Experience is a master teacher.
Mom, dad, and I have, through hard work and patient communication, seemingly mastered how to take care of me when I’m ill.
The blinds of psychosis slowly start to draw and there dad is, with my iPod and a pair of headphones, ready to combat this wicked illness with my favorite musicians. I stop talking and get that special, psychosis-induced haze in my eyes and mom calmly walks into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. It’s well-orchestrated and hard-won.
It started with mistakes. Mistakes that only made things worse because dealing with mental illness is by no means intuitive. At first, mom and dad did more harm than good: reacting emotionally to the truly horrific things I go through when they should really have been staying calm.
But now, it’s nigh-impossible to predict how much suffering they’ve prevented because of their dedication, research, and earnest listening to my feedback. Communication has been the crux of it all. My insight into my illness, coupled with my ability to express myself has been crucial in being able to tell them what works and what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, all the earnest communication, all the research, all of the good intentions in the world still don’t prevent the illness from taking hold of me. Unfortunately, all of my discipline, all the medication, and all of the hard work of clever doctors can’t stop schizoaffective disorder from crippling me with its vice-like grip. Mental illness is infinitely creative – always coming up with new ways to torture me. Constantly evolving and keeping everyone involved in my treatment on their toes.
There’s such a thing as No-Win Psychosis. A type of psychosis in which there’s no way to prevent it from grasping onto me and taking me for a truly terrifying ride. A type of psychosis all of the good ideas and well intentioned actions can’t prevent.
It was a few months ago now.
Dad was driving me home to Aurora as is our routine on Saturday evenings. I stay the night to have some home cooked meals, do my laundry, and spend time away from the near-constant hum that is life in Cap Hill.
As dad drove, I got a text message from mom asking us if we could stop at a grocery store on our way home to pick up some ice cream.
Sure thing, I replied and asked her what flavor she would prefer.
The minutes ticked by and I hadn’t received a reply. My paranoia factory, already in heightened production from the mere fact I was riding in a car kicked into full gear and I imagined mom in terrible danger because that was the only logical conclusion I could come to as to why she hadn’t responded.
We passed the old Lowry Air Force Base. And it only confirmed that something was wrong.
We passed the fire station. And it only confirmed that something was definitely wrong.
We were approaching the border between Denver and Aurora when I finally decided to call her.
When she answered she sounded fine, but I was sure there was some hint of nervousness in her voice. When she told me she wanted “anything chocolate” I was positive it was code for something. Getting mom ice cream became the most important thing in the world – the greatest task I’d ever been charged with. Mom was in serious danger and getting that ice cream was the only thing that could help her. The absurdity of that sentiment was completely lost on me.
I looked around me in the car, peering out the rear view window. Every car with the letter Q on its license plate was following us to report to some higher authority. I tried not to look too conspicuous – but I remained vigilant for any sign of danger.
Dad needed my protection too, so, as he pulled into a parking spot at the grocery store, I told him Kerrin and I would be going in with him.
This was very out-of-character for me: I loathe grocery stores. They’re immeasurably stressful for me. The sheer size of them, the seemingly infinite number of products to choose from, the harsh florescent lights, the music and constant beeping of purchases being run over the barcode scanners; nearly everything about a grocery store seems specifically designed to cause me duress. As such, I rarely go inside them.
But my mission was clear. I attached Kerrin’s service dog ID to her collar and we went inside.
Immediately, my suspicions were confirmed.
No sooner had we walked in than I saw a man standing there, glowing-white aura dancing around him so spectacularly I couldn’t have missed him, staring dad, Kerrin, and me down as we made our way to the freezer section. He was the enemy and I glared at him as we made our way past him. We had to hurry.
Dad, oblivious to my condition given my calm demeanor, was moseying down the aisle, slow as could be, looking at every option available to him. I hurried to a freezer door, pulled out a pint of Rocky Road and told him it was time to go.
Through the check out.
Out to the car.
I breathed a sigh of relief as dad backed out of the parking spot and drove toward the exit, to the road. We were on our way to help mom. It was curious to me that dad didn’t seem very concerned about getting mom the ice cream, but the thought exited my mind as quickly as it appeared – there were cars with Q’s on their license plate to watch out for, there was danger at every curve of the road, every hill we climbed, every turn we made.
Into the drive way.
Garage door opening.
Dad taking his sweet time pulling up the drive way and putting the car into park. I unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed my bag and the ice cream, let Kerrin out of the car, and walked purposefully to the door. Street Medic training taught me to never run, to walk purposefully toward the danger, so I avoided running.
Through the door. Kerrin running in. Soon, mom would be safe.
Kerrin! mom exclaimed happily. Hi Chris! she greeted me.
My reality was shattered, there was no danger after all.
I walked to mom with the ice cream, gave it to her, and returned her warm hug with an awkward one of my own.
Her hair had been replaced with snakes and a voice told me not to look her in the eyes. If I did, I would turn to stone.
I went quiet. Dealing with the inner turmoil of my head reacting to a crushed reality – the hissing snakes that had replaced mom’s hair, the danger of turning into stone. This was the exact opposite of what was supposed to happen.
I grabbed my tobacco and silently made my way outside – rolling, lighting, taking a drag.
Mom came outside to join me, only adding to my nervousness running close to panic. But, deep down, I knew everything was okay – I needed to treat my experience as real but remember it would be over soon.
Mom spoke, but I motioned to her to be quiet.
I had to concentrate.
I noticed the green-ness of the grass, the smell of early fall in the air. I knew Kerrin would be protecting me if mom posed a threat – not running and jumping through the backyard, chasing squirrels, and having the time of her life in the place she loves most.
I noticed the faint heat of the burning end of my cigarette, the acrid, bittersweet taste of the smoke as I inhaled. Someone was mowing their grass, roofers were working on a house a couple blocks away.
I breathed it all in and experienced it without judgement. I prayed for reprieve and received it because, by the time I finished my cigarette I looked at mom again, there was her greying hair, there was her smiling face.
You can talk now. And so she did.
Not all psychosis is preventable. Sometimes there are perfect storms that come up and all you can do is pick up the pieces when it’s over.
Nevertheless, it’s important to have tools, it’s important to know what to do. I’m extremely fortunate to have gone to a Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist. My CBT taught me how to handle myself when I get stressed out. Psychosis, like many symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, is a stress response.
While I can’t often prevent a psychotic episode from happening once the wheels of psychosis have started turning, there are things I can do to prevent the wheels from turning in-the-first-place.
A daily routine, in which I know what I’m going to be doing at each point in the day, is helpful. Even if it’s something mundane like taking a nap after my daily walk with Kerrin and dad, or something more serious like fixing a computer or working on a blog post – knowing what I’m going to be doing with my day is key to helping me get through the day with as few problems as possible. I’ve found that I need to carefully balance how much alone time I have and how much social time I have.
Besides routine there’s the very obvious (and, at times, incredibly difficult) task of taking all of my pills at the appropriate times. There’s also feeling useful, feeling like I’m contributing to something greater than myself and that often comes in the form of helping other people. I still fix computers because it’s very cathartic for me. The aspect I’ve always enjoyed most about fixing computers is helping people. It makes me feel useful, like I matter.
An idle brain dissociates, an idle brain produces psychosis, so I try not to sit around too much…though there are times, often enough, when I can’t seem to think of anything to do. And when I sit, when I’m idle I start to dissociate. I start to get psychotic, and an overwhelming depression cripples me. So I try to write out what I’m thinking and feeling, I try to express myself to get the poison out of my body. The content of the writing isn’t important, what’s important is keeping my mind active, what’s important is expressing myself. Sometimes it takes the form of listening to music and trying to concentrate on the different instruments playing as I listen to familiar songs.
It’s a tall order to try to face the 14 or so hours of waking time and keep myself occupied throughout the entirety of it. It’s not always possible because my pills rob me of so much energy. Everyday is a new battle in my war against schizoaffective disorder. Sometimes I face No-Win Psychosis and it’s only a matter of time before I drift into the darkest regions of my brain. But I’ve found that, after years of trying to fight my illness, it becomes just another routine. It takes work but that work is rewarding.
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