Inside My Haunted Head -- What It's Like to be a Schizophrenic
I'm known among my cohorts as a badass. I'm have academic specialties in law and defense intelligence. I have ten years of military service under my belt. I am an expert markswoman with the M-4, the M-16, and the SigSauer P226 .45 handgun.
And I can be brought to my knees, senseless and useless, curled in a corner and crying like a little child, by the monsters in my head.
I have type I schizophrenia, depersonalization disorder, and complex PTSD. Want some fries with that?
When most people hear the word "schizophrenia," the image that runs through their minds is that of a homeless person, unwashed and gaunt, rambling the streets muttering to him- or herself, occasionally breaking out in screams and seemingly random flailing. I confess, there are days when I do feel like doing exactly that. However, the majority of people with schizophrenia are, in fact, functioning members of society. We just need a little help. We are not violent. We are not stupid. We merely have some malfunctions going on upstairs.
In me, the schizophrenia manifests itself as severe paranoia, with aural, visual, and tactile hallucinations. When I'm having a psychotic episode, I see, hear, and feel things that aren't there. I'm perfectly aware they aren't there. Again, I'm not stupid. Still, it doesn't make functioning any easier to know that the monsters waving in the periphery are only figments of the electrical pulses in my brain. Have you ever tried having a conversation with a friend or co-worker when other people were demanding your attention right then? Imagine that the other people are invisible and inaudible, and try to carry on the discussion. Try going grocery shopping with a constant barrage of yelling being directed at you. Try to study with constant movement in your peripheral vision, and random taps on the shoulder.
Annoying doesn't begin to cover it.
In addition to schizophrenia, I have complex PTSD complicated by depersonalization disorder. Depersonalization disorder is a dissociative condition common in trauma victims. It is a survival mechanism, an escape hatch during abusive or overly triggering situations. The abused person starts to tune out, turn off, stop being there for the event. The most common symptoms are detachment, losing time, or feeling as though one is having an out-of-body experience. Complex PTSD and depersonalization disorder mean I have high anxiety levels and that I experience those out-of-body states. When I'm really in a bad way, I don't recognize myself in the mirror and am unable to perform simple tasks. Can you imagine the horror of not being able to work the coffeepot in the morning, or to remember how to brush your teeth?
The complex PTSD and the depersonalization disorder are the product of a lifetime of pervasive and consistent verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of parents, clergy, intimate partners, and of having been raped by a fellow troop while on active duty. The schizophrenia is a little harder to pin down, but most geneticists believe it is a combination of nature and nurture.
[I]n a September, 2004 presentation Dr. Daniel Weinberger, Director of the Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Program, at the National Institute of Mental Health" stated that he estimated the current number of genes variations linked to schizophrenia was approximately 10. The gene variations that have been identified as being linked to schizophrenia are common in every population - but he believes that it is likely that if a person has a number of these gene variations then the risk of developing schizophrenia begins to rise. The more of these gene variations that a person has, the greater the risk of developing schizophrenia. For example, in 2002 researchers led by NIMH’s Dr. Daniel Weinberger linked a gene on chromosome 22 to a near-doubled risk of schizophrenia.
When the gene, called COMT, is abnormal, it effectively depletes the frontal lobes of the neurochemical dopamine. That can both unleash hallucinations and impair the brain’s reality check.
Given the constant interplay of genes and environment - the greater the exposure to schizophrenia-linked environmental factors (e.g. lead exposure during pregnancy, birth complications, extremely high stress experiences in life while young, drug use while a teenager, etc.) the greater the likelihood that a person with a given level of genetic predisposition will actually develop schizophrenia. A person with fewer of the gene variants linked with schizophrenia, if exposed to more environmental factors linked with schizophrenia - may pass the threshold for development of schizophrenia just as a person with more gene variants, and lower environmental factor exposure could also pass the threshold to develop schizophrenia. Research is still being done on the risk contribution to the development of schizophrenia that is associated with the different gene variations and environmental impacts.
Australian studies have shown that 75% of people who experience severe mental illness do so between the ages of 18–24. I began experiencing schizophrenic symptoms at age 23, during prime time for young adult onset. Because I was in military service and had a Top Secret clearance, I was afraid to seek treatment for the new horror my brain was inflicting on me. The first time I saw those disembodied legs walk by out of the corner of my eye, the first time I heard someone call my name in an empty room, I didn't know if I was haunted or going insane. I was terrified. As it turned out, I was going very much insane, and it would only get worse.
Over the next four years, I held on tooth and claw as my symptoms continued. I experienced more trauma: emotional abuse at the hands of my spouse, violent rape by the fellow troop. I honestly have no idea how I held it together. In 2006 I separated from military service and left my spouse, drastically reducing my stress levels. No doubt this contributed to my regaining a semblance of sanity.
Over the next three years, I lived with a low-level buzz of hallucinations, nightmares, and occasional flares of rage and paranoia, but nothing I couldn't safely ignore. As I was still working in the defense intelligence field, seeking treatment for mental illness remained unsafe for my security clearance, so I continued to try to cope alone. As the end of 2009 approached, my symptoms became progressively worse, to the point that I was unable to work or function. I didn't recognize myself in the mirror. I couldn't remember how to shower or take care of myself. My haunted head was constantly barraged by mutters in the static, snickers, conversations held by disembodied voices. The day I left work to see zombies crawling under the cars in the parking lot was the last straw. I managed to drive myself home, and I begged my partner to take me to the hospital.
After a few doses of Abilify and a few nights' real sleep, the monsters receded, leaving me with a clearer head than I'd had in years. My partner told me later that she broke down in tears after hearing my voice when I called from the psych ward. She said that I sounded like myself again. I went on short-term disability as I learned how to function on anti-psychotics. It felt so good to be free of the monsters in my head!
While I have my psychotic symptoms under control with the help of Big Pharma, things ain't exactly peachy. Within a few months of my hospitalization, my security clearance was revoked, and I lost my job with the defense consulting firm. Thankfully, I had been training as a paralegal, and was able to find employment as such within a few months. COBRA kept me supplied with those magic pills. At least, it did until I lost that job, too. My partner had since left me, and I was about to be homeless.
Finally, with no options left, I sold everything I had, cashed in a 401(k), put myself and my three cats on a plane, and flew to the East Coast for a fresh start. I'm currently staying with another Kossack, without whose graciousness and love I wouldn't be alive right now. I'm still unemployed, and now I'm uninsured. At the urging of DaNang65, I went to the VA, where I was able to qualify for health benefits. They gave me those pills that keep me a sane, functioning member of society.
I'm still looking for work, and taking it one day at a time. I'm alive, and able to fight back. For now it's enough.