On the Emotions of the Mentally Ill

We rely on our emotions to give us insight into situations where cognition is of little help — whether or not we like someone, if we’re going to start dating someone, if we find something someone said offensive or not. Almost everything the average person does in their daily life is, in one way or another dictated by their emotions. It’s what makes the proposition of being a Jedi Knight so tricky. To set aside emotional attachment, to let go of our feelings and act in a detached way is a foreign concept for many people…we care too much about our friends, about our dogs, about our family and so could not learn to be emotionally detached from them. In fact, we don’t want to be emotionally detached from them. Emotional detachment is seen as a maladaptive behavior, something to be corrected, fixed.

In some respects, I’d make the perfect candidate for being a Jedi Knight. My emotional factory behaves in a way distinctly different from the average person’s. It can sometimes seem as though I don’t have any emotions whatsoever. Though I can still laugh at jokes, though I can still take offense when someone has wronged me there’s something significant missing in the way I emotionally connect with people compared to how the average person does. It’s a difficult thing to describe, it’s not quite being emotionlessness like Yoda wants Luke to be in The Empire Strikes Back. But it’s also not a wearing-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve kind of way-of-being in which people can tell how I’m feeling. I’ve been called stoic, I’ve been called callous, I’ve been called cold-hearted — none of which are true. But they harken to a feature of my emotional retinue which can sometimes feel alien to other people.

People regularly perceive my emotional state incorrectly. Even my parents, who’ve known me my whole life and who’ve been with me throughout every step of my 9 years of living with schizoaffective disorder, frequently misjudge my emotional state. And it’s even true that most of the time, I don’t feel much of anything at all. Prior to taking famotidine, I didn’t have much of an emotional front, I seemed to sometimes wear facial expressions that didn’t match my emotional state, I sometimes seemed to be a walking emotional contradiction – I could look angry and be happy, I could look uncomfortable and be content. And this is still sometimes the case as the effectiveness of my medication varies from dose to dose. Oftentimes my face betrayed no emotions whatsoever – flat affect it’s called. Indeed, the best way to know my emotional state is to ask me instead of trying to figure it out for yourself. Because chances are you’re wrong.

Schizoaffective Disorder is comprised of two illnesses – schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The schizophrenic side of my illness is what emotionally deadens me to the world – it produces the flat affect which makes it so hard for people to connect with me, though my daily 200mg of famotidine certainly helps a lot in this regard. The bipolar side of my illness leads me to experience life in extremes. Everything seems either incredible or miserable and both can get so overwhelming that they can wind up being damaging to me. To exist in extremes is to suffer no matter if the state is one of absolute misery or soaring bliss.

Then there’s the medication I’m on: some of them mimic the illness itself, particularly the negative symptoms which are the symptoms that cause social withdrawal and make it difficult for me to connect with other people (such as flat affect, poverty of speech and thought, etc.). The medications are essential, they’re what allow me to participate in the-world-around-me, but they have significant side effects, chief amount them their mimicking properties.

My experience with emotions is largely one of mediocrity followed by an overwhelming brutality of feeling which leaves me psychotic, dissociative, and suffering. I spend the majority of the time in the center of the emotional spectrum (i.e. not feeling much of anything) but take sudden detours into the extremes of either end of that spectrum. Psychosis is an emotionally harrowing experience. I’ve never been so terrified, angry, or confused as when I’m psychotic. It’s the very definition of emotionally overwhelmed.

You can think of emotions in terms of a scale. Average people have more or less the same scale, whereas someone like me has a completely different scale. The average person has a logically-behaving scale – you can add a little bit of weight to it and it balances accordingly and immediately. The scale moves minutely, in relation to the amount of weight added, the scale is calibrated to stay evenly balanced, it’s designed to hold a lot of weight and so the situations one faces on a daily basis don’t tip the scale to one side or the other in an extreme manner very easily.

My scale works in an entirely different way. It’s unpredictable – sometimes I find myself adding the same amount of weight it would take the normal person’s scale to tip to one side of my scale and find that my scale doesn’t budge at all. Other times the scale is mis-calibrated and tips to one side or the other all on it’s own. It wants to live in extremes. While the average person’s scale is designed to stay more or less at the center, my scale is designed to pull down to either side at the slightest provocation – it wants to tip all the way and will do so as soon as it can.

This is most clearly demonstrated to me whenever I meet a new person and decide to try to become friends with them. While it can be a rewarding experience and one that gains me a new friend it’s always a harrowing experience. Fraught with emotional instability, psychosis, and frequent calls to my parents.

Meeting a new person when you have a mental illness is a tricky proposition. There’s the matter of being on “best behavior” – trying to interact with them only when you’re feeling your best (so as to not give yourself away), calculating when would be a good time to tell them about your illness (too early and they might freak out and run away, too late and you might find yourself symptomatic in front of them and they’ll have no clue how to help you) or even if you’re going to tell them about your illness…which certainly limits how close you’re going to get to them. There’s also the matter of whatever limitations you have on your life – I can’t go to crowded bars or shows, I can’t drink a lot of alcohol (or even a moderate amount), I can’t stay out late because I have to take my pills at 9:30p and do my bedtime routine so I’ll be able to tackle the next day, I can’t watch TV or go to a movie. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do and so it becomes a bit of a tricky thing to navigate how I’m going to hang out with this person and how we’re going to get to know each other.

Then there are all the regular stresses that come with getting to know a person – do they like me? are they going to be a good friend? There’s sometimes the question of if there’s anything romantic going on. Stress is an important thing for me to avoid and getting to know people, becoming friends with someone can be incredibly stressful.

But instead of the normal things people do when they’re stressed out – eating ice cream, talking about it obsessively with their friends, taking long runs – or any of the innumerable number of things a person feels compelled to do when they’re stressed, I become mentally unstable, usually in the form of psychosis, voices, panic attacks, or paranoia – things always seem to get worse when I’m making a new friend. It’s like this wonderful thing that’s happening, this new connection I’m helping to forge with another person is actually damaging to me, is causing me to suffer. It terrorizes me.

But I’ve come to realize something about the symptoms that come with things like getting to know new people – it’s just my way of feeling emotions about them. Whether it’s excitement, fear, curiosity, apprehension, or nervousness, my body and brain are going to store those things up and multiple their strength by a few orders of magnitude and then have me experience them. It’s a good thing, from a certain point of view.

It means I’m not emotionally dead to the world, it means I’m not incapable of feeling emotions, it means the flat affect I sometimes have isn’t actually an indication that I’m emotionless. What it means is that I just feel emotions in a fundamentally different way than other people do.

The same thing happened, the psychosis, the renewed expressions of my illness, when I found out my book was getting published. While modern psychiatry would like to describe me as emotionally dead-to-the-world, my reactions to these things prove otherwise. I’m still a living, feeling human being. It’s just that my way of feeling is distinctly different than most people’s. I might even feel more than the average person. And, as I think back to some of my experiences reading books or, in the past, watching movies and how easily they can make me feeling overwhelming gratitude, give me a sense of enormous beauty, how easily I can be driven to cry while listening to music, I think there’s merit to that argument.

I’m not emotionally dead to the world – I just feel on a much deeper, much more profound way. My brain has access to a deeper level of my subconscious than the average person does. It’s the cause of the psychosis, the paranoia, the delusions…it’s the cause of so many of my problems. But with the Pandora’s Box of evil and suffering that results from this connection also comes a profound beauty: the ability to feel on a much deeper, much more visceral way than most people ever will.

So much of my experience with mental illness has been one of loss: the loss of friends, the loss of the ability to have a job, the loss of being able to get a degree, the loss of my fiancée, among countless other things. It seems, sometimes that everywhere I look there’s loss. So to know that I’m not actually emotionally dead, but rather emotionally thriving, just in a different way, is good news to me. Because now I can learn how to harness that emotional energy and direct it to do something good. It’s not pure, unreasoned psychosis. It’s not just my brain randomly deciding to terrorize me. So perhaps I can control it, perhaps I can do something good with that energy. And, for an illness which dehumanizes me in so many ways, at the very least, it proves I’m still human.

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