What it Was Like: My Life Before Mental Illness

college life

Steve Colori reflects on his life as a college student, before his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder changed everything.

The school year was nearing its end and it was the coldest year of my life. I woke up one morning from my usual two to three hour sleep on the tile floor of my three-room college apartment and although I had managed to find one of the softer tiles to rest my head on I still had a slight headache and my neck and body were stiff and cold. I turned over to get up for class and nearly bumped into the bulky metal heater I slept next to in the kitchen every night. I neatly folded the light American-made throw blanket I slept with and placed it in its spot in the corner.

♦◊♦

I walked over to the bathroom to wash up and felt the hardness of the tiles pressing against my bare feet. The tiles were warmer in the kitchen but never warm enough and the bathroom floor was frigid. I stood before the mirror contemplating whether to look at myself. I hated vanity. I finally decided it would be for the better and barely recognized myself. My face was gaunt and there were shadows under my cheek bones. I was wearing baggy brown work pants and swimming in a hemp hooded sweatshirt that ran small for a medium.

I removed my sweatshirt and could clearly see most of my ribs. My stomach was as flat as concrete. My 130 pounds clung to my 195 pound frame. I connected my thumb to my pointer finger about four inches up my wrist and was amazed at the ease with which I was able to connect the two. My hair hadn’t been cut for three months and was emanating in all directions. That was by design. I thought this look depicted my intelligence as if brilliant thoughts were flowing uncontrollably out of my mind.

I brushed my teeth starting with the top row inside, moving to the top row outside, then to the top row underneath, and systematically made my way through the bottom row in a similar fashion. I had a routine for everything and didn’t have any faith in spontaneity. It could lead to mistakes. After brushing my teeth and washing my face I undressed and showered, washing my hair with olive oil because I hadn’t found a fair trade soap at this point. I had learned that the Ancient Greeks washed with olive oil so figured it was better than nothing. After the shower I put the same clothes back on and put my books in my bag. I ate just enough to keep myself going. I thought if I ate less there would be more food for others and this would help combat world hunger.

♦◊♦

I opened the apartment door, stepped through and shut it. I checked if it was locked four times before walking downstairs to exit the building. Once downstairs I shut the building door and checked the lock three or four times to make sure it was also shut and began walking to class.

I stretched my legs on each step to make the most of every stride. I was wearing Converse-style fair trade shoes with thin soles and could feel the hardness and coldness of the concrete with every step. Everyone was listening and watching everything I was doing. I had to make the most out of everything I did and every word I said because everyone could hear my thoughts through a secret telekinetic network. (I had been trying to break into the network for quite some time). I walked several hundred yards and was passing the bus stop where I always nodded to an old man who waited there daily. I thought he was watching over me just as there were others on campus who were protecting me from those who were trying to stop me. I was the only one who could save the world.

A couple months earlier there had been a small fire in my apartment building. The fire burned a hole through the floor of the adjacent apartment–and ever since that moment, I believed there was someone out to get me. But every day around 8 a.m. the old man was there and nodded to me. He knew I was the messiah, and knew he had to protect me, and went to that bus stop daily because he knew my schedule, just as everyone else did. I nodded to the old man and to others as I walked by. There was usually some sort of shock or disbelief on their faces. ‘That’s right,’ I thought. ‘They know who I am. They’re grateful to see me.’

♦◊♦

I entered my Introduction to Existentialism class and sat in my spot in the front row and opened my notebook. I was afraid to talk but knew people could hear my thoughts. I thought awful thoughts sometimes but pushed them out of my mind because everyone was listening. “My thoughts are broadcasting over the telekinetic network,” I said to myself. “I can’t think anything unscrupulous. Bad things will happen.” My ideas were supposed to pass from person to person and eventually pervade the world to save the human race from a dismal fate and create a golden age just like the golden ages of Ancient China.

This all stemmed from an experience in my Intro to Music class the previous semester. I was being as efficient as possible from pure exhaustion. I had been working fourteen hour days for the past two years between work and school and sleeping very little. Adrenaline was constantly pulsing through my neck and heart keeping me awake and alert. I could feel my facial muscles and tissues sagging from the bones and I had bags under my eyes which drew frequent comments. I was so exhausted I walked the straightest possible lines and took the fewest possible steps to save energy. I hunched over my plate to save myself the effort of lifting food any higher than I needed to. I was efficiency personified. People around me were beginning to take my example. They were walking straight lines and they were always on the right side of the walkway so everyone could pass easily just as I did. Their posture was perfect and they were handing work in early.

People who can’t think for themselves imitate their surroundings and younger people tend to imitate their surroundings more so than older people. My music professor looked at us one day and said, “This has been the most efficient semester I’ve seen here. Something’s different.” I knew it was my efficiency working into the lives of those surrounding me. I looked at him, laughed a bit, and smiled and thought, “I’m making a difference. Whatever I’m doing is changing the people around me.”

♦◊♦

Our philosophy professor entered the room and put his papers on the table at the head of the class. I saw that my own papers were on my desk and wasn’t certain what the professor was trying to tell me. Everyone was trying to tell me something through everything they were doing. Everything meant something to me. Meaningless was just an idea which held no organic truth. I sat upright and a student in the back row by the door turned on the light. That was an affirmation that I was doing the right thing by having my notebook open and posturing myself correctly.

“Jean Paul Sartre was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II in 1939. From his prison cell he taught existentialism to his comrades and he lived through the war,” said Professor H.

‘How do I get out of this?’ I asked myself. I felt imprisoned and did not have the slightest notion of how to change my state of mind and find sanity. It was completely absent from my existence.

I left the class timid and afraid as usual. People usually stared at me and I moved quickly to make my way to the library to read and complete homework for the next ten hours. As I read I knew I was becoming smarter and thought I’d fulfill my dream of saving the world with my ideas.

♦◊♦

Night had fallen and I was still reading. I got up, went to the restroom and relieved myself. I looked down at my hands and they were covered in cuts. I washed them frequently and thoroughly and it looked as though I had been moving them through a bucket of glass chips. I went for soap and noticed the dispenser was out. The dispenser to the right of it was also out and the last dispenser was also empty. I rinsed my hands well and went to the left for paper towels and there were none left. I walked to the towel dispensary next to the door and that was empty too. I went to every bathroom of all four floors of the library and there was no soap or paper towels.

As I checked the last bathroom, the music professor was standing next to me. He looked at me but didn’t say a word. He picked his nose and rinsed it with water and looked to me. I wasn’t certain what this meant. Was everyone else washing their hands the same way I was? Was I the reason the library was out of paper towels and soap? He seemed to suggest that I was overly hygienic but I was obdurate in my ways. I was the only person I trusted. Although I did take suggestions from others for things to do.

I walked home that night with the same light hemp hooded sweatshirt clothing me in the twenty degree weather with three feet of snow on the ground.

♦◊♦

I overheard someone say, “I’m pretty full from that last meal.”

‘What does that mean?’ I asked myself. Do I need to fill my gas tank? Do I need to buy more groceries to fill my refrigerator? Do I need to fill my room with more non-fair-trade items to recycle?

A person walking towards my apartment looked at me and nodded and I thought, ‘I must need to get gas.’

Someone walking in the opposite direction was on the phone saying, “No, no, no. That’s not what I want.” So I turned back towards the library. “Do I need to read more or do I need to get back to the apartment? Who should I listen to? I need a sign,” I thought. “I need a sign.”

I turned towards the library again to read more and a street light that was on a timer turned off. I turned back around and walked towards the apartment. I went to my car and saw the gas tank was three quarters full. I unlocked the door, drove to the gas station, and filled the tank. As I was filling the tank there was someone across from me also getting gas. He looked at me passively and then coughed. “What have I done wrong?” I thought. “Did I really need to get gas? What do I need to do? I have to figure this out.”

As I was walking into the apartment, someone mentioned, “The grass is greener on the other side.”

‘The other side,’ I thought. Am I on the other side or am I on the bad side? Which side is which? What am I looking for? I guess it’s good to be on the other side.

I didn’t know what constituted being on “the other side”. About five minutes later, I shut the apartment door and locked it. I checked it was locked three or four times and went and sat down on the floor of my room. I would call it a bedroom but it had no semblance of one. I had no furniture and no bed to speak of and the room was filled with piles of parts from non-fair trade electronics I had been disassembling and recycling. I went back to work with my kit of American made pliers, a screw driver, and a boy scout pocket knife. I passed out in one of the piles at about two or three in the morning and woke up at six.

♦◊♦

I had fallen asleep with the light on but I woke up in the dark and realized the power was out and saw the sun was behind the clouds. An ice storm had hit the region.

Class had been canceled but the dining hall was serving free meals. I went through the line and sat down with some old friends I hadn’t seen or talked to for quite some time. I also hadn’t spoken to any family members for the past six months for any more than a couple minutes at a time. I had been isolating myself to figure out what I wanted out of life and to find direction. There were too many people with too many contradicting ideas and I wanted to figure things out for myself.

“So, how’s it going, Steveo?” asked my roommate from freshman year.

“Things are going,” I said.

“What’d you get to eat?”

“I don’t know if I’m going to eat,” I said. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well you have food on your plate, I’d assume you were going to eat it, right?” he asked.

“I’m not quite certain,” I said. I thought if I answered every question without making a decision it would give me more freedom to change my mind. I had to be a person of my word and once I said something I usually felt obliged to follow through with the corresponding actions.

“You’re an English major now, right?”

“I am,” I said.

“What type of exams do you have?”

“Papers,” I said.

“So you’re going to finish those at home?” he asked.

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said. There was only one option but I wanted to leave myself open to any possibilities.

“I was looking at the salt but hadn’t asked for it yet.

“Do you want me to pass you the salt?”

♦◊♦

“Okay,” I said equivocally. I said OK with the intention of making him think I was agreeing with him but in my own mind the word “okay” was just an acknowledgement that I had heard him. I did this so I could change my mind more easily if I decided against asking for the salt. I also didn’t want to create any obligations for anyone else either and thought if I provided them with freedom they would reciprocate.

He didn’t pick up on my equivocality and passed the salt.

I took it without saying thank you or giving any sign of gratitude. I believed everyone should already be grateful for everything and we shouldn’t have to constantly reiterate our gratitude.

“What do you want to do with your life?” he asked.

Although people were still talking it seemed as though the room went silent. I remembered my professors saying that writing is a very powerful way to create change.

“I want to become a writer,” I said. After I made this statement the sun came out from behind the clouds and shined brightly, almost blindingly. The power came on an instant later and the lights turned on and the heat kicked in. Everyone cheered and was happy the grid was back on.

A week later I experienced my first hospitalization from schizoaffective disorder.

♦◊♦

A diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder requires someone to have all the symptoms of schizophrenia and of bipolar disorder simultaneously. After my first episode of schizoaffective disorder I was overmedicated and saw a psychiatrist who wasn’t equipped to meet the needs of someone with a psychotic disorder. I stopped taking my medication and experienced a second episode and was hospitalized again.

After my second episode I was paranoid to a point where I was afraid to speak even the briefest of sentences or interact with anyone. I began talk therapy and made some progress but didn’t have any friends, a job, or any social activities to participate in, and had many psychotic symptoms.

One night I was alone in my living room and had been so for about forty five minutes. The TV and radio were off and I was sitting and thinking. I heard my mom’s voice say, “Hey,” from the door. I turned to respond and the door was shut and no one was home. I checked the garage and their car was still gone. The strangest part about hearing voices is they seem external but when you look in the direction they seem to have come from and there isn’t anything that can produce sound there, you realize it’s an auditory hallucination. For several years and to this day I have experienced brief auditory hallucinations periodically when stressed.

I finally got a job but thought I had to do everything to the best of my ability or else bad things would happen to me. This created a ton of stress and sometimes put me in a hypomanic state while working. I worked the same way I did during episodes and usually held jobs for three to four months before switching. My perfectionism was one of the many residual delusions from my episodes which hampered me.

♦◊♦

I began taking grad school classes because I was considering becoming a teacher. I sat down in class and looked around the room and felt as if I was back in my episodes. I was making connections between the things people were saying to my internal monologue and I was paranoid. Eventually, though, I settled in well enough to function in class. Referential thinking is a way people with schizophrenia type illnesses confuse the internal from the external and this is one of the most disorienting parts of schizophrenia. PTSD is a regular component of experiencing an episode of schizoaffective disorder.

I eventually decided against teaching and was unemployed and out of school again but was considering becoming a writer. I needed activities to keep me busy so I decided to take a writing class with a local author at an adult-education course. Mr. N ran the class and is a great teacher and is very-easy going. Part of me was still in the messiah-mindset and believed there was something I could do to save the world, to change humanity, or just make some extraordinary contribution to the world. He advised me to read one hundred good books before attempting to write and over the course of a year and a half I did. I was eager to help others but didn’t realize I really needed to help myself first.

I became employed again and was working full time. After the reading period of a year and a half and about six months thereafter I hadn’t started writing. Talk therapy was helping me but I still had most of my psychotic symptoms. I asked a family friend who’s a writer what I could do to improve my writing and he stated, “Writers write.”

“I can write a memoir,” I thought, “about my experiences and help others with their troubles through sharing.” I envisioned myself becoming a millionaire, interviewing on live TV, and writing New York Times best selling books. I really believed I could do this.

♦◊♦

I hadn’t spoken to the poet in a couple of years but decided to retake his class to refresh my mind and get writing exercises. After the course ended he invited me to his writing group which meets bi-weekly and is a gathering of writers who help each other improve by sharing and critiquing work.

My writing was improving week by week and I was hopeful I would be able to publish my memoir. I was still neurotic and had difficulty interacting with others. I was writing fiction for the workshop but also working on the first draft of the memoir. I realized the task of completing a memoir would take a great deal of time and effort.

After spending four months trying to help others by completing my initial memoir manuscript I realized I still had all my symptoms and had to help myself first. I began psychoanalyzing myself in a metacognitive journal and in this process utilized the chronology of traumatic experiences from my memoir manuscript to great effect. The irony of the situation is all the material in my publications and lectures was a result of introspection and helping myself first and without it I would never have been able to help others.

♦◊♦

It took a couple years but with my journal and talk therapy I eventually overcame schizoaffective disorder and its aftermath. I currently get anxiety occasionally but have been free of most of my symptoms. I have a great group of friends and have so much to do I have to tell myself to stay in some nights to stay healthy. I’m close with my family and I’m living at home but once I make more money I know I’ll be fully capable of living on my own.

I have a full-time job and I’m good at it. I’ve been dating for a while now and that has gone well. I have been writing for Mclean Hospital since 2011, I’ve been lecturing their Harvard Residents since 2012, I have seven articles published with Oxford Medical Journals, and I have lectured at Mass General Hospital’s Schizophrenia Day. I’m still in the writing group and I enjoy the company of my friends and fellow writers. I write because I enjoy it, because it’s of use to me, and because my stories can help others.

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Photo Credit: Gilbert Mercier/Flickr

About Steve Colori

Steve Colori was born in 1986 and attended the University of New Hampshire. During undergrad he developed schizophrenia which was later diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. Over the years he has worked hard to overcome the disorder and help others while doing so. He has published eight articles with Oxford Medical Journals, he has written freelance for Mclean Hospital since 2011, and he has a memoir available on Amazon titled "Experiencing and Overcoming Schizoaffective Disorder". Steve has also been lecturing Mclean Hospital's Harvard Resident Doctors since 2012, lectures at Simmons College, and has lectured at Mass General Hospital's Schizophrenia Day. A quote he has come to live by is, "To Improve is to Change; to be Perfect is to Change Often." (Winston Churchill) To read more of Steve's publications and learn more about his writing, please visit SteveColori.com.

Comments

  1. STEVE deJesus says:

    Required reading is Nutrient Power by William Walsh PhD. Please read this book, it will be an edge opener for anyone with schizophrenia.

  2. I am so happy for you. Happy that you were able to move past your mental illness; this seems to be the exception. I read the entire article and fully locked into every word as I followed you on the journey. My family has several members who is challenged with mental illness. Thanks for a glimpse of hope.

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