What It's Like to Have Schizophrenia
Dealing with the Diagnosis
Getting a diagnosis of schizophrenia is very complicated. You have to have symptoms for at least six months. And, of course, you have to actually share what your symptoms are. After the Seattle incident, I was given a bunch of tests over several days. It was exhausting because I was convinced that the people doing the tests were out to get me. I thought everything had hidden meanings and I was terrified. My doctor gave me an IQ test, too, and my once very high number had now dropped to 70, a level nearly low enough to classify me as mentally retarded. I was in such bad shape I had to be hospitalized twice. All this told the doctor what he needed to know. I felt both devastated and hopeful to finally have a diagnosis. Schizophrenia.
I needed lots of cognitive behavioral therapy to sort out my distorted thoughts. And we had to rebuild my brain from the bottom up, just like a broken body after a car accident. It was a relief when I finally told my parents. They flew across the country and were there for me every step of the way. My mom started by reading children's books to me -- old favorites like Babar, Curious George, and Make Way for Ducklings, to trigger my memory. We did word searches and played simple card games to stimulate my mathematical aptitude. For creativity, we played with Play-Doh and colored in coloring books. Little by little my brain got stronger. When I could read again, I started with juvenile books like Deenie by Judy Blume, which I had read as a tween. I practiced memorizing by starting with college basketball rankings and eventually worked my way up to Shakespeare. We slowly nursed my brain back to health.
Yes, I needed medications, too. I took antidepressants and I tried many antipsychotic drugs -- Haldol, Seroquel, Clozaril, Zyprexa (the one I'm on now). My doctor always believed, even when I couldn't read or write, that I would go back to Harvard. His faith in my future made all the difference. When I finally did go back, it was definitely difficult, but I got my master's degree.
I still hear the voices at times: "You're going to fail, you're going to get fired." "You're fat, you're ugly, you deserve to die." It happens when I'm stressed out and tired. My doctor gave me techniques to help me cope. One I call "the hand." I count on each finger the people who agree with what the voices say, and there's only one: the voice itself. Then on the other hand I count the people who disagree with what the voices say: my doctor, my family, my friends, my coworkers -- and then that hand covers the other and overwhelms it.
I learned so much, I decided I wanted to help others who'd been through a similar nightmare. Now I have a full-time job working with people who have mental-health issues. I teach, arrange events, speak to groups, and mentor patients. I want them to know that recovery is possible.
My life is so different now, and I'm sad I missed out on all kinds of normal relationships for so long. Sure, dating is difficult. Seriously, when do you tell a potential partner that you have schizophrenia? It's not something you want to say on a first date. Seeing my brother's loving family makes me think of how much I want kids. I recently turned 39, and I know that my medications can cause problems with pregnancy, so I doubt I can have a baby. Sometimes I mourn the fact that I'm not married and don't have children.
Schizophrenia is relentless, that's for sure. There's no cure, and you have to fight it every day. But I'm doing the best I've ever done. I have tremendous support from my family, my friends, and my doctors. It's really challenging. And it takes guts to tell this story. But it's about the fight -- a fight I'm winning.