Hard Lessons When You Have Mental Illness
by Mike Hedrick
Schizophrenia is life-long.
You and what you feel are valid.
Schizophrenia doesn’t define you.
As a man who lives every day with schizophrenia, I’ve come face to face with a lot of truths—the first of those being, yeah: I am a man who lives with schizophrenia. Some of these truths are particularly hard to handle, while some give me hope for my life with a serious, chronic mental illness. All of them are challenging, either they shift your entire worldview or they only show themselves through years of work and repeated exposure to the things that make up your illness. Truths have power and meaning. Whether I liked it or not, I had to learn and accept quite a bit in this life, but, when you have a mental illness like this: it is what it is.
After sitting with the truth that you have schizophrenia, there is an associated truth that goes along with that which is, barring a radical, medical breakthrough: you will have schizophrenia forever. Schizophrenia isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is a paradigm. You will have good days and weeks and months and maybe even years, but your new friend, or more accurately, your new companion who you don’t actually like all that much, will be by your side until the day you die. This is a huge thing to wrap your mind around and it can take a long time to come to terms with that reality.
I can remember, when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t believe the diagnosis as fact. I thought I was being played and that the government was labeling me “crazy” because I had stumbled upon some cosmic truth, and they felt threatened by my insight. Even going to my psychiatrist’s office the first time, I had convinced myself that the psychiatrist and the office were all bogus– a set-up and a lie elaborately constructed to control me. It took me months as I learned about my illness and as my family learned about it to find a way to process and cope. The label is so big and can be so overwhelming that you need a whole new view of life and reality to deal. The person who you were before is gone. It takes a lot of time to find hope after you receive a diagnosis, but you will get used to it, and you will learn how to live with it. Try not to put any undue demands on yourself, just focus on living and making it through the day; with time you’ll find the right meds, get the right therapy, and learn an immense about yourself. Eventually it will just be a devil on your shoulder, a voice that, with practice, you will be able to ignore. It will get better.
Another rough lesson related to serious mental illness, and this can apply to normal life as well; you’ll have to learn that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all valid. They are all good and they all mean that you’re alive and that you matter. You will meet people in your life who discount your feelings, and who make you feel like you don’t deserve to be alive. With schizophrenia, this feeling can come from anywhere with a negative connotation of psychosis. It can come from the media, it can come from stigma and it can even come from your loved ones as you come to them with an obsession or a strange thought, like the unlikely, (but still nagging), possibility that you have gallstones because you have a pain in your side. Your folks or your friends may tell you, “don’t worry about it”, even though you’ve already fallen into a hole of obsession and delusion of worrying about your health. You feel it and it’s a real worry to you, but they don’t share your world-view.
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Maybe you might experience the delusion or thought that people are out to get you in some way. While this is probably false, it still can make you feel frightened, and feeling frightened is okay. Your parents or friends might tell you to stop worrying about your symptoms, but you feel a strong emotion and that emotion is valid. You have to know in your heart that your emotions are acceptable regardless of the fact that the thoughts that triggered them may have no basis in reality. In therapy and self-work, you learn to pay attention to the normal reality and keep these nefarious thoughts to yourself but you also learn to deal with them in healthy ways. You learn to find the balance between what you experience and what the rest of the world believes and it’s perfectly acceptable if you don’t fit in so much with the accepted reality. The point is that you, your experiences, and your feelings are valid and they matter. You matter, whether you like it or not.
Lastly, you need to know that your illness does not define who you are as a person. You can have feelings and behaviors that are so far out of accepted reality that everyone will label you crazy, but that doesn’t mean that you are your illness. You are your feelings, you are your thoughts, and you are your body. Just because schizophrenia affects those things, it doesn’t mean that you are schizophrenia. It’s just one part of your grand human experience.
I have chosen to make a career out of writing about and explaining my illness and, for a long time, I let my illness dictate all of the things I did and felt. As a mental health writer, it’s easy to get bogged down in the numerous facets and iterations of the illness. There’s always something to think about and explore, there’s always different ways of analyzing how you’ve experienced the world. Sometimes this intensive self-examination gets to be too much; it can take over and trick you into thinking that you are nothing more than a nervous, self-involved egomaniac that focuses, to his detriment, on something he should have moved past a long time ago. The truth is, the illness never really lets you go, and, if you think it has, you will be harshly reminded of the fact that your brain has faulty wiring.
When I feel like I’m in too deep into my own illness, I need to take a break and do something else entirely. I need to be creative, maybe by writing a short story unrelated to schizophrenia. I need to feel like there are other parts of my life that don’t revolve around being sick. Working on those things can give you the confidence to keep trying to be a functioning member of society with the myriad thoughts, feelings, ideas, and projects that are dear to everyone else in the world.
Stepping away reminds you that you are human; another hard lesson. It took me years to realize that I am a valid human being despite my illness. I create things and I do things for people, and I do these things because I feel fully human and fully in charge of myself whether I have schizophrenia or not. Just like the last point, you and your feelings are valid outside the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It may make you a singular unique point in space but you are still a human being and you still matter to a lot of people.
Overall, learning these truths has been a struggle and has taken a long time for me to achieve, but seeing them as I do now, I know that my life experience means more than just the label of schizophrenia. It’s a lifelong illness, but it doesn’t have to define you.