Approximately one year ago this month my life was permanently turned upside down. December of last year my mother handed me a 12-page diagnosis that ended with the words “adult onset schizophrenia.”
“I beg you to read this,” she pleaded, and unlike most of the previous diagnostic papers we had received over the prior eight months this one came from the most highly recommended of experts. She had been anxiously awaiting what would be the final diagnosis since we had begun to traverse this maze of psychiatric testing.
My total inability to finish my thesis and conduct myself “accordingly” in my college setting were the culminating signs of a mental breakdown. I had always been an exceptional student, graduating summa cum laude from Miami Killian High School and going off to an honors college, but for the first time in my life I was unable to complete the most simple of tasks. If not for the heads-up from a caring friend and classmate, my parents would have never found out I had been served with several student-code violations at school and was on my way to being asked to leave the premises.
I was about to become a classic textbook case; I was completely in denial and lacked any insight into my condition. I was delusional, hearing voices, acting erratically, speaking to myself incessantly, having a preoccupation with religion and ultimately ostracizing myself from most of my friends and family. I sought refuge in my music, which was becoming disturbing to others, and was on my way to becoming the cliche “loner”.
Fortunately for me, my slightly overbearing and highly perplexed Cuban mother knew something was way off. A transformation had occurred during my five years away at college, and it hadn’t been a positive one. What had been dismissed up to then as eccentricities were now full-blown psychotic episodes occurring ever more often and could no longer be ignored. She was witnessing a gradual deterioration of my mind. A mind rapidly slipping so that I was barely thinking straight. Alone and scared, I was stuck in a permanent fog and three weeks before graduation, I returned home.
Being privileged in having employer medical coverage that includes her adult son thanks to Obamacare, my mother was determined to spare no expense in seeking the appropriate treatment. We went to, as she called it, the local dream team for diagnosis and treatment for mental illnesses — one-hour interviews with a team of experts that left me feeling slightly jaded by the fact that I received nothing more than a diagnosis and a prescription for medication.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but my mother was certainly expecting more. How? Why? When? Where? Now what? So many unanswered questions, so little in terms of assistance. But at last we had a prescription, and although I was very reluctant to take medication, my parents convinced me it was either that or being Baker-Acted. It required endless tough love from them to get me to adhere to my medication. The love got so tough it hurt.
Lesson number 1
Allow those who love you to help you. Do not be fearful.
Lesson number 2
Own it. Be proactive. Soon after diagnosis, it was clear to us we were left on our own to discover whatever resources were available to aid in my treatment and recovery. My motto became “man up and own it!” Again, no fear, no stigma. I immediately became a member of NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) and began attending family support groups. There I met Judith Robinson, a key figure in the mental health advocacy community who inspired me to become a facilitator for support groups.
I subsequently received training and started my own peer-to-peer group with the help of a caring co-facilitator who walks in my shoes. I also started a blog on schizophrenia where I seek to share my experience and educate, as well as provide a social network for those seeking help. We are not alone. I voraciously read whatever I could get my hands on about mental illness.
Mysplitmind.com creates and collects book reviews on literature dealing with mental illness. When faced with something that strips you of your control, you have to do whatever is in your power to take that back, and that includes self-educating and continuous learning.
Lesson number 3
Exhaust all options. What I discovered is that treatment for a mental illness is a multi-faceted proposition. Adherence to a medication regimen is the cornerstone of treatment. Within three months of taking my medications I acquired insight into my illness and with insight came hindsight and with hindsight came an awareness that began to clear the fog in my mind.
Along with that, an individual should seek out psycho-social therapy in the form of support groups or one-on-one counseling with a psychologist. One should seriously explore the possibilities of cognitive behavior therapy because the combination of therapy with medication greatly reduces the chances of relapse.
An individual should be seeing a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and possibly a case worker or social worker. Definitely explore the possibilities of federal aid. Vocational Rehabilitation is there to help find gainful employment and will even pay for school. Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income can also provide help for individuals who are disabled with low income.
I have been told repeatedly mental illness is a disease of cycles, which may include relapses. I hope to prepare myself for the unpredictability of life with a mental illness. My recovery has occurred smoothly because of the rapid response my family had to my first psychotic break in college as well as the unconditional love and support they have provided me with.
I don’t know where I would be if I had to do it one my own. I am a privileged person. I have health insurance and a loving family that provide support. To all those afflicted with a similar condition, remember above all else to allow those who love you to help you. And take your medication! Without assistance and medication your mind is like a boat helplessly lost at sea and separated from the shores of reality.
And to those who are the friends and family of those afflicted: Be patient and understanding. This will be a lifelong battle that can be fought and won with dignity and courage.