Don’t Be So Quick To Label People

By September 12, 2018Blog

I don’t like the term “high functioning schizophrenic.” It downplays the hard work I’ve put into managing my mental illness, as if to say, “You’re not all that sick,” which plays into the stereotype of schizophrenia as portrayed in popular culture. It discounts my life’s experience. I may function better now than I did in the past, but one wouldn’t know that unless they were there.

As a child I experienced auditory hallucinations. By college, delusional thinking and visual hallucinations had taken over and incapacitated me socially. I was an art student; I retreated into my work and studies. I rarely stepped out of my studio. Later I joined a band. I could hide in the eccentricities ascribed to musicians and artists. I concealed my illness well, although I had no idea I was sick. Paranoia consumed my every thought. I lived in terror and bewilderment. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I couldn’t relate to my siblings or friends. I withdrew deeper into psychosis.

The band had grown successful and I moved to Hollywood where my battle with anorexia and my increasingly confused state derailed any hope of attaining stardom, let alone living up to our contract. Engaged to be married, I moved to San Francisco to be with my fiancée. That dream went by the wayside, too; madness drove a wedge between us. Erratic behavior and my inability to secure employment made for palpable tension. I lost her to my mental illness.

I moved back home. I found work in a record shop and a bookstore, venues where creative types hung out, easy places to conceal my “peculiarities.” I met someone special and married, the stability affording me something of a respite from my delusions, but over time those delusions came back, and with a vengeance. I began drinking to escape the loneliness and fear that engulfed me. My marriage suffered as a result and we divorced. I was homeless for four months, during which time I clung to life like I hadn’t before, sleeping on floors and in bus stops, eating from garbage cans and walking all night to avoid sleep and demons.

A year passed and I sought help for my addiction. I also found therapy as a way to help me unravel the mystery of why I had felt so isolated for so long. A psychiatrist diagnosed me with paranoid schizophrenia, disorganized type. My therapist worked with me to get proper medical treatment after numerous panic attacks and two suicide attempts. I’d been med-resistant, but finally gave in after spending time in the psych ward. A year and a half later I was hospitalized again, this time for three weeks, then to an institution for a month to sort out which medications worked and which ones didn’t. Finally stabilized, I could view my life through a lens closer to normal.

Which brings me to today. Thanks to medication and weekly therapy sessions, I feel generally well-balanced and secure. I follow a treatment plan that helps me manage my illness, although I still experience delusional thinking from time to time. I lost so many opportunities to a mental illness that I had no idea I was suffering from. I still hear voices occasionally, I still see things that others don’t, I still believe things that aren’t real or really happening, and my vision of reality isn’t always the same as the rest of the world’s. But I keep trying.

“High-functioning schizophrenic” may be meant to focus on a contrast between the patient lost in psychosis—the one whose life is endangered due to confusion—and the grounded consumer operating under their doctor’s care, medicated and stable. I believe it to be a simple descriptor for mental health providers to use, one that defines the person living with schizophrenia who is able to work or be involved in social relationships despite their illness, a shorthand for professionals who need to categorize patients to provide appropriate treatment. Taken out of context, however, the label just seems ludicrous, hence my objection to its glib colloquial use.

People need help, and words can set us on a path towards that end. Terminology can assist in communicating the changes necessary to better a person’s life, there’s no denying that. Just don’t pigeonhole me. Until you know me, don’t assume. My level of functioning is as fluid as my illness. To function at all, I need to stay mindful, and that’s hard work. My treatment plan helps, and I’m a long way from those days of eating out of garbage cans and hiding from monsters, but those scenarios are only ever a brief thought away. In the blink of an eye, I could be back there and I know it. So I function as well as I can.

7 Comments

  • Alejandra T says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I teach at a master’s program (marriage and family therapists-to-be). Your experience will help me talk about stigma and the power of words.

  • Lisa says:

    Henry, thank you. Your sensitivity and awareness is powerful! I know the work you have done! I feel it in the words you choose, and the connection I experience with your writing. I know how challenging it is to work hard at self-regulating. It is an intellectual inquiry. When diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder, which in a manic phase for a long period of time feels like it segues into Schizophrenia, something serious happened in my brain – as a result I was in my own personal horror film some of it because of the disease, the other part is the PTSD that surfaced as a result of the horrific encounters suffering unable to tell anyone for fear of being locked up. The self- stigma resulting from societal stigma spawns a feeling of loneliness or plain retreat at times. I admire your courage and strength, and your willingness to use your beautiful mind as a vehicle to hone your skillfulness and craft. I do not have the money to make a financial contribution at this time. I am struggling more with my brain recently, but when I am well, I plan to host another event in my community raising awareness by being an advocate and an ally, creating hope for those suffering with a mental illness. Stigma affects our families, our communities, and the very fabric of our society.

    • Henry Boy Jenkins says:

      Thank you for your comment, Lisa. That you took the time to share part of your story is huge. You’re a brave person. It’s true that stigma affects so many of us, and I wish you the best of luck in raising your community’s awareness. Thanks again for writing in. It is always encouraging to hear back from our readers.

  • Faye says:

    Your story is very similar to a friend of mine. I am glad to hear you sought help. There are no words I can say to convince my friend to get help. No stories I can share that seem to make an impact. I know his life could be better with treatment. Do you have any advice for helping someone with schizophrenia to get help? I always try to stay in contact and listen and add my thoughts when I can. I don’t think he will ever seek help or admit he has a mental illness. He has been suicidal in the past and I think that is building up again right now. It is getting harder and harder to stay in contact. We are writing letters now. I always agree with what he is seeing or hearing, because that is his reality. It may not be what everyone else is seeing but it is very real to him. I try to find words so that it will not scare him so much. It is very, very difficult to try and get him help. I know his life could be better with treatment. I’m afraid I am running out of time. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you. And thank you for sharing your story.

    • Henry Boy Jenkins says:

      Hi, Faye. Thank you for commenting. If I have any advice for someone in your position it would be to remain both vigilant and patient, as you have already been. When my friends have held onto this kind of consistency it has resulted in deepening the friendship and offering me some sense of balance.

      A common symptom in thought disorders is anosognosia, a deficit of awareness; essentially, the individual has no understanding of their condition. This makes it hard to address their mental illness since their brain is essentially blocking them from comprehending the gravity of their circumstance. It took me years to finally accept that I had schizophrenia, as I was initially diagnosed in college then went on to live my life untreated until my adult years. Therapy was suggested to me, and I reluctantly took the advice which eventually led to an understanding of my illness after repeated trips to the hospital. It took some time. I am grateful that my therapist and friends supported me through those times. I hope that your friend is in the position to receive the kindness you’re offering.

      With respect to his growing suicidal tendencies, I would like to suggest getting some professional help to him as soon as possible. Perhaps you could call the Crisis Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for advice. I’m not a counselor or a psychiatrist, but I know that intervention has worked for me. I sincerely hope that you can help your friend find some relief.

  • Tara B says:

    I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability when telling your story. Language is powerful! I worked as a psychiatric technician in the acute mental health unit in an Idaho Maximum Security Institution. I personally worked with individuals who were civilly committed by the state of Idaho due to not being competent to stand trial or they were deemed “dangerously mentally ill.” Those 2 1/2 years changed my life. My passion for mental health exploded and I realized there was a serious need to spread mental health awareness and provide more resources. An individual living with mental illness should not have to go to prison to receive help. Your story about being homeless and eating from a garbage can touched my heart. I have personally seen this while in San Francisco. It breaks my heart to see people stare and joke at individuals who suffer with mental illness. I would love to connect with you somehow about a few ideas. I am currently a mental health clinician in Idaho and I am a huge advocate for mental health. I would greatly appreciate your time. Thank you again for sharing your personal experience with mental illness.

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