Many people break their lives into before and after. A major loss, a medical procedure, an event so radically disruptive that it splits your life into two distinct chapters. I’m no different. The timeline of my life is punctuated by the first time I started showing schizophrenia symptoms.
Before I suffered my first episode of psychosis at 27, I was a college graduate, working as a professional social worker, a homeowner, and going through the process of a divorce from my first husband. I was outgoing, I laughed easily, I had a good sense of humor, I went to parties, I made friends quickly, I was fiercely independent and capable. I took flights by myself to South America, the Middle East, and many countries in Europe to meet up with my parents who had been working overseas since my junior year in high school.
My first break from reality crept into my life slowly, seemingly banal at first—I cried a lot and was experiencing symptoms of major depression. I started isolating myself from other people. But then I started to believe that a therapist I once worked with was plotting with a well-known judge and other county and city officials to set me up. I became painfully paranoid. Delusional.
By the time my mom and aunt tried to get me admitted to a hospital, I had been actively psychotic for three weeks. I was unable to sit still, pacing around the rooms I was in. I barricaded my mom into a bedroom because I thought people were after us, and I was attempting to jump out a second-story window to run away. My mind was racing in circles trying to make sense of the distorted experiences.
It is difficult to get someone admitted to a hospital involuntarily. If the person isn’t showing signs of being a danger to themselves or others, they have to willingly sign themselves in for treatment. As a social worker, I knew the system. I was aware of the laws regarding commitment, so when I was asked, “Are you thinking of harming yourself?” I would reply, “No.”
That was true, but it didn’t mean that I was okay. The paranoia I was experiencing was so significant and overwhelming that I was convinced that once I went into the hospital, I would be drugged, tortured, and forced to testify that people I knew were criminals. My mind went around and around in circles playing out these terrifying scenarios.
After several days of going from one hospital to another with my mom and aunt, I finally agreed to sign myself in. It wasn’t that I was less paranoid, but I had resigned myself to the fact that whatever and whoever was out to get me was too powerful—I might as well give up. I resigned myself to the idea that I’d have to undergo whatever terrible things they had planned for me just hoping I could survive.
In my new reality, I had to accept the fact that I was living with a severe mental illness and a mind that could seriously, and at any time, betray me.
In the locked unit of the hospital, the nurses conducted drug tests and blood work. I was clean, so drug-induced psychosis was ruled out. But that meant there had to be some other cause. For the first five days of treatment, I was kept away from other residents. In my paranoia, I stripped the bedsheets off of my bed in an effort to calm my fears. I was convinced I was being poisoned through the cloth. My non-compliant behavior meant I couldn’t be trusted around the other patients. I’d never felt so alone.
After a week in the hospital, the medication flooding through my system finally reached a therapeutic level in my blood—the paranoia and delusions started to recede rapidly. I started to regain traction with reality, but after everything I’d been through, “reality” wasn’t the same as it had been before my episode. In my new reality, I had to accept that fact that I was living with a severe mental illness and a mind that could seriously, and at any time, betray me.
The “after” in this story involves some grief about what has changed. I can’t imagine taking a flight by myself ever again, afraid of what might happen alone in the air. Activities that used to be carefree and fun—something as simple as going out to dinner with friends—are now fraught. I suffer from frequent episodes of paranoia, like believing that someone slipped poison into my food or drink. There are also hallucinations, mostly olfactory hallucinations where I smell something burning or a chemical that smells dangerous. And at times I’ve even heard voices, a common schizophrenia symptom. But these events aren’t the most disruptive to my regular life—it’s the anxiety and lack of motivation that are the most difficult to wrestle with.
I work with my psychiatrist to keep my mental illness in check. I take antipsychotic medication twice a day along with medication for anxiety. I try to keep my weight at a healthy level (weight gain is a side effect of antipsychotics), and I eat well and exercise regularly. I do what I can to live the best life possible, but symptoms break-through—there is no cure for schizophrenia.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about living with schizophrenia is that life goes on. It was over two decades ago that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it’s not all tragic. I married again, and we recently celebrated our 21st anniversary. I have friends, I write almost daily, and I enjoy spending time with my family. I don’t know if it is because memory fades over time, or the cliché that time heals all wounds, but the last 21 years—even with the hospitalizations, reduced level of functioning, and periodic episodes of psychosis—are some of the best of my life. Schizophrenia has changed my life—but it hasn’t ruined it.
Rebecca Chamaa is a writer in San Diego covering mental health, finances, relationships, and lifestyle. You can follow her blog about living with schizophrenia at ajourneywithyou.com or follow her @wr8ter on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour