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What It Means to Rebuild Your Life After a Psychotic Break

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I still remember driving to work for my first day at the first job after my psychotic break. I was so scared. The night before I had laid out all my clothes and taken my shower to be as ready as possible. I got up extra early to have time to “just be ready.” My mental illness caused the psychotic break two years earlier. Since then, I have been rebuilding myself, overcoming a gauntlet of “first” fears.

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My psychologist explained to me that having a psychotic break is like having a psychological house with a cracked foundation. In addition, there’s a pit underneath your house. So, when the foundation breaks, your entire psychological house falls down into the pit and breaks into a thousand pieces.

Well, my house fell into that pit, and it fell far, shattering my whole world. As if you are experiencing a fit of vertigo, eyes dilated, attempting to pick up the pieces of this abstract puzzle. Among the pieces, you find a few which look ominously familiar: the corner pieces of your puzzle.

1. Grieving the loss of your own identity.

2. Acting as an experimental guinea pig for doctors, who seem to be playing Russian Roulette to find the right cocktail of medications for you.

3. Opinionated friends telling you, “Now that you are home, why don’t you clean out those closets you never had time for!”

4. Family unsure of how to act around you, not knowing how to best support you.

It’s my job to put myself back together again. After my break, working full-time again was my goal. I was so afraid my whole brain would turn to “French blue cheese” filled with striated blue mold, rendering it useless. I was afraid I had lost my intellect, my creativity, my ability to write and the power to communicate with others. But my puzzle is nowhere near being complete.

Part of putting myself back together again meant regaining confidence in myself to do the simplest things: overcoming that gauntlet of “first” fears.

My “first” psychologist visit

I remember my hands gripping the steering wheel tightly when I drove, alone, to my psychologist visit for the first time. I was scared to death, but I made it to my appointment. Over time it got easier, but it wasn’t just me who was affected. I remember the first time I drove my son to the YMCA for the two of us to swim. Having him in the car was terrifying — another life in my hands. While I was swimming laps I remember enviously thinking, “All my friends are working and I am here swimming…” Prior to my break, I had a Bachelor’s degree, and had worked in marketing for over 20 years. Now, seemingly unfit for employment, I continue swimming laps. Driven to get back to work, my caseworker and I developed a plan for me to go back to school and then look for a job. That’s right. Back to school…

My “first” day of school

When I went back to school, I was given additional time, and was able to take my tests in a different location from my classmates. Each time a new test was given, my brain would go on the fritz. I had to say to myself out loud, “OK, start with what you know.” Day by day, I was doing it, I was succeeding. By the last week of school, I had straight A’s and a job offer. There was no way to contain the excitement.

My “first” day at work

Driving to work that first time I was thinking, what am I going to say to these people? “Hi! I just had a psychotic break, what’s going on in your life?” But even as I became more comfortable, I still talked primarily about work. I had very little to say as people were chit-chatting around the water cooler. I am sure they thought I was a snob, not engaging in small talk. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. I was scared some strong wind of fate would decimate the fragile house of cards of normalcy I had built. Maintaining my established routine was critical for me. I wanted to share my life with my colleagues, but I feared their reaction. For most of the population, they would think of me as one of the inmates from “One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest” or Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”

What I wish I could have said to them is this: “I have had a long and difficult journey, rebuilding myself so that I can work with you. Working with you has proven to me that my psychotic break took nothing from me. I still have my intellect, my creativity and my ability to write and collaborate with others. While a tiny portion may be, my entire brain is not crumbled blue cheese. If I take my medication, maintain my diet and exercise and my mental coping skills, I am essentially no different than a diabetic. A diabetic’s pancreas produces little or no insulin. Once they take their insulin, and maintain their diet and exercise they can live a relatively normal life. I am no different: except my medical condition is located in my brain.”

I wish I could have just hung around the “water cooler” gang, without having to say anything. But as my confidence grew, I knew I had to open up more. And I did, but still never became part of the gang. That is why I speak openly about my mental illness now. I am tired of not being myself around the people I work with. Silence does not aid understanding. That is why I have come “out of the closet” about my mental illness. That is why I am a presenter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am committed to ending the silence.

This piece originally appeared on Challenge the Storm.

Originally published: July 11, 2016
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