Schizophrenia. Even the word is hard to understand. It seems like a confusing mish-mash of random letters. And who put the “z” in there?
The first time I ever heard schizophrenia mentioned was when my teenage friends talked in hushed and spooky tones. They were describing a “crazy man” up the road. The story was that he hurt his mother. He also apparently regularly stalked people on their way home.
The second time I heard the word schizophrenia was in a film. It was about a serial killer. He was the baddie.
The third time I heard the word schizophrenia was when I was in a psychiatric hospital. The doctor said I had it.
For a while I thought I’d unknowingly committed a terrible crime. Or that I was just about to. I imagined that I had been hastily swept off to a secure ward. A place where my visitors had full body scans and the Supreme Court was waiting for the arrival of my high-security van. I imagined I would never again be allowed a life of sweet liberty. Instead, my every move and unhinged thought would be recorded and analysed.
Of course, I had wrongly accused myself. My worries were just part of my illness. I wasn’t a violent criminal. Neither are the 50 million people worldwide who have also been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Pressure on our brain chemistry
Schizophrenia descends on most people as young adults. Many people struggle with the stresses of learning to live independently. Lots of people get through this life stage relatively unharmed. But for those of us with schizophrenia, our minds weren’t created so “springy”. Straightforward events to one person can cause mental, physical, spiritual and emotional anguish to another. It cuts to the very core of what it means to be human.
In its most common habitat, an uncontrolled schizophrenia wildfire thrives when it is fed a steady diet of stress. This can include worries about friends, housing, money, work, school and family. It can be anything that puts a bit more pressure on our brain chemistry. Give a little bridge too much traffic and it might break.
Stress can cause classic symptoms like hearing things or seeing things. You can also feel more scared of things lurking in the shadows. Sometimes it all feels overwhelming.
But people should know that schizophrenia is the reaction to the experiences. It is not the experiences themselves. Otherwise our psychiatric wards would be full of people like John Edwards and all the tarot ladies at fairs. These people have learned to cope with their extra sensory perceptions in a more positive (and profitable) way.
Schizophrenia Awareness Week
Schizophrenia has its own week of fame in May each year. Schizophrenia Awareness Week is organised by the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia. The idea is to “provide an opportunity to raise community awareness of schizophrenia and mental illness”.
Last year I organised my own Schizophrenia Awareness Week event. I became interested in holding a get together after looking around to see what I could do to be involved. It seemed like there was nothing except a lecture by professionals for professionals. Ho hum. I decided it was time to take back some personal control over what most people think is primarily a medical condition.
To me, schizophrenia isn't just an unwell person. It's a vibrant and extremely electric state of being. We experience the world in hyper-colour so we constantly have to keep recalibrating our senses to tone down the information. We get tired easily. Schizophrenia isn't the hospital ward. It isn’t a box of pills or a series of visits to a clinic. It isn’t a dangerous criminal. It is the result of a mind that can't easily process stress. That is all.
I hope that our family, friends and the community can see our capacity for amazing creative thought. I also hope they can see our strong compass of humanity and empathy for the world. The things that are lost on paper.
The event I organised was a barbecue. It was a get-together for people with schizophrenia, their families and friends. It included a “Hot Dog” parade. The parade was to honour the fact that dogs (and other animals) are a huge support for many people with mental illness. My 14-year-old dog Tigger was there.
I have a wish for this year’s Schizophrenia Awareness Week. My wish is that the word schizophrenia is pushed out of our language. Schizophrenia literally means “split mind”. I propose it be replaced by something like “super-phrenia”. At least there’s no “z” in that.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed.
Lifeline - 24 hour telephone counselling - 131 114
Kids Helpline - under 18 years of age - 1800 551 800
Just Ask - rural mental health information - 1300 131 114
Men’s Line Australia - 24 hour telephone counselling - 1300 789 978
Salvation Army - 24 hour telephone counselling - 1300 363 622
SANE Helpline - mental illness information, support and referral - 1800 187 263
beyondblue Information Line - information about depression, anxiety and related substance abuse disorders, treatments and help - 1300 224 636