Learning, Education, Work and Mental Illness

I was a sophomore in college when I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia.  That was in the fall of 2000.  I had been struggling with depression, paranoia, and anxiety for a few years before I had my diagnosis.  At first I thought it was mainly just teenage angst and moodiness.  I was still doing well in school and was able to at least appear like I had everything together.  I was still on the football and speech teams, I was still making honor roll most of the time, I still had some friends, etc.  But inwardly I was a wreck.  I was fearful of going to the school guidance counselor as I attended a really small high school of less than 90 students.  Back then, almost no one talked about mental illness or depression issues.  It had far more stigma back in the 1990s than it does now.  The internet was still in it’s infancy, there was no youtube, and blogging was still a few years away.  So I suffered in silence and in solitude.

I didn’t talk about my internal problems until they became unbearable because, first, I was certain no one would believe me.  Two, I still had images of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in my head as to what mental problems meant.  Three, I was often told to “suck it up” and “others have it worse than you” even while in grade school.  Four, I feared appearing weak.  So I just suffered in silence for a few years.

As far as I know, no one knew about what was going on in my mind.  If people did, they never asked.  And I was too paranoid to tell anyone.  For the first years I had problems, I was still going to school full time and working on the weekends and during the summers.  I was so anxious and paranoid about going to work, I would vomit before my shifts several times a week.  Since I had spent my entire life listening to people complain about how much they hated their jobs (like they were proud of how much their jobs sucked), I was scared to tell anyone.  I just suffered in silence.

Finally in fall 2000, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and major depression.  It was actually a kind of relief for me in that I wasn’t the only one having these problems.  I didn’t realize that mental illnesses were more common than diabetes until after I was diagnosed.  No one ever talked about mental illnesses in our family or my town.

For the next few years, I took full time classes and worked during the summers.  When I wasn’t in classes or spending time with friends, I was in the college library reading the philosophy and classical literature books that everyone talked about but very few actually read.  I’m glad I got to do that.  I doubt I could have done that had I not went to college first, at least not until the internet really got going.  But spending all those evenings in the campus library instilled a love for learning in me that still burns to this day all these years later.  Sure I wasn’t graded on what I studied and I didn’t get a diploma that stated I had learned such material.  But I knew that I did.  That’s all that mattered to me.

After I graduated from college and worked for a few years before qualifying for disability, I still read a lot of books.  I still do lots of reading, granted it’s mostly online articles, e-books, and audiobooks.  And, no, I don’t have any certificate that says I learned this material.  But it doesn’t matter.  The most fun I ever had at a “work” task is doing what I’m doing right now, writing blogs about navigating my life while working with a mental illness.  I don’t consider it “work” or “a job” because it doesn’t have the stress of any of my traditional jobs.  I love writing about my experiences and trying to be of assistance to others even though it doesn’t pay at all.  I don’t care that it doesn’t pay.  Sometimes, I’m glad it doesn’t.  For I fear if I ever were to accept a writing job or get pay for writing, I would be at the whims and mercy of those paying me.  Screw that.  I want to tell the truth, the good, bad, and mundane of living in the modern day with schizophrenia. I know what living with schizophrenia is like.  I’ve done it since at least my late teens.  I doubt any book editor or manager at a blog service has that kind of first hand experience.

I fear I couldn’t be completely truthful if I did accept pay.  I fear some boss would want me to “Hollywood up” my writings by exaggerating or being more dark just so I could get more readers.  I don’t want that.  I want this blog to be an educational tool and a means to communicate to others what it’s like to be mentally ill without it being threatening or divisive.  I do have good days with mental illness.  I have bad days with mental illness.  Some days getting out of bed and calling my parents is the best I can do.  Others, it’s writing a blog entry that resonates with some of my readers and getting a lot done.  Some days I just want to stay home and keep to only my thoughts.  Others I would road trip for several hours to visit friends out of state or go to baseball games, concerts, etc.  Some days I can talk for hours on end with almost anyone.  Some days I don’t want to even hear the sound of another human voice.  It’s ebb and flow, high tide and low tide.

Dealing With Paranoia and Shame

Even though I have been feeling quite stable overall, I have very little desire to leave my apartment complex except when necessary.  I am still a little paranoid about people I meet in public.  And I am somewhat that way about people within my own complex.  It’s sad to say, but I think I have developed a phobia of people in general.  I really don’t interact with anyone in person unless necessary.  Anymore I prefer to communicate by phone or social media rather than in person.  I didn’t used to be like this.  But anymore I am paranoid and scared to venture out in public, sometimes leading me to neglecting to run errands unless absolutely vital.  Anymore when I do leave my apartment complex, it’s usually at night so I don’t have to deal with crowds or strangers.  I’m even starting to become afraid of the people in my complex.  I am scared that many people in my complex don’t like me.  I suspect some of the elderly residents don’t like younger people on disability living in here.  But I hope that’s my paranoia being in high gear and nothing more.

My illness has changed over the course of the years.  I can more easily deal with the delusional thoughts, hallucinations, and anger.  But dealing with the paranoia and problems socializing have gotten slightly worse.  Anymore I desire to be alone most of the time.  Most people I don’t want to socialize with.  And it’s often because I am afraid of them. My fear stems from not being able to read unspoken cues and body language.  I also have no concept of how to deal with office politics and the nonsense social games that many normals seem to fair well under.  I don’t understand office politics. And it has cost me several jobs over the years.  I have no desire to “man up” and go back to a regular job mainly because of office politics.  Personally, I hope that automation takes a lot of these jobs and people will have to find other ways to define themselves besides job titles and money.  I had to once it became painfully obvious that my hopes of a career were killed by my mental illness.  Adaptation is the best strategy in living rather than holding on to a past that isn’t coming back.  I’m not going to regain my ability to work a forty hour a week job and I have accepted that.  And I no longer feel shame when anyone tells me I’m making my problems up or that I’m not worthy of living because I don’t have some remedial and repetitive job that will probably be taken over by machines in not too many years.  I know what I have been thorough and have dealt with.  No one else has.  So these people can condemn all they want, but their condemnations mean nothing to me.

Adapting to Mental Illness and Better Coping

Little by little I’m getting into spring.  I’m starting to spend more time outdoors and I have had my windows open every night for the last several days.  I’m starting to feel like I have more energy.  I’m also sleeping less.  I’m staying awake later now but still keeping occupied.  I’m beginning to socialize more in person again.

Mentally I occasionally have had flare ups the last couple weeks.  Usually these don’t last very long.  Fortunately I don’t act out on these feelings of frustration and paranoia.  I have gotten to where I can feel bad and have bad days but not have complete breakdowns.  It has been this way for the last two months.  It is a confidence boost knowing that I can have a bad day and yet not act out on it.

Things are greening up in my hometown.  The weather is getting nicer with each passing day.  I’ll probably start going to the park again in a few days.  I’m getting to where I want to be outside again.  I have spent a little time outside everyday for the last few days.

Even though I occasionally have feelings of irritability and frustration and paranoia, I have learned to better cope with them.  If at all possible I just let them pass.  I no longer feel guilt for having feelings like this.  One of the things that helps me live better with mental illness is that I don’t have to feel bad for having rough patches.  I really don’t have to feel bad unless I act out in public or become destructive.  It took me a long time to come to this realization.  I don’t have to feel bad for having bad days.  I don’t have to feel bad to have moments of weakness.  I can’t always be at the top of everything at all times. And neither can any nuerotypical person.  And I no longer feel guilt about having moments of weaknesses.  That has helped considerably as I have worked with the mental illness over the course of my life.