In a society where appearance is everything, I find it exceedingly difficult to get people to see past my beauty and into my reality. I present myself well groomed, well-spoken and my affect is rarely inappropriate. Due to these factors, no one would presume I suffer from an assortment of severe and pervasive mental illnesses. Looks can indeed be deceptive. But in this deception, stigma gains power. If I were to ask you to describe the appearance and behavior of a schizophrenic, your depiction would likely include adjectives such as: disheveled, muttering, unkempt, frightening, paranoid, etc. But here I stand, attractive and composed yet I am diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder; bipolar type. I am living proof that psychological disorders do not discriminate nor do they disqualify a person from achieving wellness and fulfillment. My name is Lindsay and the following is a small window into my reality.
I first experienced psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia (auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia and delusions) at the age of 5. I cannot recall a time devoid of my companions. The voices continually change with time, but as a constant they have become as much a comfort as a source of anguish. The intensity and relentlessness of disturbing content becomes more glaring as I experience increased levels of distress. In a period of prolonged emotional turmoil, the voices progress from verbal assaults to menacing commands. Without intervention, they will inevitably take a central focus; suicide. Suicidal ideation and subsequent attempts are born from days, weeks, and even months of coercion and incessant beckoning from verbal and physical manifestations of faulty neurotransmission. During periods of stabilization the voices are merely chatter. My brain’s default setting is like nonsensical channel surfing. Visual hallucinations also behave incongruence to my position on the spectrum of wellness/crisis. The most unsettling bouts of psychosis entail hallucinations that are simultaneously visual, auditory, olfactory and are felt physically, either as a presence or as something tactile with texture. This form of hallucination is woven with delusions and paranoia to compose a reality exclusive to me. As you might presume, life in a reality only you can see, hear, and feel is devastatingly lonely. My delusions are primarily comprised of the belief that I am being surveilled and evil forces are out to harm me. I feel unsafe in my own home. I feel unsafe in my own mind. It’s impossible to accurately translate the terror that arises when you can’t trust your own brain and you have lost hold of the final thread that tethered you to reality.
Life with multiple mental illnesses is to be perpetually at war with yourself. By viewing my disease(s) through a scientific lens, I can achieve moments of solace. The recognition that I have a chemical imbalance that is real and is not my fault can anchor me to the present. Yet, when in the grip of a major episode, all attempts to use logic and objectivity are in vain. Albeit arduous, the campaign against my sanity has also revealed abilities that prove my illness is both blessing and curse. Empathy, introspection, compassion, creative and spiritual awakening are some of the silver linings my disorders have imparted. How I perceive and contribute to the world has been directly shaped by my disorders, which begets profound appreciation rather than regret.
I hope by voicing my experience with mental illness I can offer a thread of courage, support or understanding to even one person who is in desperate need. The extent of isolation experienced by those who struggle is so acutely painful and hopeless it can make surrender seem like the only choice. Far too many succumb to the power of their disease because in the cycle of stigma and isolation it is easy to believe you are completely alone and helpless. To minimize the isolation, we must listen, learn, research, observe, and provide unconditional support to those who are touched by such a powerful disease. I urge you to be persistent in your pursuit to open a dialogue about mental illness. Even if you can’t see it, it is real to those afflicted. It may permeate our existence, but it does not define us. Change begins with even small efforts. Start by eliminating the word crazy from your vocabulary. Do a google search on a mental illness experienced by someone you know. Attend a family support group. Most importantly, view mental illness as any other chronic and potentially fatal disease. In doing so, you lend an additional pair of fists to join us in the hand to hand combat with stigma. Avoid the deception of stigma by looking beyond the surface nonjudgmentally, because even beautiful things can suffer.
I am a mother, an artist, a nurse, and a warrior in the battle with mental illness. I have lived under the cloud of stigma and shame most of my life. That time is over. I am now ready to make my story heard in an attempt to distinguish stigma and to offer support and understanding to those who struggle.