To be true to myself is to act in integrity, presenting to the outside world the same person I feel myself to be internally. I live with schizophrenia. To be in acceptance of my mental illness is to be unapologetically me.
By practicing acceptance, I can acknowledge that my thought processes are different from those of normal people, and even from my own conception of how they should be. When I share my authentic self, I share that identity integrated and whole, without separation from my illness. At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s not always that easy.
To begin with, I had to overcome anosognosia, a symptom which essentially tells the thought disordered mind that it doesn’t have an illness—a deficit of awareness of the condition, if you will. It took a long time for me to accept that I have schizophrenia. From time to time I still reject my diagnosis. Like anyone, I want to trust what my brain tells me, and if it tells me that I’m not mentally ill, then I believe it.
Next, I had to accept treatment in my life. This meant weekly therapy sessions and, after some apprehension, medication. I had to try various combinations to land on one that worked for my mind and body. I’m more stable now and am learning to enjoy living, inasmuch as I can. There are still so many questions and concerns. Trusting what my therapist and doctors say is sometimes more difficult than it sounds.
Anxiety continues to play a part in my life. I still second-guess myself, especially in social situations, when it’s those very situations where I need to feel most confident. My medications help me maintain focus in many instances, but there’s nothing quite like conversation with a new person to set me off balance. In my mind I’m saying all the right things, being honest and unassuming, but in the end I worry that the impression I’m giving is one of instability.
With my trusted friends, I often feel less guarded. If I’m tongue-tied or wonky they just let it be. If they have a question about what I’m saying, they let me know. Sometimes I might not make sense. Occasionally, I’m really out there. They don’t make a big deal out of it. They roll with it and we carry on.
At a brunch with friends, one of them asked me how things were going. I replied that I’d been feeling kind of spacy. He commented that I was often quite spacy, and that was something they loved me for. That I could feel comfortable enough around them to be unintentionally oblique, and unconcerned about how that appeared, seemed to be a component in their continued friendship. In other words they accepted me for who I am.
Self-stigma plays a large part in my acceptance of schizophrenia. Being mentally ill is not something that I want to be. I’d rather be in denial than to welcome madness into my life.
The social stereotypes of people living with mental illness were all I had to go on. Television and movie depictions told me that I’d soon be drooling in a corner, rocking back and forth, and laughing uncontrollably. The institutionalized men of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” were the template for my shame. The painters and poets with cut off ears and rampant alcoholism seemed the only role models for a person newly diagnosed. So I shamed myself for being dimwitted and vague. I heard the voices of angels, saw demons that others could not. I was a saint, a ghost hunter, lost in my own mind. Everything was my fault. I was defective. Difficult. Unwanted.
Today I have a different take on stigma. I recognize the public’s misconceptions and the misinformation that leads them to mistakenly regard a mentally ill person. I can’t help folks whose minds are closed, but if they’re open to learning, I’m happy to share what I know.
Wellness is not a singular phenomenon; there’s a whole world out there that needs healing. If I take care of myself first and learn as much as I can about my illness, then I’m able to share my information with others. I can present my experience with hospitalization and medication to caring and curious people.
Participating in NAMI events and functions like the annual American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s awareness walks can help put attention on education and stigma-busting. Organizations and websites like Bring Change To Mind, and The Mighty, are valuable sources of information and community.
Hopefully I can get to a point where I don’t concern myself with what others think of me. When I can allow myself to respond to situations without feeling censored or judged, then I can be myself with another person, and the acknowledgement that I’m looking for from others can be there. It begins with me accepting my mental illness.