Life as a Navy Man With Schizoaffective Disorder
My name is Toby, and I have schizoaffective disorder. For those of you who don’t know what schizoaffective is, it’s a mental illness consisting of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
My life hasn’t always consisted of hallucinations, voices, countless medications, and the fear of rejection. But it does now.
My adolescence was that of your normal, everyday kid. From what my mom and everyone else tells me, they never had a problem with me growing up. I had a good head on my shoulders, and I always thought out and made good decisions. Although, I did not do so well in school. School was always hard for me. I wanted to learn, I really did. I just didn’t have the ability. I could never concentrate or sit still long enough to make it through a single class. I barely graduated high school. I had to return for an extra semester to gather enough credits. But I did graduate!
After high school I worked a few odd jobs here and there. I worked the night shift at a gas station, and I worked at a manufacturing plant for awhile — nothing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Two years after high school, I decided I need a big change. I needed to get out of my town and make something of myself. I wanted to be part of something bigger. So I broke the news to my mom that I wanted to join the United States military. This was met with much protest. I was an only child, and she didn’t want to lose me. Understandable but I had to do what was right for me. So I joined the United States Navy. It was the biggest life change I had ever made. But I was ready! I made it through basic training with no problems. And on graduation day I got to see my family for the first time in two long months. It was a great feeling seeing their faces when they saw me in my dress whites. I made them proud, which is all I want to do. I knew I had made the right choice.
After my training I was assigned to the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. That’s where it all went downhill. The Bush was the largest moving object on the water. It was a floating city, almost as long as the Empire State Building laying on its side, with a full crew of 7000. But I still felt alone. I was outcasted by the people I worked and lived with. I had one friend, Kurt, who played a big role in getting me the help I needed. That was it. I was not used to this. I was the guy who was friends with everyone. When they stopped talking to me and started making fun of me every chance they got, I started to isolate myself. The isolation was the worst thing for me at the time. I didn’t realize, but I was started to have psychotic symptoms. And I was alone.
I had no idea what was going on with me. I had two different plans to take my life. At one point, I was moments away from hanging myself. I knew then I needed to say something and get help. I went to medical and explained what was going on. They told me I was depressed and put me on antidepressants. This ended up throwing me into my first full-blown manic episode. I didn’t sleep for five days, blew through all the money I had and maxed out a credit card. All the while, I was having visual and auditory hallucinations. After I missed my follow-up appointment, they found me on a random berthing just walking in circles. They took me off the ship and sent me to see a psychiatrist for a possible bipolar disorder diagnosis. The psychiatrist put me on quite a few antipsychotic medications and sent me on my way. That’s one thing I wasn’t too keen on — “the military approach.” Just throw meds at it and hope it helps.
After awhile I started to feel better and thought I could do it without the meds. Mistake number one. I went right back to having psychotic symptoms. This time I was living with some friends. They noticed I was not being myself again. But this time I was worse. I was screaming at the voices and chasing my visual hallucination I call Nate down the railroad tracks near our apartment. My friends sprung into action, trying to calm me down enough to get me in the car to take me to the hospital. Once at the hospital I was admitted to the psychiatric ward. I was there for a week and a half. Once I got out I swore I would stay on my meds. That lasted about six months, and I was back in the hospital.
I had had enough. I wanted to feel human again. I wanted to feel as if I wasn’t being pulled under the water. So I took a bold move and requested to be taken off one of my antipsychotic meds and try a brand new med that had only been on the market for four months. Don’t get me wrong, I was scared to death. What if it didn’t work? What if it made me worse? That’s a chance I was willing to take. And it paid off! I’m back to my outgoing self, my cognitive function is improving ever day, I’m funny and witty again. I feel like a new man!
Mixed up in all this chaos, I met a girl by the name of Caitlin. We met during one of my manic episodes, and I fell hard for her. I don’t know if it was the mania, but two weeks after meeting her I knew she was the one I would marry. She was wonderful. She accepted me for who I was and the ups and the downs. She stayed with me during some of the most confusing and challenging times of my life. And I can’t thank her enough for that. She has been a Godsend. I don’t think I would be able to function without her. I love her to the moon and back. We got married a year and a half later in May of 2011, and in February of 2015 we welcomed a beautiful little girl.
I live with this awful illness every day. I still have voices every day. And occasionally I see my buddy Nate. But I have accepted this illness for what it is. I understand there will be good days and bad days — probably more bad than good but that’s OK. I understand the voices may never go away completely, but that’s OK too. I think I would feel lonely without them now. This illness does not define me. Yes I may have it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t lead a productive life. It just means I have to try harder than most.
I know it’s hard to wrap your head around, but all I’m asking is that you listen before you make your decision to reject me. I didn’t ask for this. No one does. But we play the cards we were dealt. And we try to do it with a smile. Just think about that the next time someone tells you about their mental illness. For most it’s a big step to tell someone. Don’t make you the last person they tell. Just remember you, yourself, can end the stigma.
Well, that’s my life in a nutshell.
Take it how you will.
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DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Wolpert, U.S. Navy/Released