Transcending the Pain of Schizoaffective Disorder
by Alexander Crawford
When I was twenty-two years old I felt like I had the whole world ahead of me; and I did. My father worked, and still works, in a hedge fund, and I thought maybe I could be as successful as him, in my own very different way. I thought I could become some sort of extremely high-level scholar. After completing my competitive public high school with a 4.3 GPA, I was admitted into the University of Chicago, which I presumed would be a lot of work, but doable.
I remember studying Karl Marx in sociology class with what seemed like some of the best and brightest minds I had ever encountered. However, I had one weakness, and it was that I liked to party. Don’t get me wrong, I was never the frat, beer-guzzling type of guy. No, I had more “cerebral” interests in terms of substances– like “research chemicals.”
While at the University of Chicago, I quickly became enthralled with websites that detailed users’ experiences with virtually any substance you can imagine. I soon acquired a Chinese research chemical which is basically synthetic magic mushrooms.
It was much later on, after I had transferred to NYU, in order to become closer to my home unit and friends, that I took the chemical. I consumed it right smack in the middle of Times Square, and I took too much. This landed me in Bellevue Hospital, and it was soon after that event that I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.
Schizoaffective bipolar type is a disease characterized by mood swings and depression, but also the classic schizophrenia symptoms such as psychosis, delusions, and paranoia.
Whether or not it was drugs that triggered my illness, it’s not important. Schizoid illnesses run in my family, on my mother’s side. As shocking as it was to everyone that I had been diagnosed with the disease, it was understandable.
The process of being hospitalized and diagnosed was highly negative for me. Doctors were aggressive with me and, I think, the hospital staff felt generally derogatory towards me, even though I know they were all just trying to do their best to help. My outlandish and provocative behavior, though not violent, was inappropriate, and it created a negative reaction in other people. I remember I even asked the head psychiatrist on the unit if she wanted to have sex with me. I found the head psychiatrist warm and attractive, but I was paranoid. It’s hard to explain why paranoia would result in asking such a question, but it did.
The problem was that, like many people with mental illness, at first I didn’t believe in the disease at all. I hadn’t been educated in this realm of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, so I immediately rejected the idea of the illness itself, much to my family’s dismay.
My family responded with a combination of care and extreme concern. At first my dad wasn’t sold on the idea of me needing antipsychotics, so that delayed the process of getting on the injection. In a way, my father’s response validated my own feelings. I have always believed that I am a pretty special person, and still do, so we even shared a bit of an emotional bond over the idea of not needing the medication.
I remember being hospitalized for about thirty days at one point in the local psychiatric center. I would constantly pace about the hallways, simply refuting the idea of mental illness itself. I think the doctors kept me in there so long only because they couldn’t manage to get me on an injectable antipsychotic, and they were worried I wouldn’t take the pills compliantly. At this time, I didn’t know at all why I was in the hospital, but I had a sort of classic persecution complex about the whole ordeal. I thought that society was completely immoral and inadvertently encroaching upon my freedom. In short, I think I was too young and too sick to cope with the information they were telling me.
The moment I stepped out of the medical center, I stopped taking the pills. It was tough to get away with this but, since everyone trusted me simply because I had agreed in the hospital to take the pills and had done so in the hospital for the last month, I was able to not take my medication without my family constantly checking. I would throw the pills away, one by one, day by day, in different garbage cans or dumpsters.
This quickly led to problems. I started contacting the local police about innocuous but highly annoying problems every day. I contacted the police and even the FBI about everything from the noise lawn cutting services were making to my grievances about the amount of traffic outside my house. Eventually, they came to my house with a big stack of printed out e-mails and told my mother never to let this happen again. A lot of the e-mails were written in a code of some sort — or so I thought — sometimes I would just send a single alphanumeric character to the police, thinking they would somehow understand my intention. This was definitely related to paranoia, as I constantly would think I was in trouble with the police, even when I had committed no crime.
Although I was delusional, I got the message from the police. And so did my mom. With time, she was able to put on an injectable antipsychotic, which has worked wonders ever since. The injection is delivered via gluteal or deltoid injection, once a month. It doesn’t hurt too much, but leaves you a bit sore in the site of the injection for about a week. My mom was able to get me seen by multiple therapists and psychiatrists who, just by virtue of seeing them all so many times, convinced me that I needed medication. It may not be perfect, and may have side effects, but it does seem to regulate my dopamine levels quite well. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that runs throughout our whole body and governs the way we make decisions and see life itself. It was difficult to comply with antipsychotic pills. The temptation was always too great to just throw them out, or stop taking them once everything seemed better— as I had done in the past. As far as I’m concerned, the injection is the way to go for people who may run into these impulses.
I’ve been to some pretty dark places. Before the injectable, I would do my best to blackmail and threaten people in extremely disturbing ways. I don’t really remember how exactly I did this, as much of it was verbal and in the moment, but I think what caused this behavior was just the dopamine imbalance. This has still left a stigma upon me, which I hope one day will just go away, as I have been fully medicated for at least five years now, without much of an issue anywhere.
At the time of writing this piece I am dependent on Nicotine. But this is known to happen to schizoid types. And, honestly, I just enjoy the nicotine. It helps quell my mind, feelings, thoughts, and emotions, and to get rid of the akathisia (jitteriness) associated with antipsychotics. That’s not to say I leave no room for the possibility of getting off nicotine. I have worked at various jobs ever since being medicated, and I know how to work shifts without needing it. Plus, I’ve always believed in idealism – I think if I really wanted to get off nicotine, I could, so I always remind people whether they are struggling with a substance or not, that there is always a lot of hope there.
My main problems these days come in the realm of working and socialization, and sometimes just in getting along with my family. But I have definitely made great strides in those realms. When I am not working, I am actively looking for work, preferably remote work, from home. I go to meetups, to socialize, and I do have some friends I see from time to time. Facebook can be a good medium of remaining emotionally in contact with many friends too, especially when you have mental illness.
Since I have been diagnosed, I have learned so much about mental illness that I have virtually become an expert in the subject. I have had some articles published by mental health resources on various mental health subjects, and I use this work as my portfolio to gain further freelance writing jobs. Because I am bipolar type, it can be sometimes hard for me to let people go, and then alternately easy for me to just abandon them. I can be a little extreme sometimes in my friendships with people, demanding a lot of loyalty but then, at a certain tipping point if I feel my buttons have been pushed too much, I sometimes alternately just cut them out of my life, unfortunately. I definitely am doing my best to change this dynamic to a more light-hearted one. This remains one of my greatest challenges, and I have to learn to balance this kind of dynamic with healthy optimism.
Recently, I’ve taken up interest in things like sustainability, politics, and mental health in general. I listen to a lot of music, on vinyl, and this is perhaps my greatest solace. I learned how to play the piano when I was seven years old, though I don’t play much anymore, but I still understand music and where it is coming from in most instances. I find it entertaining sometimes, just to let music play and see what kinds of events unfold in my life.
Often though, I wish I could be a bit more structured, like other people I know, who can buckle down and commit to big projects, jobs, and ideas. But in a way, I am already doing that, by sharing my story with everyone.
As I have gone through tremendous periods of anxiety and depression, in addition to downright psychosis, I am highly tolerant of individuals’ darker sides and quirks. I always do my best to be subtle with people, and inject humor in their lives, and to provide support, to make them feel better.
Ultimately, I think mental illness is definitely real, but I think it runs through many peoples’ lives in unexpected ways, more commonly than we think. I hope that by hearing my story you will realize that mental illness is a grave phenomenon and that medication is highly necessary to control its symptoms. I hope I have inspired you that, if you are willing to deal with things like side effects happily, you can have tremendous potential to achieve. Things will never be perfect in the world of mental illness – I can tell you that much. But I think stigma can be reduced on individuals, the more they thrive and achieve. Never give up hope, no matter how anxious, depressed, or psychotic you may become. If you are reading this, remember that psychiatrists have your best interests at heart, and they can even help you openly with sticky issues such as substance abuse.