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It’s not exactly what you see on TV.
I have one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized illnesses there is. If you were to listen to the news, believe television shows, or accept popular myths, you might believe I was either a mass murderer or a genius. Thankfully I am not the former, and unfortunately, I am not the latter.
I had my first psychotic episode at age 28—I heard voices, became paranoid, and experienced suicidal thoughts. I was working as a social worker for the State of Washington, organizing poetry readings, and editing a local literary journal. It seemed as if one day I was a successful young woman and the next day I thought everything I ate and drank had been poisoned and that local officials were out to get me. I was in a full-blown psychological crisis that required hospitalization, long-term treatment, and medication.
I am lucky that I completed college before my first episode (schizophrenia often strikes people during their college years, disrupting and sometimes ruining their chances at an education). My college education afforded me the opportunity to obtain meaningful work before I got sick, but it also helped me hide my illness from friends and family for nearly 20 years because I didn’t fit the stereotype of someone with a severe mental illness. I was married, employed, and continued to further my education.
For me, hearing voices isn’t a daily occurrence. I actually live a very normal life, much like you do. When I am symptomatic, I tend to have paranoid thoughts—most frequently about being poisoned. It’s a sign that I am very sick and in need of medical attention. You can think of psychosis as the equivalent of any medical emergency—one that deals with the mind instead of the heart, appendix, or gallbladder.
For the 20 years that I hid my diagnosis, I lived in shame and fear of other people’s possible responses. Eventually, I realized that being what we call “neurodivergent” isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it isn’t some punishment for something I did.
I view my illness like any chronic illness; it’s just that my chronic illness happens to be related to my thought process. Those thoughts (the suicidal ones, the paranoid ones, the voices) are a sign that I need help. Like others with a chronic illness, I take medication to treat my symptoms. In my case, I take antipsychotic and antianxiety medications.
I was in my late 40s when I developed the confidence and courage to write openly and talk about my experience with schizophrenia. In the past year, I have become an advocate for myself and others who experience neurodiversity, and I have continued to increase my self-confidence as I speak up, find my voice, and inform others about what it is like to live with a highly-stereotyped and stigmatized illness.
I don’t define myself by my illness; to do so would be to put me in a container. My life and my self-worth are so much larger than anything containable. It’s true—I do have some limitations—but the worst limitations are ones I put on myself. They have nothing at all to do with schizophrenia. And the more opportunities I get to openly discuss what it means to be like me, the more the stereotypes and stigma are broken down.