Vacation Memories, or Not: Early Signs of Psychosis

When I was fourteen, my mom and I took a trip to New Jersey. We visited family and friends, saw some sights, all that good stuff. It was a great trip in a lot of ways and I have fond memories of it. I reminisced about it to my wife recently, and I recalled two things I frequently think of from that trip that go beyond vacation memories and into Things To Ponder territory.

One:

It was a several hour long flight to get there, and to be honest, I don’t remember much of it, but it meant a lot of transportation downtime, which means I was probably doing a lot of daydreaming. Many of my best plotlines and revelations were born of this kind of time. The earliest born recognizable plotline from the final version of Contrivance (which I published recently) was born on a roadtrip to California for my wife’s job. Another important revelation, same project, on a roadtrip back from a Lake Tahoe vacation with family and friends. I reframed “What Happened Last Storm” on the way to San Francisco (which was reposted recently).

Anyway, after the flight, I believe we went straight to visit my grandparents, the primary reason for the trip. And after that is the part that I remember clearly. Let me tell you this: there is not a single left turn in the state of New Jersey. I am sure of it. I am pretty sure we had to go to New York to turn around after missing the (okay, one) left turn to get to our hotel. So it was a long drive.

Apparently fresh out of the usual daydreaming material, my mind began to wander further. Daydreams started to wander a little too far ahead of my conscious thought train, and I abruptly slammed on the mental brakes. 

Where did that come from? 

The daydream train had deviated from what would ever truly be canon for the nascent project. Into vaguely uncomfortable territory I couldn’t really identify at the time. It was far from a sexual fantasy or anything, but something about it had the flashing warning light of don’t think that. I’d now file it somewhere in the alternative lifestyle category. But I’d barely even heard those words at the time. And, interestingly, a lot of my daydreams already went into what I would now call that category, going as far back as I can remember, to my earliest memories. So why was I suddenly worried at that moment? Doing the same plotline with new characters? Fledgling awareness of the taboo? Or increased paranoia? 

I believe the important thing isn’t the content of the daydream—honestly, I don’t remember the details—but the slamming on the mental breaks, the don’t think that. Thought policing myself. I stopped daydreaming and sat there in the car and pondered that. Why was I policing my own thoughts? Did I believe others around me could hear them? That some form of God could hear them? That bad thoughts inevitably led to bad actions? (There’s also probably a whole post’s worth on why did I instinctively feel that content was taboo while barely understanding it?, but that may be better suited to my other blog.) 

I decided, sitting there and reasoning with myself, that I supposed there wasn’t a reason I should police my thoughts. And I indulged the daydream and mentally crept forward. Still, I found myself slamming the brakes on daydreams like that under various circumstances. If I was alone and someone entered the space, I slammed on the brakes, like abruptly closing embarrassing computer tabs when you realize someone’s standing behind you. So on. Now, I wasn’t very good at the brake slamming—that’s kind of the maladaptive part—but, I tried.

This whole thing resonates a lot with—well, a) maladaptive and dissociative daydreaming perhaps over the edge of psychosis in itself, but I talk about that going back to my earliest memories a lot here, but also b) paranoia—as in, paranoid schizophrenia, one of my eventual diagnoses. That paranoia—the thought policing—creeps in to this day, though I have so few secrets these days, even if I believe someone can hear my thoughts, I don’t actually worry about much. 

Here’s the interesting thing: I had only in the past six months or so, at the time of the trip, been diagnosed with so much as anxiety. I had no known psychotic symptoms at the time. When I started on medication for the anxiety, my dad even reacted badly to the first prescription recommended, because it was technically an antipsychotic. He thought this whole thing was already getting out of hand. I’d gone from “a little too stressed out” to “psychotic” in no time at all in this psychiatrist’s eyes (even though it’d been explained that the psychiatrist understood I had only anxiety and was giving me this drug to treat me for anxiety and sleep, no matter the primary use of it). Point being, I was not psychotic at the time. Or, so we believed? And I was early onset as it was—definitive psychotic symptoms around the time I turned fifteen, diagnosed at seventeen. The average onset for schizophrenia in women is the late twenties to early thirties. 

But some of my symptoms do go further back than even my anxiety diagnosis (which, to be fair, may have been long overdue). 

Exhibit two from that trip: 

My mom and I went to the Museum of Natural History. I hear it’s a really cool museum. Here’s the problem: I have no memory of it. 

I remember going into NYC from New Jersey. It was my first time on a subway, all that fun stuff. I even remember arriving at the museum and I believe having food in the cafeteria. Then my memory cuts out. Then, we’re standing on the front steps of the museum on the way to meet a friend of Mom’s for food. I am having a panic attack because something went wrong on the camera and it deleted all of our many photos of the experience. 

Now, that sucks for both of us and all—but I’m long over that part—I was just prone to such panic attacks at the time. (Sorry, Mom, for all of it.) But the interesting thing is I remember insisting that because there were no photos, it was like we hadn’t been there at all. I was already struggling to recollect details that had seemed very clear a moment ago. My brain insisted that no evidence meant that it hadn’t happened. The museum wasn’t quite real. I don’t think I expressed this very well, though. I didn’t even understand that anxious thought process at the time. I don’t remember what my memory of the museum was like closer to the event—I remember losing details as we walked away from it—but today at least, I’ve got nothing. I’m okay with that. A lot of memories fade, anyway. One day, I’ll go back. 

Now, today, if after very obviously living an experience for several hours, I lost the external evidence of it and spiraled into panic, thinking that the whole thing had never truly happened, I would probably think I was having an acute psychotic episode, and might even be able to articulate that. It would indicate an obvious loss of a sense of reality, unable to grasp the realness of something I had just experienced. A loss of permanence. Today, I frequently use photos to keep reality real, so to speak. They ground me and provide facts. 

When I’m so consumed by the image of my father dead that I can no longer picture him alive, photos ground me. Photos say, This is what he looked like. I may or may not be in a mental state where my perception of the photos (selfies, candids, quick pictures, not things subjected to editing) is that they are undeniably fact, but something in the back of my mind always whispers, They’re right. 

My phone’s photo feed provides me timelines, little moments that keep large stretches of time real. Throughout the early height of the pandemic, there are pictures of interesting animals I saw at the empty park, our cats, food I made, candids of our little family in the pool, empty shelves at stores, signs announcing closings, masks left in the street, craft projects, our plants—tiny reminders tied to a specific moment in time that mean this whole year really happened. Not a weird montage from a movie. We all probably feel that way about 2020 sometimes. I just feel like that a lot.

At the time of that trip, though, I didn’t believe I was psychotic—although I knew very little about what psychosis truly was like. I certainly didn’t know how to articulate any of that. But could it have been a subtle prodome symptom, an early warning sign? Maybe. My first definitive symptoms of psychosis came just six months later.

I suppose it’s not important now, but it’s interesting to ponder looking back. 

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