Schizophrenia: Missing Reality
By Katherine Walters
NOTE: This story contains brief sexual and violent references that some people might find upsetting – though the outcome is inspiring. We aim to be honest here, so we have included the story in full. Please only read if you feel comfortable with this sort of material.
People want to kill you. There is a person right on the other side of the door waiting to shoot you. If you go outside, you will get kidnapped. In your bedroom is a man who wants to rape you.
I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was 20 years old, but really, it started when I was 17. I would hear voices mumbling, as if they were right on the other side of the wall. I had terrifying hallucinations, once seeing a man with an axe attempting to chop down the canopy around my bed so he could get to me. But I kept it secret. Not only was I afraid of my hallucinations, but I was afraid of admitting that I had them. I also became increasingly paranoid that people were out to get me; people wanted to hurt or kill me.
When I was 20, I finally saw a psychiatrist about these symptoms. I was withdrawing from people and having trouble functioning. My performance in school and at work was declining. At the end of my first appointment with the psychiatrist, I asked her what she thought was wrong with me. She could only tell me that she had a few ideas but needed to understand more of what I was going through. A couple weeks later, I showed up at the local psychiatric hospital to be evaluated because I was suicidal and very paranoid that absolutely everyone was out to get me. I was admitted to the hospital for an 11-day stay. I was in the midst of my first psychotic episode and my psychiatrist was struggling to find a medicine that could help me without producing too many side effects.
I spent my 21st birthday in that hospital. Then I spent St. Patrick’s Day in the hospital, followed by Easter, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. That year, 2009, I was hospitalized 11 times in three different hospitals. I was constantly suicidal and constantly hallucinating. I had, as I was later told by my second psychiatrist, a string of psychotic episodes that summer. I was also told that at the time, the doctors in the hospital treating me weren’t sure that I would ever be able to function independently again. They thought I would eventually need to be placed in a long-term treatment center.
With the start of the fall semester in college, my junior year, I finally began to come back to reality. Slowly my grades began increasing, my relationships with people (including my fiancé) improved, and overall I began to accept my diagnosis and educate myself about it. I had (and still do) a stubborn streak that allowed me to become more involved in treatment decisions because I didn’t want to blindly accept what my doctors and therapists told me. I wanted to know what I could expect from my illness and how to overcome it.
In contrast to when I was 17, I was no longer embarrassed by my diagnosis. I told all of my friends because I knew the real ones would stick with me regardless. I was surprised to find that none of them had any qualms about being friends with a schizophrenic. Instead, they were all very supportive.
In 2010, I was functioning much better. I hadn’t been hospitalized since September 2009 and my grades were returning to what was typical of me, As and Bs. I realized I had learned so much about schizophrenia that I might be able to help others. On an online support forum, I wrote an article to the parents of schizophrenics entitled “How to Help: For Parents and Caregivers”. It was received with gratefulness as parents learned to understand what their schizophrenic child was going through, and ways they could help. I also started my own website called “A Schizophrenic and A Dog” and published that same article on the website, where again I was told how thankful parents were for the insight I could provide.
At the same time that I was helping others, I was learning to help myself. I developed coping skills to deal with anxiety, hopelessness, and paranoia. I learned how to ignore hallucinations. I learned how to “reality-check” delusions; how to test them and prove them to be illogical so that they could also be ignored. I used a service dog to help me get back into public without such a strong fear of the world around me.
Early in 2010, my fiancé broke up with me for a variety of reasons, my diagnosis included in those reasons. However, this didn’t cause as much of a setback as I expected. I got through the grief and moved on. In time I accepted the breakup and learned that it gave me a chance to continue to grow more independent.
However, despite my progress, my delusion that people are out to get me has persisted. I spend every single day afraid I will be murdered, raped, or kidnapped. When I go to class, even with my service dog present, there is a nagging fear in the back of my mind telling me that my classmates are going to kill me. When I go grocery shopping or to the mall, I suspect every person I see would like to harm me in some manner. I hear voices that tell me to kill myself every time I take my medicine.
I feel like sometimes I am missing reality. In reality, no one wants to harm me and no one is telling me to harm myself. In reality, my classmates are just trying to make it through the same class as I am. In reality, the people in the mall are just wondering what store they want to go to next or which shirt they like best. I often feel I am straddling the line between sane and insane. Luckily, most days I stand even on that line and make my way through the world just like every other person.