Living With Schizophrenia
by Mike Hedrick
My name is Mike Hedrick. I’m a writer and I’ve lived with schizophrenia for ten years.
I can remember sitting on my couch, having just smoked marijuana, my mind darting sideways and upside-down when I noticed the sound of the refrigerator’s compressor clicking on. It made a jarring, machine-like hum and whir and continued on for several minutes. There were tiny variations in the whir though and, from somewhere inside my head, it occurred to me that this was the aliens. The aliens were communicating with me through the hum and whir of my refrigerator’s compressor. Though I didn’t know what they were saying, I sat down at my brother’s synthesizer and punched out a long warbly note that I hoped would do the job. I wanted to say, “I hear you”, I wanted to say “I get it.”
If it wasn’t aliens communicating with me, it was the government, having placed cameras and microphones all around my apartment, so small and so well hidden that not even tearing apart toasters and smoke detectors yielded any results. They knew what I was saying, and they could see what I was doing.
A constant stream of C-Span played out on my TV as I attempted to interact with politicians and officials. They could hear me, I was certain of that, I could see them wince when I yelled, I watched them shift their words when I said something incriminatory. To my mind, there was no other reason they would be listening to me, paying such close attention to me unless I was very, very important. The thought that I was a king or that I was Jesus crossed my mind more times than I can count but I refused to be so blasphemous so I assumed I was just a prophet, like John the Baptist.
More than anything I wanted these signs, these indications, all these words in my head and the pressure of being so important to go away. I didn’t want any of it. “Choose someone else,” I’d say. Sometimes I’d flip off the TV and turn it to a different channel, but the messages were still there in weight loss commercials or news broadcasts about the president, which I knew were thinly-veiled references to me. I just wanted it to be over.
This all came to a head one night when I knew I couldn’t ignore these messages anymore. I had to get up, get out and go to Washington and assert my message of peace in person. That was the only way they’d leave me alone.
That night I packed some clothes and some food in a backpack and started to drive. As I drove, I realized Washington was hopeless and I’d have better luck at the UN. Halfway through Kansas, it occurred to me that it would take me days to get east and I didn’t have that kind of time. I turned around and early the next morning caught a flight to New York.
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Over the next week, I’d wander through New York, Boston, and rural Massachusetts following any signs I could that would take me where I was supposed to go. I’d follow colors, but also body language, (pats on the head meant I was going the right direction, itching a nose meant I was getting cold). There was an underlying message to every tiny thing and I struggled and prayed that I was doing it right. I tried for days to find some kind of coherent guidance, some kind of concrete proof that all of this wasn’t just in my head but I got nothing. Nothing I did worked, nothing I thought had any basis in reality. Rounding out the week I found myself hopelessly lost in a small town called Woods Hole thinking there was a hole through the woods to Canada where I thought I might find peace. I trudged through people’s backyards and on rural roads trying to find this hole until I could barely stand because of the blisters on my feet and the fact that I hadn’t slept in three days.
A kind woman pulled over and gave me a ride. She let me sleep in her guest room and bought me a train ticket home the next morning. I was so tired — I just wanted to go home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. Upon arrival in Denver I told my parents about the messages and the aliens and the indications and they took me to the hospital. I spent a week in inpatient where I was formally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
The hospital, though sterile and stifling was a much needed break. It was quiet and the people were calm and I could stay in my room all day if I wanted to. The worst part of all of it was probably the perceived betrayal by my family over the things I had been thinking. I wish I could begin to accurately describe the complete and total letdown in knowing that every notion you’ve had about some greater connection between you and the world in the last few years was simply a function of a chemical imbalance in your head. Nothing can quite convey the brick that hits you when you’re formally diagnosed as crazy.
It’s been ten years since then. In that time, I’ve recovered to a place where I can safely say that I’m stable, I hold down several jobs writing for blogs and newspapers and I have a healthy, content life. The fact is, you wouldn’t know I have schizophrenia unless I told you.
Over the last ten years I’ve been healing, I’ve slowly been chipping away at the ability to not only interact normally, but also to contribute meaningfully to society. It’s been a constant exercise in social interaction with every gas station attendant, pizza delivery man, and barista as I try my best to figure out and apply the (largely arbitrary) rules of trying to fit into society: eye contact, body language, volume and timbre of voice and every other aspect of personality that has the potential to sway someone’s opinion of you. Just this morning my voice was gruffer than usual, and the barista didn’t respond with a smile so the detailed analysis of every interaction is happening in real time and I’m adjusting accordingly until I feel comfortable with how I performed. It’s a disciplined, rigorous practice in social interaction that has taken ten years to rebuld
In much the same way, I’ve built my writing career. Starting from lost, confused, and floundering, I’ve slowly started to chip away at something meaningful, first submitting my work to a small magazine and then, learning along the way, what it took to actually get published. It was hard at first, but the rush of seeing my name and my work in print provided a springboard for me to push further and further until I saw my name in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The biggest thing I think I’ve struggled with has been paranoia and delusions. I’ve always had this constant nagging notion that people were out to get me and, because of that, I lost any and all ability to normally interact with people. I’d get so distracted that they were thinking bad stuff about me that I wasn’t able to hold a conversation or sit still in any kind of social situation for even a few minutes.
People scared me. I was ultra-vigilant about trying to control what they thought about me, but it never worked. People are the ultimate enigma and, no matter how badly you want to understand them, no matter how badly you want to fit in with them, there’s a blockage. You can never know what they’re thinking about you and you can never control what they think. It was so bad that, for a while, I couldn’t even go into a grocery store or a gas station without the notion that they were laughing about me — they were making fun of me.
That notion was true to me, no matter how many times my parents said, “No one is paying you that much attention.” The things my mind said were the truth, and common sense had no bearing. Perhaps it was narcissistic of me to think that everybody spent this much mental energy on me. I still am not entirely over that feeling despite the years of therapy and the cocktail of antipsychotic meds I take religiously.
I’m stable now, but it’s been a long process. It’s been a process of thousands of interactions, slowly easing into truths that exist regardless of my mental state.
Fact: I’m really not that important.
Fact: I have a mental illness that causes me to question the reality of things.
Fact: if I’m able to relax, things will go much better for me.
Schizophrenia, to me, means that I’ll get through life’s little troubles with a level of grace not seen in most people. The pain of losing your mind is bigger than everything and I often think of my life in two distinct phases: before, and after my breakdown.
The truth is, though it’s been an arduous and, at times, painful process, I’m at a place now where I have the ability to handle situations. The immensity of mental illness is so much more profound than anything like life, love, career or family. Dealing with the stress these things can bring is easy compared to what I’ve been through and I hope that in writing about it, I can bring this awareness to both people who are mentally ill and people who aren’t that, though life may have thrown them a curveball or two, you can and will get through it.
I’d say that’s the one thing I’d want anyone to come away with from my writing. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, even if you get hit by a truck of lemons and are bruised and bloody in the middle of the road.
My illness has given years of material to draw from in my quest to build a meaningful writing career. I will always be able to write about mental illness whether I like it or not.
The truth is, it’s been more than a process, it’s been an ordeal, a long slow ordeal in achieving normalcy, in achieving something resembling happiness and though at times it’s been more difficult than anything I can imagine, I wouldn’t be who I am today without schizophrenia. I have myriad tools in my bag for dealing with the complications of my illness, from limiting stress as best I can, to cognitive-behavioral therapy, to simply getting exercise and getting a good sleep. These are all things I have to be fairly diligent about in order to maintain stability. Getting the right amount of sleep every night is a bit of a dance, as is recognizing when I need to take some time out to refocus the outlet for my mental energy. This dance has become one that I’m used to and the routine has even helped in times when my meds weren’t doing the best job. I’ve suffered from numerous side-effects including weight gain, diabetes, drowsiness and even akathisia (a common side-effect from antipsychotics where the patient feels restless and compelled to constantly move) but, as long as I maintained diligence about taking it easy on myself things have been okay.
I’ve been blessed. I’ve grown into a calm, deep man with an incredible amount of creativity and compassion, and now I’m helping others with the illness through my writing. There have been hard times, but everybody has hard times. I just wish there wasn’t still the stigma surrounding mental illness because, in truth, we are smart, creative, feeling and caring people who just want a fair shake at life, and many of us struggle day to day with just the tiniest things.
In truth, we just want happiness, just like anybody else.