Being someone who has had schizophrenia for sixteen years is a different life path. There were years where I struggled, and by interacting with me, it was apparent that I was struggling with a mental health condition. However, people knowing it was schizophrenia may not have been ostensible, as the way pop culture projects schizophrenia is not how it presents in real life. Over the years my health has improved tremendously and this has brought on newer challenges of how I identify in terms of my mental health.
For years when I was struggling I just wanted to identify as someone who did not have a mental health condition. The majority of people in my life didn’t seem to have any cognitive impediments when talking to them and interacting with them, and I yearned to be a part of this group. I remember attending a group therapy session at age twenty-five and I held the thought of ,”How could I possibly get healthier and be the way I want to if I’m not with people who are doing well mental health wise?” I felt I needed the social contagion of more main stream people to pick me up and model ways in which I could live.
I also thought I had to believe that I was someone who did not have a mental health condition as opposed to someone who does in order to get rid of the condition. Also, identifying as someone who had a mental health condition felt like a stigmatizing way to exist within the world, so this was not how I wanted to view myself. It felt like a negative way of identifying and it was something I was not ready to take ownership over. There was too much stigma towards the condition that I had and that I felt from society as well. It felt like wherever I went, my mental health condition wasn’t acceptable to others, therefore I internalized that it shouldn’t be acceptable to me.
Another element of this was that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have been tremendously painful conditions, and for years I felt I would do just about anything to get rid of the pain, even if this meant entirely abandoning who I was and how I existed within the world to escape what I was going through. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl details how if you’re suffering enough sometimes you lose track of or even abandon everything you once believed in just as a means to escape the current conditions you were going through. For years the condition tested my will to live and I suffered deeply. This caused me to want to abandon the idea of even identifying as someone with a mental health condition. It felt like abandoning my mental health experiences would help to make them go away, which wasn’t actually the case.
Within my social life, I wavered back and forth for years about disclosing to others whether I did or didn’t have a mental health condition. It’s been a difficult line to walk, as there are many instances where it is not necessarily appropriate to mention the condition. Although schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are central components to my being, if someone is making a quick comment or joke at a cookout per se, it can completely shut down a conversation and dampen the mood for me to project my true thoughts and feelings towards their stigma and prejudice or to divulge my condition.
It’s not socially acceptable to many people to have a serious mental health condition, which makes it difficult to just openly share this. There were also times where I tried to convince myself I don’t have a condition as I felt it would help to liberate me. Hearing so many people say so many disparaging things about mental health conditions lead me to want to convince myself I did not have one. However when I heard all these comments it was always painful and bothered me tremendously and deep down I knew this was now an intrinsic part of me and that on some level it always would be. To me this indicates how central my mental health experiences have been to my being.
It’s difficult, when people who know about the condition tell me that I’m the same as they are when I’m really not, and I’m at odds with how to identify in the world. Sharing that I have a condition leads to bad results with people while pretending like I don’t have one is also painful. While hanging out with friends who don’t know about the condition and even those that do, there are many times they make transgressions towards mental health conditions. They use disparaging terms like psycho, crazy, and psychotic to describe people who are in distress or who aren’t thinking logically and rationally and may be struggling to see reality clearly or for anyone who is saying or doing something outlandish and that doesn’t make sense. Hearing things like this for years also contributed to me not wanting to identify as having a condition, and it sent the implicit message that at the very least while I was with these friends it wasn’t going to be socially acceptable for me to talk about.
For a while, when hearing these terms, I personalized what these friends were saying. I took it as a direct insult to who I was and everything I had been through as I’ve had years where I’ve been highly irrational, illogical, and I’ve struggled to perceive reality in more truthful ways. It felt as though if I embodied these negative comments towards mental health conditions I would turn into a person I didn’t want to become. My mind did feel precarious internally and hearing these kinds of comments scared me and made me afraid I would lose control.
When people made comments such as psycho and crazy and nuts towards other people who were struggling with their mental health, I felt directly insulted in some ways and I also felt at odds of which side to take. When this happened I felt like I had to take the side of having a mental health condition but simultaneously I felt I had to be more normative externally to fit in. I wanted to see myself as a healthy person so I strove to fit in at times whereas I also identified as having a mental health condition. Holding both truths felt difficult and wasn’t a dialectic I was able to handle at the time. This created divides within my personality for years from situation to situation and from group to group. Although while with certain friends it felt great to pretend like I didn’t have a condition, it’s not who I truly was, and to be my true self I needed to own the condition entirely.
I remember reaching a crossroads with a coworker who is also a peer specialist, and I still had stigma towards mental health conditions. This was stigma I had towards myself and towards others at times and I was still in a place where I didn’t want to identify as having a mental health condition. I felt stuck in many ways. I was repudiating my identity and my life experiences which caused me a tremendous amount of distress. Being my truest self has been a journey I’ve been on and mental health stigma has worked against that. For a number of years I had been trying to access my inner being and let that out but it wasn’t possible by repudiating the mental health condition.
It always felt like the things I had been through weren’t socially acceptable, therefore I had to hide them and pretend like they don’t exist. However, I reached a point where my friend mentioned, “I hope you own your mental health experiences, no matter where you go in life, because they’re one of the most powerful things about you”. This really struck a chord within me and this helped me move towards acceptance. I realized I need to accept this condition to be my best self, and I also need to see the good within it and that living through it has provided me.
Having had two episodes of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, thinking I was a messiah who would save the world, experiencing voices and visions and referential thinking, sleeping two to three hours per night and believing in many irrational things were all at one point and still are a part of who I am. These are things I don’t experience so much anymore, but they’re powerful experiences. I’ve survived an incredibly serious mental health condition, and this is something to celebrate. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of strength, resources, and wisdom from having had these experiences.
Even as I write this essay, I get this feeling that I just want to be way more open with people about what I’ve been through. At work as a peer specialist, I share about everything I have been through. However, I worry that out in the world I’d scare people, and I’m not sure how they would perceive me while talking about my mental health or if they have the intelligence to understand someone can go through extreme states and still be a fully rational, kind, and good human being.
The primary thing I’m realizing is that I can’t repudiate my mental health experiences, or the years of hard work and dedication I put towards improving my mental health and surviving the condition, because these experiences are now an intrinsic part of me. Everything we’ve ever experienced exists somewhere within our being, and these certainly aren’t things I want to drive out anymore. My mental health experiences comprise my being, my personality, my fortitude, and courage in so many ways, just as they do for the vast multitude of all of us who have had mental health conditions and trauma we’ve been through.
How could I possibly repudiate such a tremendous source of strength, and the years of suffering that have culminated in the person I am today?
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock
—–There was too much stigma towards the condition that I had and that I felt from society as well.
The power one has over minds when one can convince them of a stigma is considerable.
The power one has over minds when one can convince them to direct a stigma is considerable.
Harold A Maio