. I felt like I needed the external assistance, if only to lift the burden off of the people around me. Something to augment my therapy sessions and support group meetings.

I am not against using medication. I’ve been administered chlorpromazine to stabilize me, and clozapine when I was suicidal. Four years before my official diagnosis, one physician thought bupropion might help my depression. After reading a disclaimer from the pharmaceutical company, a bottle of olanzapine sat unopened in my dresser drawer. Its rote prescription following a truncated psych eval discouraged my hope for health system parity.

Trial prescriptions of clonazepam, alprazolam, and venlafaxine were not very effective in alleviating my symptoms of anxiety. I didn’t take to them well. I felt disoriented and fearful and got physically ill. The only medication that my tiny constitution seems to respond to with any success is lorazepam; it appears to offer some relief from the state of constant worry. My schizophrenic symptoms still operate in the background, I just don’t have to pay them any mind. At least for now. And that’s alright.

The public is unaware of the shame perpetuated by the offhanded remark that a person is “off their meds”. That quip and its inference can’t begin to describe what happens when one’s chemistry is augmented. In my case, it is the clear understanding that I have no context for the common reality. No access to the rainbow, and no template for convention.

Since childhood, I have lived reality informed through schizophrenia. It’s the world that I know, life as I’ve come to live it. From the vantage point of my medicated self, there is nothing inherently wrong with my condition, and nothing in any way wrong with me. Unmedicated, I’m inclined to question that. And there’s the rub.

If you are in danger of harming yourself, any treatment plan that works is saving your life. My position is that we need to work with our professionals to find a plan best suited for us. Each individual is as different as their diagnosis. There is no one generic plan. We don’t need to accept a twilight without stars. We deserve a kaleidoscopic sky.

I am willing to try new avenues because I respect myself. Even if I could be like everyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily want that. There’s a certain beauty in being who we are. I was born this way.

6 responses to “Heathen Chemistry”

  1. Becky says:

    Beautifully and soulfully written. I admire you, having a grandson who is schizophrenic and will not accept it or medication. I love him dearly and pray he will one day fine a safe place to be the person he is to be. Blessings on you for sharing your story. I’m going to print your blog and re-read it often.

  2. Henry Boy says:

    Thank you, Becky. I was not diagnosed in my youth, like your grandson; had I been, my life might have been much different. I didn’t understand it. I resisted, even as an adult. It took me a long while to accept the truth.

    Something I learned about in my research into schizophrenia is a symptom called “anosognosia”, a difficulty in the brain of comprehending that the person has the disorder. It’s likely not something one is doing consciously, but rather the effect of this symptom. Here’s a link if you would like to read more about maybe why he’s having trouble with acceptance: http://www.anosognosia.org

    I’m not a psychiatrist or a therapist, but I am a person living with schizophrenia who has had to come to terms with more than I sometimes think I can bear. With the support of my friends, family, and therapists & doctors, I’m learning something new every week. I think that your love for your grandson is a blessing because it shows him that he is not alone in this. He has you. That’s a wonderful thing.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me and for supporting Bring Change 2 Mind. It’s appreciated!

  3. Carl G says:

    Another well-tooled glimpse into a unique universe. The use of
    therapeutic chemistry has dogged my wife’s fifty years with
    epilepsy, but finally a good balance was reached. It just took
    patience, perseverance, and faith in herself. Just like Henry.

  4. Carol says:

    This is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It helps me to empathize with my son who has schizophrenia. The world is filled with rainbows. Even if we can’t always see the colors. We feel them. Keep them coming!

  5. Monica says:

    I am touched by every one of your writings…you are an insight to my sons world…like you said each has a unique component to their life with any mental health dignosis and many things are also the same!! Every time I read your blogs it gives me more and more hope for my sons life!!! He is the most beautiful heart and soul and his strength in this life is immeasurable!!! Thank you so much for giving me something to come back to and reread and be informed!!! Each word truly gives me chills and comfort all at once!!! You are a blessing to so many and I hope you know how much!!!!
    Sincerely and best wishes!!
    Monica

  6. Margie says:

    Bravo for you! It is so very hard to navigate your way through this. As my very kind and supportive husband has told me when I am having a panic attack “the part of your body that does the thinking is the part that isn’t working properly right now”

    I have an anxiety disorder and have gone off the meds 3 times only to completely fall apart a few months later.
    I now understand that it is just something I need to function. Just as someone with diabetes or heart disease or any other physical problem might need.

    I am glad you realize that it is okay and you are okay for taking something that will make your quality of life better.
    No shame in that!

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