Psychosis. The topic I have been avoiding. The post I am afraid to write because the same people who applaud your grace during depression run like hell when psychosis descends.
I made a promise when I launched My Big Fat Bipolar Life that I would tackle the hard stuff. The stuff no one wants to talk about. The stuff I don’t talk about—to anyone.
I am scared when people read this post, they will look at me differently. It is terrifying for me to explore the inner working of my psychotic mind, but I will do it anyway. Because if people look at me differently or run in the other direction, they weren’t my people anyway.
The response was silence. Crickets chirping.
It hurt, but I wasn’t surprised. Because no one wants to talk about psychosis. It is the most misunderstood symptom of mental illness.
When psychosis takes root, it feels like I am walking through a dense fog of unreality. Everything has a secret meaning. I feel sure the actor on my favorite television show is speaking to me. The voices in my head are having a conversation I am not invited to. It is difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
In 2001, I moved to Spring, Texas to start my teaching career. It was an exciting time for me. It was a fresh start. A new beginning. It didn’t last long.
I knew I was in trouble when I could barely drive a couple of miles to the gas station. I was sure the white van in the parking lot was there to cart me off to the psychiatric ward.
I tried to get in touch with my psychiatrist in Lafayette, but he was stretched so thin that it took days to get him on the phone. When we finally spoke, we made plans for me to go to his office when I was back in Lafayette.
My mom drove my car home from Texas. It was the longest car ride of my life. I smoked cigarette after cigarette while my psychotic mind told me I was dead and in purgatory. In my compromised state, I was actually grateful my mom was with me in purgatory, and my cigarettes weren’t going to run out!
I saw the same road sign over and over. I don’t know if that was real or a hallucination. I almost grabbed the steering wheel from my mom’s hands; I was dead already, right? Thank God I didn’t.
What You Should Know
There is so much misinformation and ignorance surrounding what psychosis is and what it is not. It would take multiple blog posts to cover everything.
Today I want to clear up three misconceptions about psychosis:
1. The words psycho, psychopath, and psychosis are interchangeable.
You will hear the words psycho, psychotic and psychopath used interchangeably to describe two very different things. Psycho is the informal form of the word psychopath, but it has become a catch-all word to describe anyone who is acting peculiarly, including those suffering from psychosis.
Psychosis is “characterized by disconnection from reality which results in strange behavior often accompanied by perception of stimuli (voices, images, sensations) and other hallucinations.” Psychosis is a symptom, not a disease. With the proper medication, the symptoms of psychosis can be alleviated.
Psychopathy is “traditionally a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits. It is a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.” There is no cure for psychopathy.
2. During a psychotic break, the person is violent.
The only time you hear about the mentally ill is when they die by suicide or perpetuate a horrific crime. Although there have been cases where serial killers or other violent offenders experienced a psychotic break prior to committing a crime, it is statistically more likely someone mentally ill will be a victim of violence than perpetuate a violent act.
The night my mom and I arrived home from Texas, I barely slept a wink. My psychotic mind kept telling me I would or had hurt my parents. I kept going into their bedroom to make sure they were unharmed.
Notice the wording in the last paragraph. NEVER did my psychotic mind tell me I wanted to hurt my parents or anyone else. My mind NEVER thought that was a good idea. My mind was simply replaying the lie that someone with psychosis is violent, so my parents must be in danger.
3. The person who experiences a psychotic break is a reliable witness of the events that transpired during the break.
There is an expectation that the person who has experienced a psychotic break has a perfect recollection of the events that occurred during that break. In fact, the person who experiences a psychotic break is an unreliable witness of the events that occurred. The memories are dreamlike, and it is difficult to discern what was real and what was imagined.
As I considered my personal experience with psychosis, I found myself cross-checking facts with my family. Because some memories are very vivid while others are nearly impossible to nail down.
But even cross-checking facts did not give me a complete picture of what happened because there are memories locked away in my mind my family is not privy to. My family can only testify to what they personally witnessed, and my actual take on the same events is somewhat different because of my troubled state of mind while they were happening.
A Glimpse into the Psychotic Mind
Two days after I returned from Texas, I woke up to a world that mimicked the symptoms of psychosis. It was September 11, 2001. I watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers on the news.
Everyone on the planet tasted psychosis that day. There has never been another event in history so surreal that we all watched in real time. The way you felt that day—lost, terrified, disbelieving, confused—that’s how I feel during psychosis.
Soon after, I finally made it to my psychiatrist’s office where he prescribed the medication that brought me back down to earth. I often wonder how other mentally ill people processed the events of 9/11.
If you have only one takeaway from this post, I hope it is this: The person experiencing psychosis is not someone to fear but someone who needs compassion and help. And if their behavior frightens you, can you imagine how frightened they must be as they navigate their psychotic break?
Unless someone willfully refuses to take prescribed antipsychotic medication, they have no control of when a psychotic break will occur.
It is not just those on the outside looking in on psychosis who contribute to the misinformation and ignorance. When those of us who have experienced psychosis refuse to talk about it, we become complicit in the lies the outside world believes. Those of us who are in the trenches battling mental illness must collectively raise our voices to change the conversation and spread awareness.