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How Schizophrenia Helped Me (Finally) Find My Purpose

I first started experiencing symptoms of a psychotic disorder at 14 years old when I was a freshman in high school. I was diagnosed with the disorder at 19, during my second year of college. Now, at 25 years old, I am a completely different person than I was before this disorder set in, only a shell of my former self.

In grade school, I was as sharp as a tack. I took as many honors and advanced placement (AP) classes as I could, always made honor roll and graduated high school near the top of my class of 200. I did a number of extracurriculars and juggled a lot of responsibilities outside of school. Even while battling early schizophrenia, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe anxiety, all without medication, at my first “real” adult job as a float bank teller, I was known as the “jack of all trades.” Sometimes, I was running back and forth between two desks doing two jobs at once during my shift. I started a 401(k) at 19 years old, bought my first car when I was 20 and had plans to work through college and go into accounting or become a loan officer with the goal of retiring in my 40s. I was well on my way to becoming what our society would champion as a “success.”

Then, when I was 21, schizophrenia fully set in, and my life fell apart. Distraught over my growing difficulty to do my job and having lost all hope of a meaningful life, I became suicidal and spent a very traumatic week at a psychiatric hospital. After being released, I was still in crisis and unable to return to my job, so I had to quit at the bank and apply for Social Security disability.

The process of applying for disability is almost always long and grueling. Contrary to popular belief, it is extremely difficult to get approved, and most people get denied one, two, three or ten times. While my claim was processed much faster than most, while I was still waiting for a decision, I had to sell the car I loved and had worked so hard for because I could no longer afford it. And, though it still deeply pains me to say it, I had no choice but to drain my savings and cash out my 401(k) to pay bills and stay afloat until the disability kicked in.

Since 2017, I’ve cycled through almost every medication there is for schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders, and have found only one that works for me at all. In the meantime, I gained a significant amount of weight from it and was obese for two years. I developed prediabetes and high blood pressure that sent me to the emergency room twice. I temporarily had to go on a beta blocker and was on the fast track to having a stroke in my early 20s. While I’ve finally been able to lose the weight in the past two years, I still have a lingering blood sugar problem despite following a strict diet. I also developed fibromyalgia and dysautonomia, and the medications have given me lingering neurological effects I will battle for the rest of my life. Make no mistake: antipsychotics are no joke.

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Thanks to schizophrenia’s cognitive effects, with which medications don’t tend to help much, I also now struggle with tasks involving executive functioning and critical thinking, which used to come naturally to me. I struggle to follow directions, remember doctor’s appointments and keep myself organized. I used to work 52-hour weeks at the bank in the summer, and now, I barely manage to work 10 hours a week at my remote transcription job.

Big changes — in fact, any type of changes — throw me for a loop and send me spiraling into a symptom episode. I have difficulties processing my emotions and I sometimes struggle to communicate with other people in healthy ways. I frequently feel like a burden on my loved ones and on society. My ability to stay collected and focused in a crisis situation is not what it used to be. My ability to socialize with and trust other people has tanked. The world feels too big and loud and scary, and it feels like everything is a symptom trigger. I can’t function at all for a good two to three days out of every week, sometimes more. My medication often makes me sleep 10 to 13 hours per night and still have serious trouble waking up in the morning.

I am, in every way, a shell of my former self.

I’ve had to relearn how to do everything from the ground up, reteach myself how to be a human being. I’ve had to learn to live my days a lot slower and expect a lot less out of myself in a day. I’m a workaholic by nature, so this is not at all easy. I have found new meaning to the biblical notion of “strength in weakness” because the only way I’ve been able to accomplish anything in the past several years is to accept and work with my limitations instead of trying to fight them.

I feel I’ve gained perspective and empathy I never had before, and it may sound strange to say this about myself, but I think my situation has humbled me a lot. I was arrogant when I was younger, but this had to change once I had to start collecting disability insurance, move to subsidized housing and identify as disabled. I had to learn my worth as a human being is not measured in the dollar amount I make every year, but in the ways I try to help other people and in the good I try to do in the world.

Still, none of this journey felt like it was worth it until one night recently. I was browsing an LGBTQ+ forum online when I came across a post from a young transgender woman on the brink of ending her life. Like many of us in the LGBTQ+ community, she was distraught about Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and was afraid of what a steep conservative majority on the court would mean going forward in regards to her rights as a human being and her ability to access healthcare. She was also having her own struggles with finding and keeping employment and progressing in her degree program, much like myself.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I began typing out what I stated above, about how living as a disabled person has taught me that my life’s worth is not measured in dollars I bring in per year or number of bragging points on my resume. Thankfully, it seemed my words struck a chord. The moment she told me I had helped her, and in the subsequent days when she was still sending me messages and I knew she was alive, I finally felt, for the first time, that everything had been worth it.

If I got the privilege of helping even one person decide to keep going, this has all been worth it.

The United States is still the wealthiest nation in the world, but even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were ranked nowhere near the happiest country in the world, not in even the top 10. Additionally, data showed happiness levels were declining while depression rates rising among Americans. Of course, a myriad of factors contribute to this, and our current circumstances as a nation have only made this much worse, but I believe one of the largest, long-standing impacts on our nation’s mental health is our Darwinist, “Sucks to be you, loser” culture, where wealth and success are valued above all else. People judge each other on what New York Times bestselling author David Brooks calls “resume virtues” — the skills you bring to the workforce, the projects you’ve completed at work, the things you brag about on your LinkedIn profile and at social events. We bring these instead of the far more important “eulogy virtues,” such as how people will remember you when you’re gone, the moral code and values you strive to embody and the ways you strive to leave the world a better place than you found it.

Of course, striving for excellence in one’s career, and in all areas of life, is always a noble and beneficial endeavor. But making resume virtues the only standard for determining personal worth leaves people like me in the dust, due to no fault of our own. And it’s not just people with disabilities, it’s anyone who doesn’t “measure up” in one way or another. No matter how good you are at your job, someone else will always be better. No matter how nice a car or house you have, someone else’s car or house will always be bigger and nicer. No matter how smart you are, someone else will always be smarter.

For far too many bosses and managers out there, nothing their employees do is ever good enough, and some even think intentionally adopting this as a management style makes their employees perform better, even though this is largely false. Our wealth-obsessed culture is why some highly successful and widely respected people still take their lives: money can solve many problems and it can ease some worries, but it cannot buy joy, purpose or peace of spirit, and it certainly cannot cure mental illness.

In my journey, I now realize this is where people like me have an opportunity to come in. I may never make six figures, climb to the top of the corporate ladder, be a millionaire or even be able to afford a brand-new Honda, much less a BMW or an Infiniti. But I can share my experiences with others, help work to end stigmas and at the very least, remind people they are not alone and that they matter. Had I not gone through these trials and tests, my perspective would have no depth because it would not be backed by lived experience. It would be merely superficial.

And I’ve finally realized that would be a far bigger curse and hindrance to my ability to contribute to the world than being disabled could ever be.

Unsplash image by Arnaud Mesureur