If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
[CW: psychosis, compulsions, suicide]
I have schizoaffective disorder, a condition that even most doctors have never heard of. It means that I have schizophrenia in addition to a mood disorder. In my case, I also have bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These conditions are highly stigmatized in our society — something I try to remedy every day. But it isn’t easy. I have learned it is extremely difficult for someone who is "neurotypical" (without a mental illness) to understand what it’s like to have your own mind turn against you.
So, I will speak out and beg you to understand.
This is for me — someone who hears voices that no one else does. I panic and get defensive because I hear my brain's interpretations of people’s thoughts in their voices. A woman smiles and says hello, but as she turns away I hear “stupid bitch.” It goes on and on, and any place with people becomes unbearable. The grocery store is excruciating as the background babble of “useless bitch,” “why are you still alive?” and “damn, she is ugly,” bombards me. Going anywhere in public fills me with so much anxiety that I cannot sleep, and I vomit at least once a day from the panic. And so I hide, terrified of stepping outside the front door.
This is for me — someone who has crippling panic attacks. I never know what will trigger one. I start shaking and it gets hard to breathe. I try taking deep breaths to calm myself, but the panic spirals out of control. I try to catch my breath, but I start hyperventilating as tears and snot run down my face. My hands go painfully numb. My heart is beating so fast I feel sure it can’t keep going. I think, “there is no way I can survive this,” which eventually leads to“I am dying.” Then, I finally stop shaking, but I feel so weak I can barely talk or think. My muscles spasm uncontrollably. I have to crawl to a chair to pull myself up off the floor.
This is for me — someone who gets so overloaded by anxiety that I yank at my hair and gouge holes in my skin. I shave my head so I don’t pull at my hair, but I can still pull at my eyelashes. I cut off my fingernails, so I can’t dig at my skin. I say it over and over in my head, “stop digging,” but the compulsion is too strong. And the pain is a relief. Physical pain helps block out the mental pain.
This is for me — someone who suffers from psychotic episodes. I lay in a bed in the ER, grasping at the blanket as I see and feel bugs digging through my skin. I can feel the worms eating through my brain, devouring my memories and my thoughts. The wires and IV turn into worms as well, and I grab the bed rail as hard as I can to keep from ripping them off me. I sob in relief as the doctor finally gives me a shot to calm me down. I pray he will mess up and I will overdose. I cannot stand the thought of going through this again.
This is for me — someone who has attempted suicide. I am so exhausted from trying to be “normal” that I can’t stand it anymore. My brain is on overdrive. I don’t want to die, I just want the chaos to stop. While driving, I think that I can just crash my car and end it, but I can’t think of a way to crash my car hard enough to kill me without being a danger to the other people on the road. So instead, I pull over and sit there sobbing for what feels like hours, as the traffic and normal world pass me by.
This is for me and for all of those like me. For those who don’t understand what it’s like, keep in mind that we are more of a danger to ourselves than we are to others. Our illnesses are real, and all we want is to be understood.
Kathryn van Roosendaal is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor. She now maintains a blog and a Facebook page dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing her own experiences of living with schizophrenia and depression. You can find her at schizophreniaandmore.com and facebook.com/SchizophreniaandMore.