I have to work at my recovery every day because I live with mental illness every day. I’m made aware of it when I’m doling out my pills, and when I go to my weekly therapy session. There are times when I hear voices, when I dissociate, when my thoughts create unreal circumstances. Recently, life has been like that again. Random. Out of the blue. Unable to connect the dots the way I like to.
I’m processing information at a very fast clip, but disjointed and as images, like photographs, not thoughts. Thoughts come to me in fragments. I’m trapped in my mind, making it difficult to deal. Fear seeps in. I’m afraid that I will get stuck in this all too familiar situation and not find release. Of course, my medications will slow all that down, but for now I’m dealing with what feels like a mania, and the worries won’t subside. I don’t want to relapse. Being sick is traumatic and dangerous. I want to preserve my sanity and thrive as best I can.
I am always living with mental illness. It doesn’t magically go away because I take medication. The drugs help me manage my symptoms. Therapy helps with questions about the effect of the symptoms on my psyche. Psychiatry helps with the basic practical details of the meds. It all keeps me out of the hospital, which I appreciate. Medicated, I’m better suited to navigate life’s challenges. I can almost feel normal.
Mental illness is a physical condition. It lives in the brain. The brain is an organ, like the liver or the lungs. It’s primary function is to log minutia and create synaptic responses. When those responses veer from the established criterion, the experience is considered abnormal. A preponderance of deviation is referred to as a disorder. Symptoms define the boundaries. Social factors reference the whole. Medication helps the body’s chemistry right the synapses and adjust the outcome. After much research, that’s my neophyte’s conclusion. I’m not the doctor. I’m the patient trying to make sense of something too mammoth to pin down.
To be mentally ill is to live in a state of holistic existentialism, but without the freedom, will, or agency to feel like an individual. Our culture tends toward the shorthand of stigma to define mental illness and the people who live with it. That was one of the reasons I maintained med-noncompliance for so long: I didn’t want to be labeled schizophrenic. Even though I was the guy on the bus holding conversations with myself, gesturing erratically in the street, or laughing uncontrollably in the grocery aisles. I wore twenty rubber bands to keep my hands from falling off, and sunglasses at all hours to aid in demon hunting. I lost thirty pounds to walk among the dead.
When I was told that I had schizophrenia, I went into immediate denial. I sought a second opinion. I took psych-evals and studied the DSM-IV. I read autobiographies by mentally ill writers and found more similarities than differences. Frequent trips to the ER for panic attacks put me in debt. Still I resisted the truth. It was obvious to my friends that something wasn’t quite right, but they just chalked it up to my being creative. At one point, the voices I was hearing that told me to kill myself got me into the psych ward and onto a regimen of meds. I’d given up fighting because all the evidence was laid out in front of me. I had finally accepted that I was mentally ill. A lifetime of symptoms should have been enough, but it’s hard to listen to the doctors when your instinct tells you that stigma is gospel and to be labelled crazy is to be unwanted.
I’ve been struggling these past few weeks with a handful of recurring symptoms that seem to be slipping in under the radar of medication. I’ve been trying to make sense of it, trying to accept another truth about mental illness: that, like it or not, it’s always there. While meds tamp down most of the more difficult symptoms, they can’t completely eradicate all of them. So I fluctuate between feeling balanced and being confused.
My life these days seems to revolve around maintaining my equilibrium, especially when I’m aware that I’ve lost time to errant thoughts and worries. Are demons roaming the streets? Are people stealing my thoughts? Am I under surveillance? Before my hospitalizations, these were typical questions. Today I only ask them when I feel things are awry. At that point I tell my therapist. The solution is usually to keep some semblance of perspective. I know that I will have good days, and others that are not so good. I will always have schizophrenia. There is no cure. But there are ways to obtain wellness, and I mean to practice them.