It starts as an image in my head. By the time I recognize it, it’s already taken hold. I imagine that I can shake myself at a speed intense enough to break free. It’s deep within me, a part of my very being, inescapable, permanent. I am my own cage.
When I was in the hospital, I scratched at my body, obsessed with releasing insects that I was certain were nesting in my arms and hands. In my mind’s eye, my schizophrenia, like those bugs, lies just below the surface, clawing its way into my daily life. This imagery manifests itself physically as a tingling sensation at the back of my neck. It travels down my spine. My muscles tense as I attempt to keep from trembling uncontrollably.
The desire to be a normal person is at odds with the truth I have to face each day, that I have a debilitating mental disorder. I try to accept my diagnosis while wishing that it didn’t define me, but for the genetic anomaly that informs my condition, I can’t escape. It is as much a part of me as my eye color. That’s how close my acceptance has to be.
I take this puzzle to therapy and try my best to describe my feelings around it. I come up with words like “prisoner” and “trapped.” On the outside, I appear calm, together; internally, I’m in conflict. The diagnosis rings true on every level. I’ve had the tests. I take the meds. I do all the right things to maintain a healthy recovery, yet sometimes this rift is torn from within and I can’t see a way out. I get so frustrated that I begin to make plans, though I know that suicide is not an option. I’ve been down that road and don’t care to revisit the pain.
Science posits that the origins of my mental illness are in my DNA, inextricably woven into the fabric of my life. My personality exists separate yet equal to my diagnosis. I have a sense of control over my thoughts and actions, but I also have to recognize that this is an illusion, albeit one that I’m invested in for the sake of my mental health. Schizophrenia is in the brain, affecting the process of thought. Its experiential path is one of an ever-changing reality and the ways to interface with it, the cumulative effect of which is an experience of trauma surrounding the helplessness—and perceived hopelessness—of having this diagnosis.
I’m only human. Sometimes I struggle with my mental illness.
Responding to a meme regarding the dichotomy between identifying as one’s diagnosis or not, a friend posed the question: “Why is an identity as someone with a mental illness inherently bad?” Considering that I know that I am not my diagnosis, but that I live with it, I could answer that question logically and be done, but it doesn’t stop there. Apart from certain symptoms which distort perception, the temperament of the culture is the primary thing standing in the way of acceptance. We define that as stigma, and campaign against it.
When I am in this personal struggle, all I can see is its duality. There is the illness, and there is me without it. Actually, I superimpose that as a veneer of self worth over my circumstance. I don’t want to see myself as being mentally ill. I tire of taking the meds and going to therapy. Yet I know that when I do these things, life is better. I have proven to myself that recovery is preferable to the debilitating effects of unbridled schizophrenia. Still, I have few friends and I haven’t seen my family in years, all due to my being mentally ill, or so it would seem. If I could just remove the illness from my life, I believe that things would be different. I could fall in love. I could go places and experience life like a normal person, but without treatment I’d never be able to do those things, and that’s the point. I need the medications and therapy sessions. I need to talk about mental illness if just to remind myself that I don’t have to live life as an outsider lost to my disorder.
I may always face this conflict and wonder how things would have been had I not been born this way. I know that I can’t shake myself hard enough to dislodge my mental illness, but I can share my deepest feelings with my therapist and follow my doctor’s orders to ultimately reward myself with a respite from the cacophony of my thought disordered life.