When I broke down with psychosis, I had already been struggling with myself for many years, if not for all my life. Although as a teenager and as a young adult I had always been hopeful about my future – and I still am – I was also experiencing major insecurities which made me fear I was incapable of survival, let alone happiness. Even if other people praised me as a person or liked the quality of my work, I always felt like a cheat who is using a promising façade to hide a putrid ruin. I felt emotionally and socially disabled. During the years leading up to the psychotic break, I had been working hard to overcome my mistrust in myself, but I never shook off the fear that I might be a failure by design. Something seemed wrong.
Now, there are many definitions of mental illness and also many theories about its origins. As no clear answer has been found yet, the consensus is that mental illness results from mixed factors such as genetic predisposition, dysfunctional upbringing, traumatic experiences and substance abuse. The presence of any of these, or any combination of these, can push someone over the edge.
In my case, I can rule out substance abuse and traumatic experiences, not counting extreme stress as the latter. Thus remain genetic predisposition and a dysfunctional upbringing. I cannot prove nor disprove genetic disposition, but looking at family history on my paternal side there might be some. I would have to find out more about that issue. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say I am genetically predisposed towards mental illness, and my symptoms were triggered by a dysfunctional upbringing and other stress factors. An unhealthy upbringing I can prove to have had. I lacked nothing material, and also received a good academic education, but my close family was and still is emotionally damaged.
My parents had a miserable marriage, yet never split up. They shared a strange need to destroy, despise and blame one another for everything that had gone wrong in their lives. Fights and insults were their means of communication. My father retreated into a socially isolated lifestyle. He was super-sensitive and irritable, displayed signs of OCD (he feared the presence of germs and dust everywhere) and held no power of decision within the family. Hardly anyone took him seriously, or so I perceived it. My mother personified the theories about “schizophrenisizing” parenting you find in psychology literature. She loved me, but had no clue how to do it. She was possessive, controlling, over-protecting, manipulative, and eternally ambiguous about everything. She exerted power by instilling fear and feelings of guilt in me. Despite her addiction to control, she herself was desperately insecure and fickle. At times she was excessive in her demonstrations of motherly love, and at times she condemned me for being my father’s offspring. One day she could be encouraging and generous, the next she would make me feel unworthy. I could never confide in her because she might use whatever I said against me. My siblings, way older than me and living far away, just got the idea that I was a problem. My mother used to evacuate her complaints about me with them and other family members. When the first thing your cousin says to you, after a decade of not seeing one another, is “I know everything you’ve done to your mother”, you know for sure you’re the official fuck-up of the tribe. Now add years of bullying at school and you get someone who logically – with or without genetic predisposition – had to go nuts at some point.
So what was the ultimate trigger? My psychotic break was not my first crisis, but other than the previous ones it was cataclysmic. The breakdown was immediately preceded by the end of a long-term relationship (if not a very healthy one), a life-changing move to another country and a personal confrontation with my family I was unprepared for, and which threw me right back into my old conflicts with them. All of these together produced an acute feeling of having been uprooted and set adrift in existence. It was an extremely frightening and painful experience. There was nothing I could hold on to for catching my fall, most of all not myself. That is ultimate loneliness. I became shock-frozen in life, and a case for the mental clinics. Mental illness had always been presented to me as an incurable, invariably disabling and socially annulling condition. My terror was nameless when I got diagnosed as psychotic and medicated. None of the first bunch of doctors I saw gave me any hope of reconquering life ever again, and my initial medication regime also was not helpful. I literally became a zombie – wishing for an end to everything, but my body would go on functioning, keeping me prisoner in a biological existence devoid of meaning and direction. There was no curtain call for me yet. Back then, during my crisis, staying physically alive felt like a curse. I just wanted out! The winds began changing during my last hospitalization. After that, I hesitantly but firmly took up the reigns again. I cannot tell what exactly made me recover. A combination of many physical and immaterial factors must have come together in my favor, including an unknown energy deep in my essence that refused to let me go under. Nowadays, I am glad I made it through. Nothing guarantees me psychosis won’t strike again, but as things are I am not fearful about it. Right now, I have a lot to live for and I love my life as it is – full of beauty and love. But getting here sure was heck of a trip!
Once you break down in crisis, society isn’t exactly forgiving, including people you had felt close to so far. They may give up on you for various reasons: they think you are just putting on an egocentric show and this unnerves them; in their opinion your problems are your own fault and you are an irresponsible fool for having invited them in; your shallower acquaintances simply don’t find you fun anymore; firmer bonds suffer because they find dealing with you and seeing you ill too painful. Your former co-workers or fellow students may prefer to forget your name forever. In the eyes of many, craziness is not an ailment which can attack anyone and eventually subside again. Society stigmatizes mental illness as an inborn, rotten part of the befallen individual, who is therefore worthless.
Right along the lines of supposedly being damned by birth, you will hear it said that what you didn’t receive in your cradle, you will never acquire. In other words: if you had a bad start you might just as well throw yourself off a bridge, because there is no remedy for you. To everyone out there who was lulled into believing this popular la-di-dah: it is utter and complete BULLSHIT. Certainly, teaching yourself is harder than having everything served to you on a tray. Still, your capacity of learning and growing is your lifelong gift. No-one but yourself can keep you from enjoying it. Never resign to thinking you are merely the outcome of your parents’ joined genes and educative efforts. Have you ever heard the saying “the sum is bigger than its parts”? It is true! There is much, much more to you. An unlikely source of wisdom, among many others, is the subtitle on the posters of the Hollywood movie “Gattaca”. It reads: “There is no gene for human spirit”. Neuroscience, in fact, backs this philosophy up. It turns out the human brain remains capable of rewiring its networks throughout our entire life. This ability is called neuroplasticity. How remarkably flexible and versatile our brain is, is impressively described in Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain That Changes Itself”. It is quite a fascinating and edifying read. According to the principle of neuroplasticity, any unhealthy behavioral and thinking patterns you fear were hardwired into you during your childhood and youth do not predetermine your future. You can modify them through willpower, practice and positive reinforcement. Thereby, you can even activate or deactivate certain genes. In other words: no matter where you are coming from, you are able to become someone you love and respect. Probably you will need help and also some powerful insights gained from difficult experiences, but you can mend your psyche. In this context, I would like to recommend another book. It is really written for therapists and the loved ones of people in need of help. Yet, as it portrays clearly which kind of help is the right one, I found it extremely useful for myself, because it taught me what my therapeutic needs are. This, in turn, allows me to seek out adequate help and instruct those closest to me how to deal with me should moments of crisis come up. The book I am referring to is Dr. Peter Breggin’s The Heart of Being Helpful”. This is a must-read for you, both if you are the one who is in crisis, and if you are a potential helper.
And finally, don’t let yourself become the problem. Also, don’t allow others to make you that. Unfortunately, even in the medical field, a mentally ill patient is treated as the personified problem. This does not happen to such a great extent in other areas of medicine. For example, a patient can HAVE a heart disease, but they ARE not a heart disease. Possibly out of general ignorance about the causes and nature of mental illness, someone with, say, schizophrenia, is considered to be inherently dysfunctional rather than suffering from a dysfunction that may well be temporary. Also, what if mental illness is actually not an illness in the conventional sense, not a medical defect? Could it be a reaction to the richness of observations an exceptionally sensitive and perceptive psyche is able to make of reality? Maybe some people are simply able to feel the pea under multiple layers of bedding, while others have a thicker skin and fall asleep anyways? It is easy to just stick the label of mental illness onto someone whose takes in a greater variety of stimuli, and who cannot always process their complexity. At first glimpse, you may judge extreme susceptibility as a weakness. In general, the psychiatric discipline and mainstream opinion fail to recognize that psychological hypersensitivity can also be a gift that stretches way beyond madness and alienation. In my personal view, it offers an opportunity for learning, healing, and growth that is less accessible to all those who are robust enough to just leave their conflicts unattended and carry on with their emotional load on their backs. If you break down under your world’s weight, you will be forced to sort the clutter and take only the useful things with you. Mental crises are a nightmarish ordeal, but they can also be your chance for renovation. I am not saying you necessarily need to become psychotic in order to make something out of your life. Of course not! What I suggest is that facing mental illness does not have to end in absolute defeat. Instead, it could well be the first step towards a more conscious way of living. I do believe that the destructive forces of madness can be turned around and redirected. Consider mental illness as a challenge, not as a final verdict. You can move on.
The following are links that lead you to people who are dealing with their conditions in inspiring ways, and to institutions which can help deal with your situation.
Directory of organizations which can help people who are first diagnosed with a mental illness (UK based): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b3s86/features/info-and-support
This is the blog of Natasha Tracy, who fought herself back up to her feet despite her diagnosis: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/
Christopher Tolmie writes about his documentary “Mental: A Family Experience”, which he exposed at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival 2013 in Glasgow (http://www.mhfestival.com/). Here is the link to the article: http://www.changingmindschanginglives.com/2014/01/mental-illness-does-not-necessarily-incapacitate-someone/ Or go to: http://www.mhfestival.com/news/interview/item/77-festival-blog
“Ask A Schizophrenic – My Answers”: Questions and answers with Rachel Star (NOT Rachel Starr), who got diagnosed with schizophrenia and talks about how she manages her life and makes the best of her condition. To me, she appears quite admirable and inspiring. http://youtu.be/BAUlllDZqxg
This moving story recently went viral. In case you still haven’t come across it, it is about a man named Johnny Benjamin. He had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and decided he was going to take his life. This was prevented last minute by a passer-by. After the incident, Benjamin began to turn his life around and is now giving thanks to his rescuer. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-25959260