My Journey to Finding My ‘Wise Mind’ With Schizoaffective Disorder

black and white photo of woman looking dreamily wearing large hat
black and white photo of woman looking dreamily wearing large hat

“I’ve seen schizophrenics do great things and then crash,” he said, a quiet voice in a quiet room. Quiet dust settled on a thin sunlit window sill. Hot tension cooled. “Avoid anything that gives you any stress at all.”

I looked at the doctor but didn’t say a word, angry words trapped behind my teeth.

Great things aren’t done by avoiding hardship. I thought about the upcoming school year. It’s wasn’t going to be easy. But then, to defeat your diagnosis is a brave thing. It’s scary, and all along the way, people will like to tell you that you can’t overcome what you have set out to do. People living with schizophrenia, being gravely disabled, aren’t only faced with challenges that any disabled person might face; we are stigmatized too. Most recently, I’ve been told I won’t be able to be aggressively intelligent, a skill I will apparently need to do well in college.

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The first time I was ever told there was something wrong with me, it was third grade. The smell of strawberry-scented markers filled the air. I held my marker clumsily in my hand. I don’t remember what I’m writing with it but I remember the wind blowing lazily through two purple curtains. The breeze is warm so it must still be September. The class pet, a white mouse, is sleeping in his cage. It’s close to the end of the day.

There is a fuzzy nagging at the back of the head, like a string being tugged on. Then there is a voice — a voice which only I can hear, creeping up my body like a ghost and leaving thoughts in my brain.

There was a great stillness in my throat.

I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t adhere to the margins of a page, all my writing coming out crooked. Mixed with my poor handwriting, it became a problem for the teachers.

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An occupational therapist came twice a week and tried to help. Holding my hands still and making me solve mazes. She thought that maybe there was a disconnect between my brain and my hands. She always wore skirts with animals on them. Blue skirts with dolphins and pink ones with pigs. By the time I stopped speaking as much as I should, the school didn’t know what to do with me so they decided to hold me back. I guess I was awkward socially. I don’t remember a whole lot of that year — just that the voices started.

By the sixth grade, I believed I had magical powers that my friends didn’t. Most of my school day was spent staring at the classroom door and wondering what might come through it. Monsters, aliens, a demon sly on two black wings. Math was an issue for me, the voices reciting lists of numbers as I tried to work through problems. I saw a six and all I could hear were lists of 12s — a 13 and I could only hear sevens and 19s. I never had a problem with the written language though; the voices incited phrases and words for me, helping my sentences to flow.

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The third time I learned there was something wrong with me, I was looking over the shoulder of a police officer. I was watching a grainy tape of myself, interacting with nothing, my blue work uniform black and white. Surrounded by shampoo bottles. Not a person in sight, though apparently, I thought so. I was in high school and although I had started speaking years ago, so had the visual hallucinations.

The fourth time I ever learned something was wrong with me, I burst into tears in the middle of math class. Unable to breathe. A pale darkness surrounded me and outside the classroom window, I saw the same man I had seen at work. Suddenly, I was being escorted down to the social worker’s office. Then an ambulance with giant lights and loud sounds. Then a hospital. But this hospital was a different kind. It had doors that locked you in. In this hospital, they take the shoelaces from your shoes. All of your belongings are tied up in plastic bags. There is an old pay phone on the wall, grimy from years of use. There are empty rooms and there are crowded rooms where all the patients huddled around windows that looked out onto empty parking lots. Nurses come by and give you medications. Food gets brought up to you. There is a security guard with a taser and a nurses station behind a wall of glass.

It wasn’t a healing environment.

I stayed for something like three weeks.

That fall, I went to college. I’d been living on my own since my first hospitalization. After six more hospitalizations, a bad psychiatrist and a dozen or so medications, I had grown accustomed to how many things were wrong with me.

“You’re sick, you need to be here right now.”

“Take this med or we’ll make you take it.”

“There won’t be any beds for a week, but you’re too sick to go home.”

“Don’t tell anyone about your diagnosis.”

“You’re not safe to be on campus.”

“You’re a liability in the classroom.”

“Your diagnosis is a death sentence.”

The dust settled on my textbooks. Heavy doses of antipsychotics dulled my mind, turning it to a beehive — a mess with chatter but sticky with honey. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. So, I dropped out of college and became the image of the person my doctor claimed I would become.

For three years, I let myself heal. Body and mind. I found a dose of a medication that worked for me. Finding that medicine was the catalyst that calmed the storm. A riled sea slowed inside of me. I could now pick up the debris which littered my brain.

I turned back to writing for the first time in years. I used writing to create a reflection of myself that I could understand. Coming to terms with being sick. Even though schizoaffective disorder is lifelong, it’s still a life worth living. I learned I could use my voices as a gift, letting them express themselves through words. After a few publications, I realized it works. I started a blog to allow my voices to stretch their legs. They’re part of me, I can’t keep them cooped up forever.

As my brain slowly clears, I’ve made the big decision to return to school. Now, I’m one year back and I’ve got a 3.7 GPA. I needed to pursue the one thing I was told I’d never reach. I’m braver now than I’ve ever been. Any life is a life worth living, and any knowledge is knowledge worth learning. I learned in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that to function properly, one has to balance rational mind with emotional mind. Doing this creates a calm that exists between the two: wise mind. A place we can all find peace. School teaches me the same thing. I’ve learned to balance my school work with my illness. It’s the best example of emotional mind and rational mind that I encounter on a daily basis — academia and schizophrenia, a place in which I find peace.

The moral of the story: do what they say you can’t. Accomplish what they said you never would. Be the person you were told you’d never be. Stay strong, defy odds and don’t let anything hold you back.

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

Losing My Brother to the Two-Headed Monster of Mental Illness and Addiction

What I Really Need From You on My 'Down Days'

Why Schizoaffective Disorder Can Be So Difficult to Describe