On Mental Health

Why my mental health condition may no longer be a “mental health” condition.

This article is something of a continuation of the last piece I published. In that one I was writing about how a perceived loss of agency affected my ability to deal with the symptoms of my schizophrenia. However as I was writing it occurred to me that this is an extremely commonplace problem- everyone needs to feel a sense of control over their own life, and may struggle to deal with day to day issues more if they sense they don’t have that.

Progressing down that thought process led me here, and in this post I plan to explore the possibility that the issues I deal with day to day are less schizophrenic and more “average-36-year-old-issues,” the manifestations of not having a job, living by myself, craving more from life than I perceive I can attain etc etc. Fairly average western issues. I am going to consider the idea that I don’t experience symptoms now so much as I experience the ups and downs of an average day, the ups and downs that so many people I know – people without mental health diagnosis’s – have told me they routinely deal with.

This is simultaneously liberating and terrifying. If I state that the mental disturbances which I still experience are no longer symptoms, and are instead the usual, dare I say it normal rumblings of my very human brain then I may have turned a corner, I may have reached a marker post in this long run away from the hospital.

For there were many years, after I was initially hospitalised and recently when I suffered a severe relapse, that what I was experiencing were definitely the symptoms of schizophrenia. Constant delusional thought processes, visual and auditory hallucinations and fits of severe paranoia and psychosis. At those times there was no question about what I was dealing with. However in the last seven years or so I have left those experiences behind and entered a strange grey area of lingering preoccupations- echoes of those intense experiences. Not the actual experiences themselves.

I was able to progress in this way by slowly and painstakingly working through the symptoms as I had them; picking apart their strange nature to work out what was actually fuelling them and what real and valid issues were at their core. As time went by I learned that the real way to beat back the symptoms was to normalise them. The word normal is problematic and full up with contradictions, but the word normalised is one which I have a lot of time for and use a lot. I have effectively got a hold on the weird, wonderful and terrifying apects of the schizophrenia by working out what they were really about, taking away their power, demystifying them and thus normalising them. This has slowly taken the intensity out of the experiences, taken the sting out of the “symptoms.”

Nowadays, if I do experience symptoms I’m able to identify why. I am aware that if I have a moment where I feel as though I’ve failed at something, or a moments where my single, jobless status is brought to my attention, or if I’m feeling particularly tired or low I am very much more likely, two minutes later, to hear a voice or become preoccupied with something basically delusional. It’s like those early symptom sets left echoes which come on and affect me, manifest when I’m triggered, when something has made me feel like I’m failing or I’m powerless.

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to deal with those feelings of powerlessness or failure, and so my mind would have spun a story, it would have brought in voices and chemicals to distract me, defend me from the sensations and thought processes which were so painful and unacceptable. I would have been swept up in a delusional fairy-tale and distanced from those difficult issues. I have learnt how to deal with those difficult issues and feelings via a long, very long, process of challenging and unpicking, challenging and unpicking.

As time went by that story spinning function stopped working so effectively and then I would deal with extreme emotion when those feelings of powerlessness came on. I would experience rage or despair on a level so intense it may have actually been more distressing than the original psychosis, and I think this mirrored my underlying sense of not feeling capable of achieving the things I needed to to give me agency back.

The way that I dealt with these extreme intense emotions was by, once again, normalising them. I discovered that there was another diagnosis, Emotionally unstable personality disorder, which summed up what I had experienced of getting angry very quickly, being unable to control my emotions, and having them run away into horrendous negativity really fast. I told myself that I wasn’t the only one who experienced this lack of control over my own emotions, and that it really only represented the feeling of powerlessness I often felt over the facts of my own life. I did a lot, a lot, of personal work- working out where the feelings were coming from and what they represented, thus allowing me to say to myself, I understand why this is happening.

Over time this has allowed me to experience my negative issues in a less distressing way. I no longer fall into holes of a delusional making when something knocks me, instead I will simply feel lower, less sociable and aware that I need some “me-time.”

Moreover I have always been aware of the argument against accepting the diagnosis “mental illness.” I remember a friend telling me, years ago, that she thought that she basically thought in voices, and it made me wonder whether what I experienced was really as strange as it sometimes seems. What if, as many people I know have told me, everyone has these experiences, of moments when their mind seems to be working against them, or at least working against what seems productive and sensible. If everyone has moments like this then how far are my experiences, I don’t want to say normal, but at least much more common than it at first appears.

The problem with being hospitalised and being diagnosed, is that afterwards every small strange mental occurrence seems to blow up into something bigger, because it seems to tie into this big, scary sounding condition/diagnostic label. The more one blows experiences up the more intense they become, and so by this logic the way to get a handle on these same experiences is by demystifying and normalising them. By making them smaller.

So I think that now, fifteen years after originally experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, I have deconstructed them to the point that I can grasp the real issues my mind has been grappling with, the real bare bones of what those strange initial voices and delusions were about. Symptoms faded to trigger points, which faded to average, everyday issues and now I wonder whether what I deal with day to day is really schizophrenia at all, and more just day to day life in the modern world.

Perhaps my diagnosis, schizophrenic, is largely defunct. And this prospect is terrifying in all its giddy possibility. I won’t write anymore because I’m still processing all of this.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Why my mental health condition may no longer be a “mental health” condition.

  1. I think you might like Emma Goude’s book My Beautiful Psychosis. She’s a big proponent of the Open Dialogue approach, which is a really interesting alternative to medicalizing psychosis.

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  2. Thats a conundrum I think – trying to figure out where the line is between what is sane and what isn’t – I mean, out current PM seems to be road the twist as far as I can see, and yet he has half the population follow him! 😮

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  3. Hi Alex,
    that is one remarkable piece of writing, not to mention analysis.

    The most pertinent thing you spoke of was when you said, “I wonder whether what I deal with day to day is really schizophrenia at all, and more just day to day life in the modern world.” You know very well that the doctors who helped you – and are the kind who came up with the notion of schizophrenia – would themselves be helpless if they were to be afflicted with its symptoms. This is why I found your thoughts so powerful: not only do you have a notion of what you are talking about, you have been able to deal with the problem. You weren’t wrong with your self-help book; it’s more a matter that it now needs an extra chapter or two.

    Given that you have shown that you are able to do things that many highly qualified individuals are unable to conceive of, leave alone tackle, I would like to hand you a key. You’ve shown that you can turn keys, it’s a matter of knowing which one to use, and where. What’s more, they’re the same for everybody. That is, in a way, why schizophrenia is an amplification of our modern world. Naturally there are other afflictions.

    My point is this, and I’ll begin where you say, “being unable to control my emotions, and having them run away into horrendous negativity really fast.” There are two sides to this: the inability to control the emotion and the other is that it will slip into negativity. The world of emotions is a world that is very real (there are technical words for these things which I would have introduced you to when we met, but I no longer speak of them online or in print). You’ve been there and can attest to that. What is more, it is mappable. You know that because you’ve mapped some of it.

    Okay, so far?

    So let’s get down to some ‘hard’ facts about the world of emotion. The most important element is that it cannot be controlled. Where you use the word ‘control’ you really mean ‘understand.’ Control is a concept from the material world where things can be controlled and pushed around. You cannot control an emotion any more than you can control a rainbow. But you can understand it, and you can enjoy a rainbow when you happen to chance across one, just as you can enjoy a smile. After all, you cannot force (that is to say, control) another person smiling.

    This brings me to the second issue, that of the perceived negativity of the world of emotions. If you enter the world of emotion without knowing yourself (that old adage from the portal of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi – these things go back a very, very long way) you are going to have a hard time. Which you duly did. You then returned to earth (so to speak) and tried to sort yourself out. Which you duly did.

    How many people do you know who even think about this kind of thing? I am lucky in knowing several, and that in a small corner of Newcastle. My point, however, is this: if you cross that line into the emotional world, and do so without having thought about it, you are in trouble. You are now at a point where you can say that you know what you’re in for, and you can put a finger on why. Not that it’s easy to describe, but just try describing an emotion like ‘love,’ it’s no easier than trying to describe the colour green. It’s why poetry is much more powerful than plodding science.

    So why is it negative out there? The short answer is because it’s what hurts us most. Hurt in the emotional sense, of course. Things that are nice are far more subtle in their effect on one. The negative things have vastly more power to those who are untrained.

    I will add that there are good things out there, it’s more a matter of having come to grips with one’s own emotional balance. Because out there, there is no better or worse, no bigger or smaller. Nor is there any control. What you need out there – as you may have grasped by now – is the emotional balance that allows you to witness the intensity but not interfere. That is when you can begin to dance with those you find out there.

    That is – in part – what I wanted to share with you when we met last time. If there is one thing to say in closing, I am glad that ‘doing it your way,’ has not been a false path (I will add that you are the first to have made good in this respect). The point is this: nobody else can deal with your emotions for you. Nobody else can dance for you. That is yours and yours alone. I can’t even teach you the steps.

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    1. Hi Gemma. There is so much in this message that I don’t even know where to start.The thing is, my mental health has just fallen to pieces, having answered your last message and then trying to think about replying to this one, I’ve just fallen back into a mirror maze. I think the key thing here is knowing oneself, you said those who enter the world of emotion without knowing themselves will have a hard time. I think I entered it this time around, that is in 2019, knowing myself more than previously, but not fully. Thus I ended up on the ICU unit, thus I entered it again at all, it’s not something which should be entered in that way!!
      Now I need to leave it all behind, and the only way to do that is to accept this life, and attempt to enrich it. My problem is that I”m often torn between my running shoes and a bottle of vodka. Self-acceptance, self-knowledge and awareness- these are the things I need to chase now, rather than ‘doing the right thing.’
      Thanks for your message, and again, thank you for taking the time. I will return to this message again I think, because there is so much wisdom here. Thank you. Alex

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