My Schizophrenia Story

When I got my first definitive sign I had a mental illness, I was writing.

I was near the cusp of fourteen and in Algebra I.  December 2011.  Given some time to do homework or such at the end of class, I, as I often did, took to writing.

I was writing a character death scene in which the character in question drowns.  In the ultimate irony, the character in question was schizophrenic—but we won’t get there for a while.

The important thing at the time was that I had a near lifelong fear of water.  Being a desert dweller, it didn’t come up much, but the ocean, especially, or even lakes—drove me into a panic.  I had recurring nightmares about tsunamis or storm surges, drowning.  This scene was close to home.

At some point while writing about this character running out of oxygen, I snapped out of my zone and realized that I actually couldn’t breathe.

Things went quickly from there.  I was rushed to the nurse’s office and then to the ER, hyperventilating on the edge of blacking out, vision going dark, limbs too numb to stand, clutching at the chest pain.

I was diagnosed with my first panic attack.

And after the first, they kept coming.  Over the summer, I started therapy and medication.

About a year later, I was taking a Biology exam when I started being taunted by red, blobbish, demonic figures drowning images of those I loved—down to my cat—in blood, singsonging gibberish insults.

I began having such episodes as frequently as the “old” panic attacks.  I was often delusional—paranoid, physically lashing out at anyone trying to comfort or move me—or catatonic—my arm dropping limply if you lifted it—during.

By spring semester of tenth grade, 2014, it was far too much—especially at this high pressure magnet school—and I left school for a year of homeschooling before I was able to get my high school equivalency a year early.  I was too agoraphobic to leave the house for a while.  It was a critical time for me in many ways.  My parents got a divorce.  I made my first adult friends—all writers—and got into my first serious relationship. I attempted community college for creative writing and made a few bucks writing clickbait.  I volunteered and got involved with NaNoWriMo.  Mostly, I wrote. 

Parts of what at first seemed like—maybe, at the time, were—isolated episodes, became patterns, habits, and day to day, on a much lower level.  Some things, in hindsight, had been with me my whole life.  I sought another diagnosis by now, besides the anxiety and schizophrenia—autism.  I spent most of a month nearly nonverbal, and was almost hospitalized.    

When things got worse, my mood plummeted.  For most of 2015, I fell into patterns of self harm and suicidal ideation, or at least the urge to run far away.  I attempted suicide that September, and it was a turning point.  I swore off self destructive urges, save a few once off relapses I could count on one hand years apart, and threw myself into change.

In the fall of 2017, I left to attend a private four year liberal arts college in Cambridge, MA.  I loved the school.  I loved the town; I loved the people there; I loved my classes.  That wasn’t the problem.

Being too far from home, maybe, on my own, or meds that needed to be adjusted—whatever it was, I landed in a psych ward—finally, after a lot of near misses, hospitalized for the first time, less than two months into the school year.

I tried to stick it out for a while, going back and forth on my decision, but within a few weeks, landed safely home in Vegas, at a loss for what the future looked like.

Eight days later, I met the love of my life.  That changed everything. 

Now, the timing, of course, looked horrible.  But three years later to the day, 2020, we were married in a ceremony in the beautiful home we own, surrounded by people we love, as people pursuing our passions.  I was about to self publish my first book, which would be quickly followed by my second, and was soon to start teaching alternative sexuality classes via webinar (within months, I’d also be running a related local group).  I was going to start taking a household management course online, and was learning how to be an effective landlord.  And, I was a happy housewife who got the girl, the two cats, and the house on the end of the cul de sac.

In the ceremony, our officiant mentioned that we had packed thirty years of marriage into three years of courtship.  Two deaths in my family, and estate handling.  A pandemic.  I almost died of black mold poisoning, all but bedridden for months.  We moved.  I had surgery.  I went off and then back on meds, though I eventually left therapy, for now.  We thought, briefly, my wife might lose her job. Medical emergencies or surgeries for the cats.  Mental and physical health issues.  Panic attacks, sensory overload, hallucinations and delusions, dissociation, depression, hypervigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares.  For all the health issues I brought in, I also now had PTSD from one of those family deaths in Summer 2019.

Is everything perfect now?  Is everything solved?  No, but I’m writing on a laptop in front of me with a warm cat in my lap and my beautiful wife three feet away.  The sun is shining; the neighbors’ son plays with his dog outside.  We saw friends and family yesterday and we will today. I have things to do I can’t wait to get to.  In a few months, we’ll vacation in Lake Tahoe—I guess I overcame that water phobia.

And life is pretty good.

Turning Hallucinations into Characters: Are They Any More Real?

She’s here again, so I’m not having as okay of a day as I thought.

The backyard is mostly dark, but she’s there in the shadows of the bushes, darting or teleporting around.  Compared to what I usually see in dark shadows when my mind turns on me?  I’ll take the puppy.

“Hi, Farrah,” I deadpan from the swingset in the AA tone.  It has been a long day, and I no longer care if the neighbors can hear me.  Still, I take out one headphone, still blaring Hamilton, like it matters.

Farrah smiles at me in this way that real dogs don’t really smile, wags her tail and bounds over, under where I swing.  Back through.  Again and again.  Like she’s trying to get me to kick her full speed.  She’s worse than the little kids at the park.  I sigh and, properly distracted, stop swinging.

My darling hallucination races in circles around my feet.  A lot of energy for the evening.  What? I ask her mentally.  You’re not a herding dog.  But she wants me inside, much the way the real cats start herding me to the bedroom around this time.

But it doesn’t seem to be sleep she wants.  I’m determined to sit in the living room and write down an idea I had on the swing before I do anything else.  When I do, Farrah settles down.  I can feel this weird sense of relief on her, like I feel it as my own when I get the idea safely on paper before my mind gives up completely.

I look at my notebook.  This was what she wanted? 

I look back up.  She’s gone.

All right.  I’ve accepted that Farrah’s basically a mirror of my own emotions most of the time, and if everything about her says, “Write now now now,” then I guess now is the time.

… 

Writing the schizophrenia fiction piece I’m working on is hard at times. There’s a lot of me in it, even more than in most of my fiction, and in a trippy, intimate way. There’s a lot of Farrah in it, too—even more literally.  I give her, from chapter one, the same role in the schizophrenic main character’s life as she has in mine.  So now she’s not only my schizophrenia tamagotchi, but one of my characters.

And my characters, like Farrah, have a little bit minds of their own.  Many authors think of it like that, but for me it’s even a little more true, I think.  My characters jump ahead of me both in plot outlining and in daydreams that slip away from me.  I fade into a somewhat omniscient position in their world and often find it hard to come back whether I want to or not.  When I do, it’s often disorienting, especially if I totally lost track of the real world and snap back abruptly due to the doorbell ringing or dissociation suddenly clearing or such. My world, the real world, goes away entirely, and here I am in theirs, less and less in control the longer I stay in and the emotionally deeper I dive. 

It’s kind of like Ahtohallan in Frozen 2.  You can go deeper and deeper into this world of sensations and memories that are not your own.  To a point, you can get back out, though the journey back gets longer and longer.  After a point, well: 

“Dive down deep into her sound

But not too far, or you’ll be drowned” 

So what does it mean now that Farrah—originally, and, still, a recurring hallucination—is now a character in one of those worlds my mind vanishes to?  Does she get to play a double role in my psychosis, not only entering my world—which my characters don’t—but finding me trapped in one of hers?  Is that why she beckoned me to the notebook—like asking me to come home? 

Usually, when I write, it’s taking something only I can see—the story in my head—and turning it into something other people can read.  It’s creating—Real from Not Real, in a way.  Completely imaginary concepts floating through my brain turn into hundreds of pages I can hold in my hand.  It’s not making the story Real, but making that dreamscape in my head widely accessible, like handing out a key, a map—in the form of a book.   

But if I take something as deeply Not Real as Farrah, and give her that quasi Real form… does she become any More Real?  What if other people can “know” Farrah too—by the power of words on a page?  Does that make her less just a quirk of my brain chemicals?  Someone saying that they hallucinated Harry Potter, for instance, would be much easier to communicate with—in this socially acceptable form of quasi Real—than someone hallucinating some boy with round glasses and a lightning shaped scar who could do magic, with seven books’ worth of story that only they could see.  At that point, we might not share the exact vision of Harry—but I sure have a clue what they’re talking about and the seven years of magic seems a lot “saner”. 

When I write and get feedback, people tell me their thoughts on my characters.  They might have a different opinion than me about their moral stances, or a slightly different picture of what they look like.  They might even go off and have them in their own daydreams, their own versions of them that don’t just follow the script, but are based on their identity more than their role in a plot.  People tell me about gasping when my characters are surprised, holding their breath when they’re afraid, crying when they’re upset, developing crushes on their love interests.  

These characters aren’t just concepts in my head at that point.  They’re out there in the world and I can talk about them with other people the way I talk about people I know in real life, or about Harry Potter.  It’s not uncommon for my wife to walk into a conversation I’m having with my writer best friend and ask, “Wait, are we talking about real people?” (The answer is usually no.) 

So what about Farrah?  If I make her just as accessible as any character—if others can talk about her like someone they know, or like any known fictional figure—is seeing her “saner” now?  Is her identity something like a socially acceptable shared delusion, when we can both hold the key to her world in our hands?

If she got as popular as Harry Potter?  Probably.