A few years ago, a random act of violence landed me in the hospital as a John Doe, and worse yet, pronounced Dead On Arrival. I had been mugged by three assailants, and left to die outside the ferry terminal. Had it not been for a passerby alerting the Port Authority, I might have bleed out alone on a dirty sidewalk. Instead, I was rushed to the ER where an orderly noticed that my hand was twitching and that this particular “corpse” wasn’t ready to meet his Maker just yet.
Flashes of overhead lights, masks, tubing, and an obnoxious, steady beeping in the corner of the otherwise silent room, kept me occupied for the three days that I drifted in and out of consciousness. My only guest was my brother who was studying to get his PhD in physical education. He sat by my side reading his medical textbooks aloud to keep my mind occupied until I came to. When I finally awoke, I asked him where he’d found such a boring novel. Our sense of humor always got us through the worst of times.
I was released back into the world with multiple stitches in my face, nose, and mouth, bandages around my cracked ribs, a compress over my right eye and cracked cheekbone. The pain was made bearable by a month-long prescription of oral morphine. Not as strong a medication as the drip administered to me in the hospital, yet every bit as effective in helping me manage the symptoms of pain. One unexpected side effect was the sense of fearlessness that I began to notice after the first couple of weeks.
While I had experienced psychosis, delusions, and broken memory, I was yet undiagnosed for my schizophrenia. As an artist, eccentric behavior was practically expected of me, so I had no reason to suspect that living in a constant state of fear was anything other than reasonable. After all, if I lived in a metropolitan city where I could be mugged for laughs by wannabe gangsters, why shouldn’t I be in a constantly heightened state of vigilance? I had died and been reborn. I was a Phoenix – triumphant and unafraid.
I enjoyed the sensation so much that I used my artistic talents at the printer’s shop to reproduce my scrip, forge the doctor’s signature, and keep my supply running throughout the summer. The bandages came off, the scars began to heal, but the recurring traumatic stress fractures in my psyche complicated matters whenever the morphine would wear off. The cycle became aggressive: dose up, chill out, not a care in the world; paranoia, effectiveness waning? – pill me. The lie I told myself was that this was The Best Thing For Me. I was wrong, and I knew it. I thought I was invincible, a modern-day superhero … in my room. In front of the TV, lights out, isolated, ashamed. And somehow still riddled with fear.
My doctor brother saw the warning signs and got right on it. We went to a clinic to ween me off the meds. He took me to see a counselor who talked with me about my mugging, and helped me see into the workings of the mind behind PTSD. It would be years before I would tackle the bigger picture on my own, but it was a start. From the ashes of the terror of being brutally beaten and left for dead, to a young person willing to face his fears head-on for the first time in his life, I arose not as one the Living Dead, but as one who had faced death and survived. I owed my newfound freedom to my brother for helping to redirect my intentions, and to the experience itself that had brought me to the edge and back.
Since then I have lost my friends, my dignity, and my self-worth, to the ravages of schizophrenia, a single entity more powerful than any three random muggers. I learned from my past that I could seek help and find treatment if I just shared my story – the real story – honestly and without the shame of self-stigma.
With the dedicated relationship that I share with my therapist of five years, I have begun to rebuild my lost life. Two psychiatrists further defined my diagnosis, which I research daily in my quest for the truth about my mental illness and strategies for maintenance. Upon first meeting, people have used negative and/or dismissive words like “crazy,” “withdrawn,” and “incoherent,” to describe me, but once they’ve heard my story, they use words like “honest,” “engaging,” and “brave.”
You know your illness – get to know it better. Don’t let the stigma associated with it blindside you or drop you to the pavement. Fight back with the aid of your doctor and your therapist, your medication, your family and your friends. Above all, do not be ashamed of who you are. You’re a beautiful human being and you deserve to be recognized as such. Spread your wings and soar.