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When you are diagnosed schizophrenic, it’s like being told you are officially evil. That is the idea we have of schizophrenia.
When you sit across the table from the psychiatrist – in the low chair, in the pale green room; both to make you feel “more relaxed” – and he says those words, your heart stops for a minute, in the way it does when the car goes over the cliff, or a child goes missing. It is the worst of all possible words; the worst of all possible worlds. You hang, for a moment, in silence.
And when the ringing in your ears stops, and you tune in, again, to the man, he is saying, “…and I’m afraid your symptoms will be pushing people under trains, and shouting in the night; and coming into the houses of neighbours, at twilight, with a thin blade, and waiting behind doors.”
Because these are all the schizophrenics we have ever heard about, or known, in films, or on the news. It is your black doom. Your soul is broken. It is you cast into doorways and street corners and CCTV footage, played, later, on the news.
That is, until you know someone with schizophrenia. Or you get schizophrenia yourself. I have two people in my life, one paranoid schizophrenic, one still hanging in between diagnoses – half schizo-affective, half bi-polar. Or perhaps it is “just” a schizotypical personality disorder, right in the centre of her heart: like the hole left in a castle battlement, after the cannonball of her childhood passed right through it.
This is one of the problems with mental illness. There’s no surefire way to diagnose mental illness. You can’t test for it in the blood – looking for schizophrenic spores, like tiny black roses – or feel the part of the brain that is broken, with the flat of your hand, like a shattered collarbone or thumb.
Instead, the ill person tells the psychiatrist what they think, and the psychiatrist says, “This reminds me of a schizophrenic, or a psychotic, or a manic depressive,” and they are then named, in the way we name a cat or a baby. That is how the naming of the madness happens.
I have been in the room when the diagnosis was made – when the floor dropped away – and I knew why the name was given. I agreed with the name being given. In the hour before, the talk had been of angels and mind-reading and bad men; recurring symbols of eyes being signs. Rape and spying, and babies that turned to stone in the womb, or disappeared entirely. The whole world being pain. There was psychosis there, as clear and simple as bad rain.
But I wondered how many of these things the psychiatrist thought were psychosis – how much he thought was illness. Because I knew the person talking, and I knew half this stuff that was being said was true: the bad men, and the rape, and the spying. I knew, to her, the whole world was pain. In the mirror of her mind, these were true reflections.
Your memory is a mirror, reflecting all you have ever said and done. But psychosis, or schizophrenia, is a tiny toffee-hammer to the mirror – so it falls, electric, into a billion disordered shards. Some still true, of course – but others now reflecting only each other, infinitely, until the image becomes indistinct, or resembles something else entirely. So that friends turn into angels; enemies to demons, and the babies you read about in fairy tales are in your body, now, as stone. And you are not stupid – you are not stupid – and you know something is wrong. You try to think your way out of it. But broken reason cannot mend broken reason.
Your brain is speeding so fast it looks like it’s moving at warp-speed – this is a neurological fire, now: scans would show your brain lit up like the Eastern Seaboard, at dusk. The stories replicate: thousands, millions. There is no such thing as true memory any more. Does she remember what the psychiatrist said? Which one of the psychiatrists? There are billions, in shards, on the floor. She doesn’t believe in this one, tiny, random splinter that announced “schizophrenia”. Schizophrenics are evil – she is not evil. She is flying. She’s an angel. She’s so, so sad. She will not take the pills. She’s doesn’t know her story any more.
And I think: I can write stories! I can write. Sweetness, let me climb into your head and write you a new story – the story of your life with clean lines, this time, and the good people as clearly signposted as the bad, and no more confusion for you. So you finally understand what is going on. Let me glue the glass again, and hang it on the wall.
But there are already too many voices in her head. She cannot fit me in at all. I would not, should not, fit.