Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Advocate
I had my first psychotic “break” at my college graduation ceremony. I heard voices speaking in fast whispers, faces distorted and glimpses of other graduates, all smiling among friends. I sat stunned in the auditorium, realizing that after four years, I was alone during a time when I was expected to be social, yet independent. I stood up from my seat, wearing my cap and gown, and walked away from the auditorium while Ted Turner was giving the keynote address. I appeared blank and dazed when my parents eventually found me in the lobby, unable to speak.
I went to a psychiatric hospital the next day. I later learned I had progressed from the “prodromal” phase of mental illness—isolating from others—into full-blown schizophrenia. The “me” I had known had passed into a figment of who I was, and now I was alone with a “me” I didn’t know, alienated from people, my own feelings and the environment. A month later, after leaving the hospital, I was quiet and unmotivated—far from the ambitious student that had completed four years at one of the country’s top schools for communication studies. I knew no one from my past, other than my family.
I don’t know how to describe psychosis other than perhaps by saying it was like experiencing, for a moment, losing something and forgetting something simultaneously.
Ten years and nine hospitalizations later, I found that there is not just one kind of “alone.” There are scary alones, lonely alones, secret alones, alones in solace and alones that are empowering. In our different minds and feelings, as people with mental illness, we often travel through these different alones—and sometimes, as I experienced during my college graduation, these alones create disturbing consequences.
In my vulnerability as a young adult with schizophrenia, I looked to my doctors for help. Some of my experiences in the psychiatric system were positive, but some were far from positive. I found myself being commonly, instantly reduced to a “psychiatric patient.” This was a new alone, a disempowering alone, a destitute alone.
Others with mental illness have had similar experiences; many rage at being treated as simply a diagnosis. Too often, doctors stamp a stigma on their patients before trying to understand and empathize with them as individuals. Psychiatry frequently cuts with this dehumanizing gash. And this practice can lack a human reason.
Human reason acknowledges and gives purpose to struggle; it does not limit or stereotype what a “patient” may or may not feel or accomplish in his or her lifetime. For example, a year or two after my diagnosis, I was given a case manager who told my parents that perhaps I could someday be employed as a greeter at Walmart or perform some simple office work. He never addressed who I was before the onset of my illness or what I envisioned for my own future. He refused to see me as a human being.
Mental illness is sometimes a living loss—days press on without chronology, and the person experiencing it often lacks self-reflection because he or she is too submersed in a bad experience. Maybe this is what prevents mental health professionals from getting to know the person behindthe daily struggle. But I know we can connect with each other through finding common ground.
I once had a doctor who helped me understand survival, for example. He showed me that humans are part of nature: We must eat, sleep and perform certain functions, and if we ignore these laws of nature, we suffer consequences. He suggested I observe how animals survive and see if I could identify with them. So, one day, I watched a squirrel outside my window eat some peanuts I had given it. I was hungry at the time and realized I was hungry like the squirrel. In an instant, I felt a new connection because of this basic need we shared. If I can connect with a squirrel, shouldn’t a doctor be able to connect with me?
We humans crave connection. We want a reason for living. People with mental illness feel this same fundamental connection to life, though it is often not expressed or fulfilled. We struggle under the stress and demands of negative people or poor diet or our own feelings or biology. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Basic human reason and empathy, along with the devoted help of a mental health professional, can override some of the living loss we feel.
Sixteen years after my abandoned graduation and subsequent May morning in the hospital, I speak internationally about my experiences. I’ve written three books and have presented as a keynote speaker and mental health advocate at numerous forums, workshops, conferences and colleges. I do not have the life I had imagined for myself before my break, but it is a rich and satisfying life. It is one that uses my talents and education and who I am as a person.
I’ve learned that the best way to recover is to help others and get help in return—to help each person see outside of his or her struggle and into an empowering independence. Doctors, patients and society must realize that we can all be both leaders and followers in helping one another survive and thrive as
Together, we can create extraordinary alones and blossom into the lives we imagine.
Benjamin Boone has a degree in communication studies from Emerson College in Boston. He has spoken throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe and works as a life coach. His book Minority of Mind details his struggle with mental illness.
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