One Patient Describes: This is What It’s Really Like to Have Schizophrenia
Most days, I live, work, and function just as you do.
Claire Benoist for Reader's Digest
If you worked with me or saw me every day, you’d probably think I was a little eccentric—but you might not realize I am mentally ill. You’d notice that sometimes I have an odd way of saying things. Sometimes I get quiet. And sometimes I have bad days when it’s better to leave me alone.
I told my boss and a few close coworkers that I am bipolar because it affords me a bit of leeway with some of my slightly off behavior and my occasional need to call in sick. I never, ever tell people that I am schizophrenic, because they assume that (1) I have multiple personalities or (2) someday I will snap and try to attack them with a broken bottle. Both of which are completely ridiculous.
I think and process information very differently than you do. In my office, I am highly valued for my creative approaches to problems and situations and for my ability to detect patterns across large sets of data. My brain processes much more information than the average brain, and it is constantly at work seeking out and forming connections that the average person would never consider. But on some days, it feels as if someone has changed the rules of reality, and I am the only one who notices. Some days, I believe I have important information that other people aren’t aware of. Sometimes it is vital that I sit in a certain spot on the train or avoid milk because it’s part of an attempt to control my mind. Some days, I see, hear, or believe things that no one else does.
Imagine turning on five television sets, full volume, tuned to five different channels and trying to follow the thread of just one show. That’s what schizophrenia feels like.
Some days, I feel that every thought in my head is broadcast to the people around me, so I have to be extra careful about what I think because I can’t let the people sitting nearby in the coffee shop find out my secrets. On other days, I pick up extra information about people and situations. I might be able to hear voices that explain what the lady behind me in line at the grocery store is really thinking about me. Most times, this extra perception just buzzes quietly in the back of my brain as I go through my day. Intense episodes happen infrequently.
I started having symptoms when I was 19. Since then, I’ve had to teach myself to always be the last person to react to things and to mistrust my own judgment and perceptions. Unique situations have to be run through an “Is this real?” test. I have to constantly live with the fear that the universe that I experience may not be the same as the universe that actually exists.
For example, a while ago, I was in a large meeting at work, and a bunch of lightning bugs began to fly around the room. Check 1: Is this possible? Answer: implausible but not impossible. Check 2: Is anyone else in the room reacting or commenting on the situation? Answer: No? Then I’ll assume it’s not real until I have evidence to the contrary.
I’ve also had to implement a three-day waiting period when I experience strong, unexpected emotions. For instance, one day, I was suddenly and utterly convinced that my boss hated me and was about to fire me. Check: Find external evidence that proves this belief. Answer: I looked through my e-mail and meeting notes and could not find anything that would have caused him to hate me. And no coworker volunteered any independent verification that there were problems. Response: I had to force myself to put these beliefs on the back burner and reexamine this emotion after three days. By the end of the waiting period, I was able to recognize that everything was fine.
Keep in mind that this process of checking and double-checking your surroundings is not something all schizophrenics are capable of doing, and it doesn’t work during bad episodes. After all, you’re running the reality test using the same faulty brain and false logic that’s telling you, say, that a room is full of lightning bugs. If you’re only mildly hallucinating, you can say to yourself, “This is probably not real.” If you’re experiencing full-on psychosis, you are probably also hearing the people in the room whispering about it behind your back.
Imagine turning on five television sets, full volume, tuned to five different channels, and tell me how easy it is to follow the thread of just one show. On one channel, a show called Reality has a dramatic situation playing out, and on another TV is a hilarious sitcom. Now try paying attention to the drama, keeping in mind that you absolutely must not laugh or react to any of the jokes in the sitcom. This illustrates the trouble I have paying attention on off days. I’m easily distracted.
On my worst days, I have trouble understanding and responding to people. I hear the words, but they don’t make any sense. I can’t get my brain to interpret them. If I’m feeling particularly overloaded, I just shut down and will barely talk to or respond to others. I take antipsychotic medication, but it’s expensive, and it slows me down. Because of the medication, I can’t think through complex problems as quickly as I once could, and I sleep several hours more each day and have gained 50 pounds, despite eating well and working out more.
I’m lucky to live with a remarkable, highly patient partner who tells me when I’ve gone out of bounds in my social behavior or personal appearance. And, thankfully, I have above-average intelligence and self-awareness. They help me recognize that hallucinations and delusions aren’t real and analyze what an appropriate reaction should be in most situations. Still, knowing this doesn’t make them go away.