First, the word crazy is problematic and pejorative and mostly about stigma and ridicule. Boiled down to its essence, for most people, it would mean someone who acts in ways that don’t make sense. Well, schizophrenia makes sense. It is a desperate response to desperate circumstances. It is about survival, and survival makes sense. Survival is the most basic instinct there is. There are triggers that lead to schizophrenia, and those triggers can be examined and used as handholds to climb out of it again. It took me a long time to figure that out. Never underestimate the power of psychosis.
Second, approximately seventy million people suffer from schizophrenia worldwide. The stigma that stems from debunked brain-disease models of schizophrenia has been dissuading people from coming forward to seek the help they need for decades now.
There are many and diverse possible contributing factors to the onset of schizophrenia; just because my case involved extreme childhood abuse, it doesn’t mean that is the case for others. Each case of schizophrenia is unique even though the resulting symptoms are more or less the same. Some suffers may exhibit all the symptoms (natural reactions to trauma), others only a few.
Schizophrenia is survival mechanism brought on by disturbing or traumatic circumstance. When the realization of a threat to self and its perceived implications overwhelms the individual, a survival mechanism within the brain is triggered, one which seeks to shield or protect the sufferer from confronting or apprehending the truth of the situation. In other words, schizophrenia exists as a last-ditch response to a direct threat to self—real or imagined—when the sufferer believes there is no way out.
The mind creates a whole new world for the sufferer to inhabit—albeit a terrifying one at times. The symptoms of schizophrenia are natural responses to the trauma. Symptoms present themselves to protect the sufferer from ever having to deal with the trauma. Memories are pushed back into the place where traumatic memories are stored in the brain. Feelings are suppressed. Perceptions are skewed. Each symptom lays hold to a piece of the schizophrenic puzzle and deliberately keeps them apart.
Healing requires nothing less than the reintegration of the self. The puzzle needs solving. But it is important to recognize that it is the self that needs healing, not the brain. The brain can heal on its own when the underlying circumstances have been set to right.
The brain is only responding to the traumatic stress acting upon it. Schizophrenia is not, therefore, a flaw nor a disorder so much as a strategy. It is a survival mechanism which co-opts feelings, memories, and perceptions to avoid what it perceives as an existential threat to the self. When activated, all five senses are conscripted.
I went into the world of schizophrenia and came out the same way—through disturbing realizations.
We must ask ourselves, is schizophrenia a natural response to trauma?
Biological psychiatry has made everything so complicated. Though the biological basis of schizophrenia has never been fully endorsed by the greater psychiatric establishment nor elevated to the status of recognized theory, that hasn’t stopped hypotheses from flourishing, especially in the eighties and nineties, and skewing treatment approaches for decades. When you add in the vested interest of big pharma and their overly cozy (even insidious) relationship with all aspect of the medical establishment, not just psychiatry, what you end up with are generations of lost sufferers written off and relegated to lifelong prescriptions.
A drug might offset a symptom and alleviate some aspect of suffering, but it cannot heal trauma. In that respect, there is a place for medication. However, all pills come with side effects especially in the long term. Furthermore, it is possible that drugs and their side effects prolong, or inhibit altogether, the kind of work needed to address the underlying trauma.
My greatest fear is that drugs are damaging the part of the brain that stores traumatic memories. Those memories need retrieving. Those suppressed feelings need to be explored. For me, those memories were so disturbing that I responded by developing trauma amnesia. It wasn’t until many years after the events in question that the repressed memories resurfaced by way of a disturbing realization. That epiphany was what allowed me to set the recovery process in motion, and it might not have occurred had I been drugged to the gills.
Schizophrenia is a personal journey. There are no two stories alike. There are many paths to recovery. Mine is just one. However, the human process in the development of schizophrenia is all the same. By the time the sufferer gets into see a psychiatrist, the only thing the doctor is seeing is the end state.
Too often, and for too long, the first line of treatment for practicing psychiatrists has been medication. The doctor gives little attention to anything else. There is an expedience to medication, and the effect on individual symptoms are obvious and cannot be denied. But addressing a symptom is not the same as affecting a recovery—that is Medicine 101. Still, little emphasis is given to the schizophrenic language of the patient, better known as word salad. Within that language there are clues to the onset of schizophrenia. However, many psychiatrists fail to listen to their patients. Treatment resolves around ten-minute appointments once a week, mostly to see how the medication is working.
If any psychotherapy is offered, it takes months to get in to see a therapist even though schizophrenia needs intervention immediately before it has the time to cement itself in the life of the sufferer. The longer recovery is prolonged or delayed, the longer it takes to recover. Furthermore, the medication regularly employed in the interim to suppress symptoms often makes the needed work more difficult by the time the sufferer is afforded therapy.
The most upsetting thing about this kind of drug-first treatment model is that the sufferer is stripped of their autonomy. The power imbalance between therapist and sufferer is too great for any meaningful dialogue. Equality never comes into play.
According to one sufferer who is in the self-discovery phase of her recovery: “Often hospitals operate by the one-size-fits-all approach. Personal history and family idiosyncrasies are rarely delved into, to tailor and tweak treatment. The sufferer is reduced to a cluster of symptoms that must be managed.”
When does the sufferer even get to have a word in their treatment plan? Should it not be a collaborative effort? Some health professionals have no belief in the sufferer’s ability to make sound decisions. Family meetings take place where the professional has excluded the input of the actual sufferer. My question is this: when will people with schizophrenia get the chance to tell their stories without someone running interference?
Not all people will recover from schizophrenia. But they do deserve half a chance. Should a lifetime of medication not be considered a last resort? It seems to me therapeutic options ought to be thoroughly explored before assuming someone’s schizophrenia is set in stone.
For others, they choose to use medication because there are no other options for them. However, using medication does not constitute a full recovery, as psychiatry tends to say. Call it a partial recovery if anything. Using medication to suppress symptoms can never be considered a full recovery precisely because it is contingent on continued use of the medication; the schizophrenia is still there and sometimes those drugs can make their condition worse. Many mental health professionals say that medications were designed for short-term use only because of the threat of iatrogenic damage (which is to say illness caused by treatment itself). Some doctors are even over-prescribing them with little concern of the consequences. But my mission is not to attack the use of medication. I am just saying that they work for some and don’t work for others. And we should always be aware of the harm they can cause. One must know the drugs they are on.
When I first found out I had paranoid schizophrenia, I was too sick to see it. One time I even went to the library to look it up, but I still didn’t see it. That’s the thing about schizophrenia—once I got it, the hallucinations blocked out anything in the real world. And the terrifying voices badgered me all day long. To cope with that, I imagined myself as a saviour of some kind; out to save the world from God knows what. All of this happened because I was trying to escape the reality of a terrifying incident that happened in my childhood. Schizophrenia is like being on the verge of death, but death never comes. The suffering is overwhelming and claws away at your will to live. You’d have to get close enough to understand it. Unfortunately, most people are afraid of it, including therapists. Everyone seems tends to dance around it.
As a child something unspeakable happened to me. It was so horrible that I checked out. I couldn’t deal with it and needed an escape, so my brain automatically created a new world for me to live in. It wasn’t a friendly world, though. I felt like I was walking through a minefield. I had to be careful—something sinister was out to get me. Strangers were plotting against me. It felt like I was playing a part in horror film. To onlookers, I appeared normal, but on the inside a war was being waged, I was fighting for my survival.
Some of the things I write of will be triggering for some. But if I am going to tell the whole story, I must include everything.
As a kid, when someone told me to lift three haystacks, I lifted six. I was training my brain to believe I could overcome anything. While deep in my psychosis, I searched for hope—I’d find it in something as mundane as a colour, the long grass I had laid in, a song, anything. I never let schizophrenia become my identity. I was on a mission to save myself, to overcome my insanity and become whole again.
Schizophrenia is the most stigmatizing, embarrassing, frightening, and misunderstood condition out there. It’s no wonder therapists are having a hard time figuring it out. It’s like a puzzle, and psychiatry seems to be focused on one piece of the puzzle, the brain. Though psychiatry has mastered the art of describing schizophrenic symptoms, psychiatrists can’t see the forest for the trees.
As I’ve already said, too often the current treatment model revolves around pharmaceutical stopgaps. Patients are told—to justify this model—that they have an incurable brain disease, a chemical imbalance of some kind. That’s a lie, and one that has never held up to scientific scrutiny. But that lie is an easy sell for medical practitioners who are unprepared or unqualified to lead the work needed to affect a recovery and loved ones desperate for something that will mitigate the legitimate suffering of those they care about. And big pharma, of course, is more than happy to oblige.
People are desperate for solutions, but desperation rarely leads to sound long-term decisions. When children as young as three are being medicated for things like ADHD, people should be concerned.
After my recovery, I moved on with my life. I had so many things I wanted to do. But in my quiet time, when nobody was around, I thought about all the people still suffering. I thought about all the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, and aunts who felt like they had lost their loved ones for good. For this reason alone, I present my story to you, hoping to provide some real hope for everyone affected by schizophrenia.
In the end, all I can say is this: people diagnosed with schizophrenia can fully recover and live perfectly productive lives. Finding the right therapist is half the battle. We can have careers, own homes, raise families—and we are resilient. There is so much hope. I know it looks dark, but if I can fully recover, so can you. There is nothing special about my case; anyone can do it with the proper tools and the right mindset. But we must acknowledge that many don’t recover for many reasons. I am pro-medication for short-term symptom relief and crisis management. But I don’t believe they should be used long-term. I don’t advise that anyone simply go off their medication. That is a decision to be made with your doctor. I offer hope, nothing more, and nothing less. However, I don’t believe anyone is beyond hope. What I have, I wish for others. A treatment model needs designing. New treatment centres need building. That is the only solution I see needed.
© All Rights Reserved 2021
Author Tracey Higgins
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