The Beginnings of My Mental Illness In High School

I have already dealt with what mental illness isn’t.  In this post I will write about what the onset of my mental illness was like.

I was officially diagnosed with major depression and paranoid schizophrenia at the age of twenty.  Yet I started noticing problems at age seventeen.  The onset of these problems were so gradual that my friends noticed something wasn’t right before I did.  I still remember after a biology class in high school when we were discussing the symptoms for bipolar disorder, a friend came up to me and said that those symptoms described me pretty well.  I really didn’t have much of an idea of what she was talking about as I thought all teenagers were moody, flighty, and angst ridden.  I just didn’t realize how bad I had become until this friend mentioned this.

Even though I have always enjoyed my personal alone time I always made a point to be friendly to people no matter what.  It was after I turned seventeen I began to isolate much more to where it became a problem.  After I came home from football practice in the evenings, I’d just sit in my room and listen to hard rock music on my headphones for hours at a time most nights.  It got to where I rarely socialized, never went to school activities I wasn’t directly involved in, and I didn’t date at all my senior year of high school.  

By the time senior year came, I was a wreck.  Yet I didn’t tell anyone I was having serious problems.  I think that people knew yet they were afraid to do anything about it.  This was the late 1990s in rural Nebraska, so there wasn’t much in the way of mental health help in the immediate area.  Since people knew I didn’t drink or do drugs, they must have been really scared of me looking back on it years later.  It probably would have been easier to dismiss my erratic behavior and emotional outbursts to drinking and drug abuse as opposed to coming down with a mental illness that was totally unpreventable that no one wanted to discuss.

Speaking of behavior, I quit the school play my senior year even though I had the lead role as a junior.  In football, I became standoffish with my teammates and ignored my coaches so much so I became very unpopular on our team.  I withdrew from my friends so much so I literally had maybe one or two friends by the time I graduated high school in May 1999.  I became argumentative with classmates.  I even almost hit one of my teachers, which would have not only been instant expulsion, but would have been assault charges since I was eighteen at the time.  Thank God I didn’t act on that impulse.

For most kids graduation from high school is a time of celebration.  It wasn’t for me.  I was just too bewildered and overwhelmed by my ever progressing mental illness to enjoy it.  I didn’t see graduation as a victory.  It was simply a ‘I’ve graduated and I have all these anger and depression problems.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Now what?’  I’ll cover the problems of my undiagnosed mental illness in college in another post.

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Blasting Mental Illness Myths

    My name is Zach Foster and I have a mental illness.  My illness is Paranoid Schizophrenia.  I do not have multiple personalities.  I do not think I am Jesus Christ nor do I believe space aliens are following me.  These are common myths that Hollywood and popular culture trowel out about us who are mentally ill.  If left untreated, yes mental illness can become very difficult and very scary for the ill person and his/her loved ones.  Most of us who live in the very same communities and neighborhoods as the ‘chronically normal’ are receiving and participating in treatment and thus are no danger or threat to anyone. 

            Sadly the general public never hears about those of us mentally ill who are successful in treatment, successful in holding employment, successful with friendships, successful with family relations, and so on.  What are usually heard of are only the John Hinckley cases that turned violent.  Or on the other extreme, the case of Dr. John Nash who is a mathematics genius and a Nobel Prize winner, a case of someone with a severe illness but still went on to do great good.  Yet there are no praises for those who live with a mental illness but still manage to function reasonably well. 

            Just because I have a mental illness does not mean I was raised in a dysfunctional home.  The opposite was true.  My parents were very intelligent, well rounded, and good Christian people.  We had dinner as a family almost every night when my brother and I were kids, both my parents worked but had their schedules set so at least one or the other was always home when we came home from school, and I had a set of grandparents and several cousins that lived nearby.  My parents believed in discipline and much attention to detail, but that’s far better than having parents that are indifferent to their kids or just let their kids do whatever they want.  Kids need some freedom but also firm boundaries.  My parents understood this and did the best they possibly could. 

            My illness is not my own doing.  I am not an alcohol or drug abuser.  I have never used street drugs or illegal drugs.  I do not have a weak mind or a weak personality.  I may be mentally ill but I am also a college graduate.  I am a very capable and intelligent man, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.  I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for the suffering of those with mental illness.  And this is what this book is to be about.  It is a collection of short essays, often broken down by topic, to provide encouragement and moral support for those with mental illnesses and their loved ones.

            Being mentally ill does not mean that you are emotionally or mentally weak.  It would be heartless to think that someone with cancer or heart problems was physically weak and we refused to have compassion for those individuals.  Yet the public at large does just this exact same thing to the mentally ill.

            The general public at large has very little understanding of what mental illness truly is.  Fortunately that is starting to get better.  I didn’t use to tell my employers I was mentally ill for fear it would be used against me in my job.  I found that withholding that information actually hurt me worse than not telling the truth.  Since I wasn’t telling the whole truth about my situation and it would turn out I was a bit eccentric or would need a couple of days off suddenly, that would send up warning signs that would make my employers wonder what was really going on with me.  In my paranoia I wouldn’t tell the truth about my illness because I feared it would be held against me.  What was really being held against me was that I wasn’t truthful with my supervisors.  It caused a really nasty cycle of find a job, lose the confidence of my employers and coworkers, get laid off, and get my fears of my illness getting held against me confirmed.  When in truth things would have been just fine had I been completely honest right from the beginning.

            I now believe that the reason that there is so much stigma and fear of the mentally ill among the general public is because of just plain ignorance.  I say that not to imply that the general public is stupid.  Most people simply do not know about the issues and the truths about mental illness.  Yes, mental illness is a total lifestyle adjustment, not only for the patients but also for their loved ones, bosses, coworkers, and such.  No, mental illness does not mean that a person is going to become dangerous or violent if it is treated properly.  I do not believe most people to be malicious by nature.  What I do believe is that a lack of knowledge about mental illness and what we the mentally ill work with on a daily basis does lead to unintentional hurts, slights, callousness, tactlessness, and thoughtlessness.