Saturday, 5 December 2009

More musings on Schizophrenia

I want to divulge a little bit more about my background, and why I think I succumbed to psychosis. In my opinion most children have a sense of their own powerlessness, because they are basically under the control of adults. Imagaine not being able to choose what you want for your own breakfast, or to be able to watch TV when you choose, or even leave the house unless somebody takes you out, and that somebody decides where you are going on your behalf. It's not surprising really, when I think about it, that my two year old throws tantrums.

Well, in a family like the one which I grew up in, the adults are not just powerful, they are unpredictable. There was no pattern to my father's outbursts. There was no way of penetrating the mists of my mother's alcoholism. Boarding school was a haven for a while, but then I was unexpectedly moved to another school, right at the start of those teenage years, those times that are terrible even for carefully tended children.

I was always a nervous, introverted child. Some of my earliest memories are the feelings of resentment I had when anybody made me speak to them - I always preferred just to be left alone to read a book. I had a number of siblings, all of them more articulate than I, and since I was one of the youngest, and my nature was solitary, I had a definite place in the pecking order - somewhere very close to the bottom.

Academically, I did very well. Although I would say that I learned very little after the age of about thirteen, I had learned enough by then to get me through some O levels. I passed good enough A levels to get to University (I am not sure how, because I was stoned through most of my teenage years). But when I was young, all I knew about myself was that I was clever, and this was the only facet of myself that I was proud of, so I was determined to get a degree.

Once I arrived at Uni, though, I was outclassed and I knew it. It might not have been noticeable objectively - I dressed well, I was pretty enough. Academically I was more than capable of holding my own. But socially, I was an absolute cripple. I made some female friends, but I found it really hard to function in a group. I was a permanent bag of nerves. And I had no self-confidence whatsoever - I can only say now that I was pretty and well-dressed, I would not have thought this of myself back then.

It was this sense of inadequacy, rooted deep in my psyche, and my total inability to communicate effectively that brought me down. I was terrified by the other students on my course - they seemed to all be so harumphingly self confident. I knew I could never measure up.

I still cringe to think of the symptoms of my psychosis, and I do understand how people become so frightened of mental illness. It must have been absolutely bizarre to witness my distress and my erratic behaviour, to the point that eventually I was taken into hospital under a section of the Mental Health Act.

I can only assure you that it is worse to be that person who is dragged of screaming, in a straitjacket (honestly!) and then forcibly injected with all manner of drugs. I was convinced that I must have committed some awful crime to be treated in this fashion. And there is not much humanity in mental hospitals - to some of the nurses you are a person, but to an awful lot of them you will never be more than a patient, and a potentially dangerous one.

Violence has never beeen part of my nature. I am so grateful for that. Because when I was ill I was so unaware of what I was doing - or of the impact of what I was doing - I did and said things that I would never have considered under usual circumstances. If my upbringing had made me angry instead of sad and overly humble, I dread to think of the consequences of my breakdown. As it was, the only person who was hurt was me.

Of course, family members were affected. My mother was devastated, and for once she behaved like a normal mother, visiting me daily, sitting for hours in that awful hospital. For those of you who have never been in a mental hospital, it is a real eye opener - as a nineteen year old I was overwhelmed by the noise and chaos, what seemed to be constant fires starting, or people lying on the carpet bleeding from self-inflicted wounds.

It was awful. But in some perverse way, it was also exciting. I spent three months in that place, and by the end of that time I was semi-institutionalised - I would not go so far as to say that I liked the place, but I felt comfortable there. I had accepted that I was crazy enough to be in this crazy establishment.

I did leave, and quickly got back on the path to normality - away from home and back to University. I was functioning well enough to be able to complete my studies - I started my course from the first year again, and I got a good degree. I was still nervous, still had plenty of social issues, regular panic attacks - but I expected no less of myself. Living on my nerves was a part of my personality.

I was very lonely, but I got used to this too. I had boyfriends, but was too restless to settle down properly with anyone. I was disengaged from my family - I hadn't lived at home since I was 16. My siblings, mostly older than me, were starting to have families, and I adored their children, but was not ready to have a family of my own.

I find family relationships disappointing. Siblings, those people who we grow up with and who we hope will understand us best, are not always on our wavelength. Most people accept this and move on - but I found moving on hard, because I had no central stability, no notion yet of who I was, so I kept trying to root myself back in the past. But I kept finding myself rejected - my sisters had their new families now, they didn't need any other dependants.

Nowadays the thing that bothers me is that, having seen all three of my breakdowns at close quarters, my siblings seem not to understand that now I am 'mended', well again, I am as normal as they are. My friends, and I am lucky to have a lot of friends, accept me for who I am. But my family hold me back - we must be careful not to overstress her, it is implied, you know what might happen. They are watchful, as if distrustful of me, thinking I might go mad at any time. I suppose that it is the result of having seen me flip before, each time when they least expected it.

And I still have my place in the pecking order. I am a useful point of reference for the other members of the family. However erratically any of them behave, they can't be mad - because I am the mad one. I am the let out clause. They need to keep me in my place, so that they can continue to occupy the spots they have carved out for themselves - the achievers, the sane ones.

This was evident recently at a family wedding - I had had my hair done, bought a new outfit, and I sensed that my siblings were unnerved - I looked more together than they did. I had shaken the natural order. And things were said and done to reassert that order.

I don't mean that they don't love me, or even that they are conscious of this need to put me in my place. But it is well known and documented that family attitudes do play a part in schizophrenic illnesses. I never felt fully supported by my family, and now that I am fully grown - not just an adult but a complete person with a family of my own, I still feel a familial pressure to keep me in my place. A lack of trust, an undermining of my achievements. It is very slight, and I am very sensitive to nuance, but it is not imaginary.

Of course, I understand that they come from the same background as I have, and are damaged too, but have learned to cope with it differently. So although I may feel that I would have been more nurturing, more understanding of my siblings had the shoe been on the other foot, perhaps I would not have been. Perhaps it is all just a manifestation of the survival of the fittest.

And to be honest, I am unnerved these days if I bump into anyone who was ill at the same time as me, and who is clearly still not quite compos mentis. I wouldn't want to socialise with them, I would see their illness as a threat to the sense of calm and harmony which I have tried to foster in my young family. I feel terribly guilty about this. After all, if I am prejudiced, what hope is there for the rest of the world? This blog, though I have hidden behind the internet, is my attempt to redress the wrongs that are done against the mentally ill - but I am well aware of my own shortcomings in this respect.

Back to the family issues. Mental illness does leave you very weak - it also leaves you frightened to be strong, in case of what that strength might do. So for many years I have been accepting of my place in the family dynamic, as the one who was not quite right, the one who needed to be protected. But now I have four children of my own, and I have a need to look after them and to bring them up to be strong. I have to be a role model.

I would hate for any of them to be sentenced to schizophrenia. My husband and I are conscious of trying to make their lives as stable as possible. They are loved, they are indulged, but they know right from wrong, they understand the limits of their behaviour. I am not exaggerating when I say that we have four model children.

But also, if any of them should ever get mentally ill for any reason, I want to be able to say to them,'See here, you will get better' and to mean it, and to be able to hold myself up as an example. Because I was very, very ill, probably at the extreme end of the paranoid schizophrenic spectrum. And now I am a normally functioning member of society, albeit one who still feels haunted by her background. But I am working on that.

I have promised to take the kids to the shops - said I would be writing this for forty five minutes, and have taken almost twice that long. Lucky my other half is home - although he has man flu, poor thing, he is looking after the kids for me. They are distracted by a parrot which arrived early this morning, lent to us for a month by a friend who is off to New Zealand on holiday. Now, back to the squawking fray!


  1. People need to realize that mental illness is real and it is an illness just like nay other kind of illness and needs to be treated. Anyone any time can develop a mental illness. It isn't something that you are immune from.

  2. I think maybe people are scared that they might catch it!
    Seriously, I think things may be changing already - I stumbled across the 'Secret Diary of a Manic Depressive' blog, and I think this very brave girl and others in the public eye really are helping to shift public perceptions.
    I guess though, that there will always be more and less understanding people in the world - you are clearly one of the former.

  3. PS I really like your website, Rose. I am not very technically literate, and couldn't see how to 'Follow' you on Blogger, so I have added your site to my 'Favourites' so I can go back and look for longer when I have more time.
    I am seriously worried that the computer is going to start sucking up increasingly large tracts of my time...I will have to be disciplined to make sure I stay firmly rooted in the real world.