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I was having dinner with an old friend of mine and his family last Sunday. We hadn’t seen each other for many years but we were close when I first developed schizophrenia. His mum was a psychologist, so he already knew a bit about schizophrenia. We were talking about the symptoms I had experienced, the blessing of medication, and the changes in my personality since I became unwell.
My friend relayed to me a comment that I had shared with him in the early stages of my illness. I had said, “these drugs have saved my life”. I was talking about Clopine, which I still take today. He also told me something else. He told me that I had said to him, “I was hearing voices telling me to top myself”.
This floored me.
I knew I had heard voices that said to me, “Ha-ha, you’re going mad”. I knew that I was feeling suicidal at the time, but I could not remember this symptom, or rather combination of the two.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised. My memory around this time is hazy; particularly in the clinic, where I was on sedatives and the days blurred into the other.
I knew had a handful of other symptoms too. I had delusions of reference, where things relevant to my condition seemed to “jump out” at me from the television or, in one bizarre incident, when I saw a dancing fish toy in a toy store.
I had these visual flashes of violence happening to my girlfriend whenever I saw her. I often felt like my mind was an island of sanity in an encroaching sea of irrationality.
I had very strange, distressing, and intrusive thoughts. I was suicidal and I didn’t know if I would cause harm to myself or harm to someone else. For me, that was the sticking point. The point of reaching out and when I first went to the clinic. I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t do any harm.
In saying this, I had a few other factors on my side. First, I had insight into my symptoms, and I knew I was not actually “receiving messages” from the TV - it just felt like I was. I knew the voice, as unpleasant as it was, was not a thought broadcast into my mind. I also had a very rational brain, which I think helped me achieve insight.
Secondly, I had access to Clopine. As I would find out later, psychiatrists only prescribe Clopine when all other medications are ineffective, and when two psychiatrists have assessed the consumer as needing it. It really worked for me; the psychotic symptoms were squashed. I sometimes say that medicating schizophrenia is like trying to hit a nail in the dark with a very big mallet. Well, that mallet worked for me. However, since then, I have had to live with the side-effects which include sleeping 12 hours a day, flattened affect and weight gain.
Thirdly, and one which has become clearer to me over time, is that having a caring, understanding, and loving family is important. I am told by my mum, she picked me up every evening from the clinic to have dinner with the family at home and dropped me back at the clinic again. They never blamed me, never abandoned me, and never gave up hope that I would recover.
I remember when I came out of the clinic, my dad had bought me a print of a John Lennon drawing as a gift of love, to show he cared. The message written on it by John was “He tried to face reality”, a message I felt was somewhat poignant.
So here I am now, 16 years after first developing schizophrenia and I have come a long way. I have completed multiple degrees including a PhD research project. I currently work at One Door Mental Health as Policy Officer and as an advisor for the NSW Mental Health Commission. I share my story with students, support groups, academics and anyone who will listen.
With the perspective that the past 16 years has given me, I want to emphasise the importance of focusing on recovery. Recovery means something different for every person. It is deeply personal, and deeply connected to the individual’s hopes and dreams. It is a journey – sometimes steps forward, sometimes steps back, but always on the path to that light on the horizon.
I would like to note some of the high points of my own recovery journey…
Tutoring students at Sydney University, getting part-time work as a consumer-researcher, finishing my PhD, buying my own car, presenting lectures to the Masters of Mental Health Nursing students at Sydney University, working at One Door Mental Health and, eventually working in an advisory role to NSW Mental Health Commission.
Why mark these particular milestones? Well, it makes me happy! But I also have a message...
As bad as it can be, going through psychosis, getting diagnosed with a serious life-long mental illness, seeing your hopes and dreams go up in psychiatric flames; as bad as it can be – there is still hope. It may not come fast or easily, but with the right support and a positive team working with you, you can progress down your own recovery journey too.
I leave you with a saying from one Winston Churchill, “When you’re going through hell, keep going”.
Never give up. Recovery is possible.
Dr. Richard Schweizer, Policy Officer at One Door Mental Health email@example.com.
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Dr Richard Schweizer - Photo Credit news.com.au