On the Protection of a Facade

I recently read The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (and I saw so much of myself in it, I’ll probably write a whole other post about how amazing it was).  One theme that jumped out at me can be summed up in this quote:

“To some extent, the brilliant facade of a good face and a good outfit protects me.  My sickness is rarely obvious.” 

There are ups and downs to appearing normal (whatever that may mean).  One downside is that it’s easy to convince even yourself that nothing is wrong, if you look in the mirror and all looks well.  It’s easy to think you are exaggerating or lying even to yourself, especially when you have a real disorder that skews reality just like that. 

A thing about schizophrenia is that it sets you in the frame of mind of questioning things.  Reality gets tricky easily.  Maybe one hallucination is obvious, but you know there are others that aren’t.  When something is real, and you do think it’s real, but in any way off, you still give it a close examination in skepticism.  One thing out of place sets off a spiral of—well, if that’s maybe not real, what else am I missing?  Knowing you see things that aren’t there means you question the things that really are.  I’ve speculated that the reason I have so many lucid dreams compared to many people I know is because the key to lucid dreaming, according to most how tos, is reality checking.  Looking for something out of place enough you realize you’re in a dream, and that you can control dreams.  You have to set that habit in the waking hours for it to occur to you in a dream, though.  And I’m used to doing that in my life so much that it slips into my dreams.

The same goes for mental constructs.  You know that you get on the wrong thought trains, and if you’re thinking about having schizophrenia itself, you question that thought train, too, especially when the evidence you’re more sure of looks so… normal.

On the upside, it means that unless I’m truly in the middle of an episode, when I want to play it down, I can, and when I want to not talk about it, I don’t have to.  

This does mean a bit of an obsession with maintaining those appearances, in various forms.  Physical presentation standards—and the ability to keep that up even when there are hard days.  Even online presences or the way I move or talk.  When I fear I am slipping mentally, I develop another cycle of obsession with making sure my clothes have no holes, stains, mismatches, poorly chosen sizes, or anything that stands out too much.   

Recently before a video chat with my therapist, I asked Kate, who has much steadier hands than me, to trim my bangs so I could actually see my therapist and not the backside of my own hair, and an observing friend said something like, “So, ‘I had a psychotic break, but not so much I couldn’t get my bangs trimmed.’”

And on the one hand, I wanted to be able to see, and on the other hand… well, yes.

In some ways, I talk about my mental illnesses very openly.  There are few cases where I won’t mention the diagnosis itself.  There are a lot more cases where I play down how troubling it is, or laugh it off.  Most of my friends know I hallucinate, but they hear about the flashes of light and the white noise and the echoes and the objects that get flipped in my vision, and less about the corpses and voices.  More still hearing things while wearing noise cancelling headphones, and less sleeping on the couch because beds are a trigger. 

It’s been a hell of a year (tomorrow) since the PTSD began and brought a fresh wave of psychosis with it.  It had been fairly easy for quite a while, before, to live with and ignore the odd white noise or flash of light, and easy to sink into the comfort of maladaptive style daydreaming.  After, there were the night terrors that practically looked like seizures, the waking hours’ blurred line between flashback and hallucination that eventually leant far towards the latter.  

Those are the pieces I try to keep to discussing only within the right context for it, and those are the pieces I can tuck away when I’m wearing clean, matching, well-fitting clothes that don’t draw the eye, and my hair clean and trimmed and brushed. 

If I didn’t keep up those appearances—the question of the full extent of illness would come up a lot more, whether I wanted it to or not—something tough especially with trauma.

So I understand the idea of the facade protecting you.  It’s a little wall between you and the possibility of never being able to set illness aside for a moment of normalcy.  

On My Schizophrenia Tamagotchi

“Farrah’s back,” I said at brunch.  “She seems to like mornings.”
It was a morning just days ago when Farrah appeared for the first time.  A puppy hiding between the edge of a desk and the wall.  She never got too close, but when I paid particular attention to her, I could, unbidden, feel her warm fur in my fingers.  The tactile hallucinations were relatively new, too.  I wasn’t complaining about this one in particular, though; it was much less terrifying and consuming than the others as recent as last night, almost soothing except for the nature of hallucinating and knowing it.
The name Farrah was printed on the silver dog-bone shaped tag on her red leather collar, the kind of bright red that made more sense for the image of the ribbon you put on the puppy on Christmas morning than the stiff material the hue appeared on.  The color appeared almost scribbled over the texture rather than a part of it.  I could read the name only when it came as a zoomed-in flash of an image, and I think I felt it more than read it.  I didn’t know why Farrah.  Google later revealed an Arabic origin, a girl’s name meaning joy.
Rather benign for a manifestation of mental illness.
After first noting Farrah’s appearance, I noted that sometimes when I changed rooms—she was highly reactive to the real environment, a trend for my hallucinations lately, pawing at the unknowing actual cats curiously, hiding in real nooks—she vanished from that environment, but came to me in flashes of moments when I started to dissociate.  Trying to describe where she was in those flashes, I told Kate that it was like a computer game I’d played as a kid—there was a dog in an unexciting space without much to do but pet its head and throw a ball and give it a treat and have it look cute and do tricks.  Having not played the game I had in mind, Kate, more of a nineties kid than me, came up with something similar enough:
“Oh, like a tamagotchi.”
This set me off in a long giggling fit I couldn’t stop.  “Oh my god, I have a schizophrenia tamagotchi.”
In keeping with that nineties kid theme (though a friend did recall the game I’d mentioned, on a different platform), I later described Farrrah with a comparison to the golden retriever puppies in Lisa Frank products.  She wasn’t very cartoony, if a little poorly rendered, but it gave a quick image translated to a more realistic looking hallucination, the chubby, fluffy golden retriever puppy with a sleepy expression.
Unlike the tamagotchi, I couldn’t really decide what Farrah did when she was in that space.  She didn’t do much.  Sometimes I got a flash of her rolling around or chewing on a blurry toy, fading into that space as the real room faded away.  When she came into my actual environment, at the most random of moments, she responded to what I did, but not how I willed it.  She cowered behind a shelf when Kate spoke loudly and growled at the cats playfully; she might sniff the air and take a step forward curiously if I beckoned, in my mind or in reality, but she still didn’t get close enough to see if the tactile hallucinations would line up.
Like some recent others, I could feel her, but she simultaneously appeared several feet away.  Still getting used to the tactile hallucinations, it was interesting to note the disconnect.  The very occasional auditory hallucination of a yip or growl did seem in line though.
I knew she wasn’t real—no running cats or confused people, too many things not quite right—but the responsiveness was interesting.  Imperfect and inconsistent, but there, like a dream.
Mostly Farrah was cute, shy, and playful.  The only disconcerting thing about the photo calendar ready puppy was that she wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite real.