To everyone looking in from the outside, I’m your normal suburban mom. I bake cookies for the PTA, take my kids to all of their sports practices, and spend my free time cleaning dishes and folding laundry. I’m happily married, have three college degrees, and work in an office as a manager with over two hundred employees. What most people don’t know, is that I also suffer from schizoaffective disorder.
Actually, most people probably don’t even know what schizoaffective disorder is. Basically, I have symptoms of both paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Growing up I was your classic textbook overachiever. I got straight A’s, was president of the student body, editor of the yearbook, and captain of the cheerleading squad. A few weeks before my 19th birthday, my world changed in ways that I never expected. I started hearing a voice inside my head that I hadn’t heard before. When you watch movies and people start hearing voices, they always portray it as if they are talking to someone who isn’t really there. Not all auditory hallucinations are like that.
I convinced myself that this voice was normal. I told myself that I was stressed out by school and my relationships with my parents and my boyfriend and that this was just a part of me that I hadn’t paid attention to before. She whispered to me about my flaws. She reminded me hourly that I was worthless and ugly. She told me that my parents and my boyfriend didn’t love me. They would be happier if I was gone. They didn’t really want me around.
No one wanted me around.
The whispers turned into a screams and within days of starting to hear this voice, I wrote a suicide note and swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills. At some time during my half asleep stupor, I called my boyfriend to say goodbye. I don’t even remember doing it, but all of the people who I was convinced didn’t love me went into a panicked frenzy and took me to the hospital to have my stomach pumped.
I spent the next few weeks in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. The voice had completely disappeared and I began to understand that what I had experienced wasn’t normal. I was extremely paranoid that the doctors were going to commit me. I didn’t tell anyone about the voice. I started telling everyone what I thought they wanted to hear. I told them the pressure of school just got to me and that I would never do anything like that again. I talked my boyfriend into picking me up and signed myself out AMA. I stopped the antidepressants cold turkey. This threw me into what I now understand was probably my first manic episode. My boyfriend came home from work to discover that I had painted our entire kitchen black. For the next couple of years, I experimented with drugs and drank a lot. My reckless behavior eventually had consequences and at 21, I got pregnant.
My son became the most important thing in my life. I tried my best to be a good mom. I still hadn’t dealt with my mental health issues so the majority of my twenties were a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. What I know now are my manic episodes are triggered by stress and can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of months. When I am manic I seem happy to everyone around me. I’m creative, talkative, have tons of ideas, and become extremely goal oriented. I feel like I can accomplish anything and I am able to survive on very little sleep. I can’t tell you how many projects I have started, things I was so excited about, that I eventually lost motivation for and have never finished.
I’m sure a lot of you are thinking that manic episodes don’t sound that bad. The problem is that they frequently lead me to extremely delusional thinking and they often trigger my schizophrenia symptoms. I tend to overspend excessively during manic periods, especially if they were brought on by the stress of not having money in the first place (because that makes lots of sense right?). There was a time when I wrote thousands of dollars of bad checks into an account to cover one $25 bounced check. Another time, I quit my job for another job that ended up falling through. I didn’t tell anyone and started going to work at a ‘fake job’ every day. When the ‘fake job’ didn’t produce a real paycheck, we ended up homeless with two kids. I look back on these events and I don’t even understand why I did these things. I can tell you the decisions seemed to make sense at the time and I always had this optimistic feeling that things would just magically work themselves out. My husband claims he never would have been mad about the initial things that triggered each episode. In reality, he could care less that I balanced my checkbook wrong and wrote a $25 bad check or that I quit a job to try to get a higher paying one that didn’t work out. What broke his heart was the fact that during these episodes, I truly believed he would stop loving me if I told him something was wrong. He was extremely hurt by all of the lies and deceptions that this false belief lead to and the financial and legal issues that it caused.
In between each major episode, we would have a good run of mostly happy years. During this time, I would frequently have less severe episodes of mania and depression. My husband and I would argue about my careless spending and my even worse habit of trying to hide it from him. Each manic episode was followed by an episode of depression. After a large episode, I would have excessive guilt for my actions, my delusional thinking, and the lies I told to cover everything up. With smaller episodes of depression I was frequently so unmotivated that I completely lacked any type of personal hygiene. I would go days without taking a shower or washing my hair. I would complain that I felt sick, so I could lay around and do nothing. There were many times I sat in a bathtub with a knife, fighting a battle between the emptiness I felt and the thought of what my suicide would do to my husband and children.
Always choosing to stay alive for them, but wishing I could just do it and end the pain.
My mental illness made it hard to have relationships with other people. I would become paranoid that one of my husband’s friends or family members didn’t like me and would find a way to sabotage his relationship with them. I had a hard time keeping friends of my own, because eventually they would notice my odd behavior. I was so afraid of the stigma of mental illness that it was easier to let people think I was a manipulative bitch than to admit that I was mentally ill and go and get diagnosed and treated. People who are mentally ill get made fun of, fired from jobs, and ostracized when they admit their illness. It’s sad but people really are more accepting of someone who does horrible stuff because they don’t care what other people think, then they are of people who are suffering from a mental illness. So I allowed people to believe I was just a crappy person and I avoided social interactions.
I suffered for almost 16 years before I went to the psychiatrist and got a diagnosis. I’ve started taking medication and going to regular therapy. For the longest time, I believed that I could handle my crazy. That if I tried hard to be a better person, I could just stop having these episodes of insane behavior. It doesn’t work that way. I avoided doctors and therapists, because I was scared of what they would say and scared of what other people would think. Looking back, I wish I had started this process and been honest immediately after my suicide attempt. Maybe my life would have been better. I can’t change my past, but I’m not going to let this illness destroy my future anymore by continuing to ignore it. I have these two little boys who are now old enough to remember the things I do. They don’t need a mom who is paranoid, suicidal, and doesn’t take care of herself. My husband is an amazing man and he doesn’t deserve to spend the rest of his life with a woman who frequently sends a wrecking ball into his life with her delusional thinking, reckless behavior, and lies. My husband and sons deserve a wife and mother who has the strength to accept that she has a mental illness and the will to fight every day to overcome the symptoms of it. Most importantly, I deserve to be mentally healthy. I have accomplished a lot despite my illness and I know I will be able to have a lot more success and happiness when I get it under control and stop being my own worst enemy.
One in every two hundred people has schizoaffective disorder. If you’re reading this and you’re suffering with the same diagnosis, know that you’re not alone, you deserve to be happy, and that you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Maybe someday the world will be more understanding to people with severe mental illnesses, until then we have to stop being silent. It is uncomfortable knowing that someone I know personally might recognize my story and realize I have schizoaffective disorder. I just have to remind myself that maybe there is a 19-year-old girl sitting in a psych ward reading this and it will give her the strength to be honest with the doctors and herself, get treatment, and avoid years of unnecessary pain. Speak up and get help. Life is too short to suffer in the darkness alone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This author has chosen to remain anonymous due to the negative personal repercussions that “coming out” with a severe mental illness can cause. She wants you to know that she could be your neighbor, your co-worker, or your friend. Anyone in your life could be hiding schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder from you because they are afraid of being labeled psycho, crazy, insane, bonkers, nuts or mad — or any of the other derogatory names given to people who suffer from mental illness. Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of your race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status, and this world will be a much better place when everyone realizes that someone with mental illness is no different than someone with a physical illness. They just have an illness that needs treatment, they are not a lesser person because of it.