5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About Schizophrenia
It's not that Hollywood doesn't portray mental illness -- movies love to include schizophrenic characters. It's just that they're usually serial killers. Unfortunately, since most people don't know anyone who has schizophrenia (at least, as far as they know), this means a lot of what you think about the disease is bullshit.
Cracked has already told you a lot about mental illness myths, even telling you what movies get wrong about mental institutions. Well, we wanted to know what it was like to deal with schizophrenia on day-to-day basis, so we sat down with a woman who suffers from it. She says ...
It's Not Multiple Personalities
The "voices" I hear are not too terribly different from the self-critical voices everyone has in their heads -- except I can hear them as clearly as if someone were standing right next to me. Oh, and they're assholes. There are two distinct male voices that I hear (that is, when I'm not on medication, or it decides to randomly stop working for a few days). One tells me to hurt myself or other people, and another calls me the sort of names you generally only hear in the comment section of any internet article about feminism.
Except with him, I have clinical proof that his penis is non-existent.
This gets into a lot of the confusion about what schizophrenia actually is -- a lot of old movies portrayed it as multiple personality disorder (or the clinical term, "disassociate identity disorder"). It's true that both often involve hallucinations and voices in your head, but Hollywood always writes these illnesses purely according to whatever will make the freakiest plot twist (sadly, I do not go to sleep and wake up as Brad Pitt, or even Edward Norton).
"I am Jack's inaccurate plot twist."
The key difference is that for me, these voices never "take over" -- I'm always conscious and in control of myself. They can make it hard to focus when real people are trying to talk to me, but otherwise, I'm more aware of my surroundings than what you'd expect based on what you've seen in movies. For example, there's a scene in Girl, Interrupted in which a schizophrenic character who'd been badly burned in the past suddenly realizes the extent of her disfigurement. That movie is based on a book based on a true story, so I don't know if that really happened, but I assure you, I know what I look like (fabulous, in case you were wondering).
There are levels of severity, of course, just like with any illness -- some sufferers are incapable of even basic communication, so it's literally impossible to know what they're experiencing. But neither version tends to show up in movies -- this kind of mental illness is usually an excuse to have the main character suddenly realize they were the killer all along, or to create an ambiguous Black Swan or American Psycho situation. But that brings me to a crucial point ...
Voices Don't Make You Do Terrible Things
Back when all of this first began, one of the voices started giving me graphic instructions to kill a particularly dickish teacher I had. This troubled me, to say the least. This was before I knew that everyone regarded me as a potential serial killer, so I went to the school counselor, who immediately flipped precisely all of her shit(s). That's an understandable reaction, but fear of that response is what keeps a lot of mentally ill folk from getting help -- it took a lot of pleading to convince her that I wasn't going to return to school with an Uzi. In fact, the only time I've come anywhere close to violence since was the result of a medication called Haldol that I was taking, which causes mood swings. Even then, it was pretty much limited to screaming at my husband to get off my back about the damn dishes.
Not that medication side effects are really necessary for "they're soaking" to escalate into a shouting match.
It doesn't help that, according to pop culture, lots of murderers get off with a "the voices made me do it!" insanity plea (in reality, that defense is rarely tried, and when it is, it usually doesn't work). And again, Hollywood doesn't help, creating characters like Donnie Darko, who are commonly mistaken for schizophrenic and who allow their voices to convince them to do things like damage school property and listen to anything Drew Barrymore has to say.
I won't speak for all schizophrenics, but for the most part, we don't like our voices. Why would we ever do anything simply because those jerks told us to? Think back to your middle school bully -- how would you respond if he tried to talk you into committing horrible crimes, but couldn't threaten you bodily harm (because he himself had no body -- for the purposes of this example, your middle school bully is a ghost). You'd tell him to fuck off and leave you alone, or at least run away. Sadly, the latter is what many of us end up doing. I have a schizophrenic friend (our parties are great) who believes the voices are government agents who are out to get him, so he holes up in his house all day, trying to hide from them. I'm willing to bet they've told him to do a lot of things that, as detached from reality as he is, he has still never even considered.
"Fuck you, G-Men. Pepsi on cereal? That's just stupid."
And his case is typical -- the violent crime rate is no higher among schizophrenics than it is in the rest of the population. What they are more likely to do is simply withdraw from society -- many become depressed and/or have problems with substance abuse. A sad, pitiful little man hiding in his house all day is probably a far cry from the raving psychopath you're imagining, and that's a big reason why ...
You Can't Necessarily Tell Who Has It
That's right -- we could be among you right now and you might never even know it. The one time Hollywood did schizophrenia reasonably well was when they took a true story and proceeded to make up a lot of stuff, with a little movie you might have heard of called A Beautiful Mind. What's accurate is how, through much of the film, John Nash is pretty damn functional. He gets married, he graduates from Princeton ... shit, those are things that most "normal" people can't even manage. For a long time, nobody suspects there's anything wrong with him.
That's because schizophrenics aren't necessarily drooling, twitching blobs of humanity -- it can actually be really hard to tell when they're having an episode. A lot of the symptoms of paranoia can be mistaken for simple social awkwardness. The only difference is that I also happen to think cameras are following me everywhere, which I'm probably not going to tell you about, and if I did, you would probably think I'm merely stoned, because people absolutely have.
Switch "probably" to "totally" if you're within 50 feet of any Taco Bell.
For example, one of my problems is that if I make eye contact with a stranger in public, I'm suddenly convinced that they know what I'm thinking -- they can see it on my face somehow, and make no mistake, they are judging me. I have a real problem with eye contact in general -- when to make it, when to look away, oh god I've been looking away for too long, they think I'm weird, just look, dammit. Sound familiar?
It's hard for non-experts to distinguish. The only person who ever caught on was a psychology professor who noticed my eyes darting around the room over the course of a semester. One day, he asked me to stay after class. Expecting to be chided for not paying attention and preparing for an uncomfortable chit chat, I was instead asked "Did you know you have schizophrenia?" (I did, so it was all good). Even my own family doctor was surprised to learn that I had schizophrenia, adding "You look so normal," apparently because I wasn't currently throwing feces at her.
Of course, when you've got a blank check to fling poop, it's awfully tempting to cash it in those situations.
Another thing Russell Crowe and crew got right is that while schizophrenia isn't curable, it is treatable. But ...
The Medication is an Illness of Its Own
I mentioned earlier that the only violent mood swings I've ever experienced were the result of a medication I was taking. In fact, many of the symptoms often associated with schizophrenia -- think of the stereotypical twitchy, drooling man hiding under a bridge and talking to himself, unaware of anything going on around him -- can actually be attributed to side effects of medication, rather than to the disorder itself. That guy might not need to get help; it's more likely that he's getting too much help.
"I'm worried about your low estrogen levels."
It can be really easy to become overmedicated. At one point, during a nice vacation to the psych ward, I was taking a whopping 23 different medications. That's because antipsychotics all come with horrid side effects, which then have to be treated by other medications, which then come with their own side effects that have to be treated, and on and on. That did indeed leave me a sloppy mess lying on the couch in the common room, with no idea that my parents were there when they came to visit. But you don't have to become a walking pharmacy before you start seeing the effects. Lots of common medications cause nervous tics, manic energy, and even sensitivity to the Sun, which makes you itch like a bitch. Golly, doesn't that kind of sound like our twitching, drooling friend from earlier? He's probably got a lot of reasons for hiding under the bridge, but pharmaceutically-induced vampirism is almost certainly one of them.
Great. Something else to add to the medicine cabinet.
With all of that awful stuff going on (such as, say, the agonizing muscle cramps Moban caused me) and no more voices in your head, it can be easy to start thinking that you've got this thing under control. You forget that the medication is the entire reason for that, because you're a little distracted by the excruciating pain and whatnot. "All this stuff is doing for me is making me miserable, so why keep taking it?"
Well, did you know that you can go into serious withdrawal from antipsychotics, like you can from narcotics? True story: when I was released from inpatient treatment, I was pretty over those 23 different medications. It turns out that going cold turkey off an Ozzy Osbourne number of drugs was so hard on my system that it earned me a trip straight back to the hospital, this time to the emergency room. I showed up looking like a heroin addict -- shaky, anxious, nauseous, and sweaty. The weirdest part was a thing called brain zaps. That's when, every so often, it feels like someone has jammed one of those prank handshake buzzers inside your head, and it's a fun little reaction your body has to suddenly not taking psychiatric medication.
Unpredictable moments of disorientation, vertigo, and dizziness really put the thrill back in driving.
That was an extreme case, but even after landing on a much more manageable regimen, going even one day without them makes my symptoms pop back up like a particularly unpleasant game of Whack-a-Mole. Within a few hours, I start to get headaches, and I can kind of feel the voices coming. They start out whispering, barely audible, and gradually get louder until they're yelling. Luckily, the medication can take effect just as fast -- I know I've landed on a good one when the voices start to quiet down after about 30 to 60 minutes, although it does take a bit longer than that to fully take effect. Over the course of about 2 or 3 weeks, they'll gradually get quieter and quieter until they disappear completely.
I do still have what are called "breakthrough" symptoms about one to three days a month, when the voices taper on and off, gradually getting louder and then quieter again. But hey, voices one-tenth of the time is exactly ten times better than voices all of the time.
The Bullshit People Believe Impacts Your Life More Than the Disorder
The message of "don't tell people you're crazypants" didn't quite sink in until I got pregnant. I was concerned about the possible effects of taking antipsychotic medication during pregnancy, so I posted in an online forum for expecting mothers, asking if anyone had any experiences with it. Apparently, what I should expect is a bunch of pitchforks and torches, always held in one hand so that the other is free to clutch pearls. The other posters, presumably normal women and not 4chan rejects, told me that I was selfish for even having children who would be exposed to my mental illness and possibly inherit it, that I couldn't possibly be capable of caring for a child, that I would inevitably physically harm my children, and that I should be sterilized.
My first mistake was asking the Internet anything.
It would have been incredibly hurtful if I didn't know it was so obviously ridiculous. I don't even approve of spanking, let alone the horrible things these women were imagining. It is, in reality, no different from any of the millions of mothers currently trying to raise children while treating a chronic illness on the side. If you sterilize everybody who needs prescription medication to get by, the world will run out of babies pretty fast. And it's not only forum trolls saying this stuff -- a lot of well-meaning people in my life, from friends to therapists to other patients, have told me I would never be able to live a normal life. I would never go to college, get a job, get married, have children -- those are for healthy people and, you know, the people who merely have physical illnesses. Once a sickness reaches your brain, apparently society should put you on a raft and float you out to the sea.
"Your dyslexia has ruined its last book club."
In other words, it is hard to get by with a mental illness ... because other people go out of their way to make it hard. For example, there's the fact that once you confess to having hallucinations, everything you say thereafter is considered untrustworthy. Even my doctor refused to believe me about the side effects I told him my medication was having, even though they're right there on the label. Nobody wants to get sucked into the crazy person's delusions because that's how it spreads, damn it!
When it comes to dating, guys tend to freak out when you tell them six months into the relationship that you hear voices and sometimes see things that aren't there. Surprisingly, a lot of people, including my now-husband, were okay with it as long as they find out right away, so I learned to be very up-front about it. On the other hand, you have to watch out for the crazy fetishists, like this one guy I dated in college. These guys seek out "psychos" because they think they'll be better in bed. Sadly, I didn't last long with that guy, because I -- the actually mentally ill person -- wasn't anywhere near as insane as other girls he dated, who were presumably perfectly healthy.
"Couldn't 'slip into something more comfortable' mean lingerie just once?"
I eventually graduated with a degree in IT, but while I was in college, I worked normal college student service jobs, including one at a hotel front desk. My disorder came to light on the job because it happened to coincide with one of my "fuck medication" phases, and I picked up an unfortunate habit of checking in guests who weren't there. My explanation of, "Terribly sorry about that, I have schizophrenia, I'll try harder to differentiate between real and imaginary guests in the future" didn't go over as well as I'd hoped. My manager went nuts, insisting that I was dangerous and shouldn't be working with the public.
Luckily I'm in a field that allows me to work from home, so now that's an option. I'm a mostly normal person -- a college-educated, married, work-at-home mom. I realize that makes for a less-than-exciting ending to this tale, but that's the point. You've spoken to or worked with people with schizophrenia and you never knew it, because they live the same boring day-to-day lives as the rest of us. That normal, everyday life is a precious thing, and I can say from experience that getting it probably required them to wade through a whole lot of bullshit.
Amanda Davenport is a work-at-home mom with an amazing 3-year-old, an awesome husband, and a cute little shih tzu. Check out her website if you're interested in working at home. For excessive Fight Club jokes, follow Manna on Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living and 5 Disturbing Things I Learned in Scientology's 'Space Navy'. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
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