Syrena Clark

@syrena-clark | contributor
I am a 27-year-old published writer, blogger, artist, activist, and disabled individual looking to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, psychotic disorders, chronic pain, and disability as a whole. I have Schizoaffective Bipolar Type One and have co-occurring chronic pain diagnoses, migraines, and POTS. I am a senior at Husson University studying Public Health and Healthcare Administration. I’m an INFJ, a coffee lover, and a crazy cat lady. I’ve got a few piercings and two tattoos (and yes, one is an obligatory semicolon tat). One cat, a bunny, and one loving fiancé. We are residents of rural Maine.
Syrena Clark

How Self-Care Helps Me Stay Employed With Schizoaffective Disorder

After my diagnosis nearly a decade ago, I thought I’d never live a “normal” life again. I certainly never thought I’d work. I just didn’t see myself as capable any longer. Whether that was because of society’s expectation or my own predisposition remains to be seen. I just didn’t see it as a possibility, however remote. I had been cut down and what was expected of me, by those around me, had drastically changed. It’s not that the people I surround myself with didn’t believe in me, but they had been told certain things and had been made to believe in certain realities, which didn’t harbor room for upward growth or change. The day I received my diagnosis I was sitting in the car of my social worker, all the world bathed in hot, uncomfortable sunshine. Clutched in her hand was an envelope and, in my mind, that envelope held the rest of my life. Everything hung in the balance that day, and because of two words “catatonic schizophrenia,” the scales were tipped in an unfortunate direction. She said, “You have got to keep this a secret. Nobody can know.” At that moment I felt unlike myself, like a mutant, like an example, like a case study. I didn’t feel like myself. About two years after my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder (originally bipolar 1 and then catatonic schizophrenia) I decided to go back to school. I didn’t place any expectations on myself. I just decided I’d do what I could do. Going back to school, for me, wasn’t to secure me a well-paying job as it is for some, rather it was the commencement of a choice. I wanted to prove to myself that I was still capable of something. This was, of course, society’s expectation once again: that to live means you have to be capable of some big thing, that you can’t just live your life, that you must be a productive, actively producing, member of society to be deemed worthy. Even now, I harbor a hatred for this abstract concept of “able.” But, I did it anyway, partly because I wanted to, partly because I felt I had to, mostly because I wanted to (or even felt I needed to) prove my life wasn’t over. Doing so wasn’t without apprehension. Then my senior year of college (this year) I took a job. Again, not without apprehension; certainly, I was afraid. Afraid that I couldn’t do it. That my body wouldn’t let me, that my mind would rally against stressors and collapse. I was afraid, plain and simple. And I still am. Every day I am. Every day I hear that voice in the back of my head, literally in my case, telling me that I’m going to fail. That’s hard to hear every day while you’re working so hard to succeed. The biggest question quickly became not if I could work — I was working after all — but instead, how would I take care of myself while working? I needed a mental health day, a day I could guarantee I would be able to see my doctor, a day where I could work my side gig. That day became Tuesdays. When I took my job, I made it clear that I could not work Tuesdays. I wake up, have some hot coffee (I drink it black or very occasionally with hot chocolate mixed in) have my staff meeting for my second side job, (social media management), and work for a few hours. Take a shower. Then have the rest of the day to myself. Once a month this day includes therapy and psychiatry. I might write, play my favorite escape Stardew Valley, clean, and relax. I only get two days off a week and Tuesdays are for me. If you work and have a mental illness, you should try to make this work for you as well. Of course, it’s much easier if you state your expectations in the beginning, hell in the interview even, so you don’t have to try and wrestle your way into it later. The other thing I have on me is a mental health first aid kit. I won’t say I haven’t been to the bathroom a few times to break that out and calm myself down. What you keep in it will be unique to you. Bring a comfort item, like a favorite mug with your favorite drink, a comfy scarf to wear around your neck, or something that helps ground you. Don’t be afraid to ask to step away for a few moments to gather yourself, even if it is under the guise of having to use the bathroom. Deploy your coping skills. I use DBT almost all of the time. If you have meds, take them. Adhere, don’t stop taking them without talking with your doctor. If you don’t that’s OK too, but if you’re suffering without reason, maybe consider them. I would, of course, never push medication, but it has helped me so I do advocate taking them if you are already, nonadherence will just complicate your life. Your employer doesn’t have to be made aware of your illness; mine doesn’t know. All they know is that I have a condition that I wear a medical alert band for, and how to use that if they ever need to. That’s as far as that conversation has gone. Working while having a mental illness like schizoaffective disorder often isn’t easy. It requires a good deal of planning, making sure you have what you need when you need it, and it requires, above all else, advocating for yourself. This isn’t easy and can take some time to master. I advocate for myself constantly, at work, at home, at school, out and about, at the doctor’s office, just about everywhere. You have to, or you’ll never get what you need especially when what you need is so specific and unique to you. I want to make it very clear: there is nothing wrong with not working. This is just a compilation of tips if you decide you’d like to. Society’s concept of what is “required” of you is wrong. You have to live a life that works for you, and no two lives will be the same. Finally, don’t be afraid. Even when fear is knocking at your door, even when your insecurities are incessant. Know that you can do it, worst-case scenario, which is not actually very bad, is that you find you can’t and nothing changes. The best-case scenario: you rock it. Find a day that works for you. Tuesdays are, again, for me. Your day might be different, but everyone needs a day. A day to take care of yourself, a day to relax, a day to learn to love yourself, a day to see your doctor, a day that doesn’t change, a day you can look forward to.

Syrena Clark

Experiencing Lack of Motivation With Schizphrenia

With my recent medication change and more recent medication increase, I am reminded that even more than I am bombarded with voices and occasionally visual hallucinations, I am plagued by a lack of energy, motivation and sex drive. Schizophrenia — more specifically for me, schizoaffective disorder — is far more than positive symptoms. I have found in life, the media and among my peers and family, an over-association of these positive symptoms when discussing and understanding not only my schizophrenia , but schizophrenia as a disease that affects many others. People often assume that if a person with schizophrenia is not actively psychotic or hallucinating, that they must be doing well. That, for some, is just not the case. There are days when I have to fight, really truly fight, with myself to get anything done. I just don’t have the drive, the motivation to do something as simple as a quick homework assignment, or the dishes becomes a monumental task. Some days I feel like I’m floating — like I’m outside of my body, and unable to connect enough to even get dressed. Other days I am filled up by a great void, so deep and dark that I have to go looking for myself again. Through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), I have learned to cope with my hallucinations. I learned to process them in a way that allows me to live with them instead of fighting against them. But those negative symptoms, no amount of coping or mindfulness fills me with the energy to get done what I need to get done. It is a wonder I haven’t fallen behind. I spend most of the day fighting with myself over 10-minute tasks, half asleep, wanting to give in but forcing myself to get out of bed instead. And it isn’t easy. How do you describe a complete lack of motivation? It is an absence, a wanting, a needing, but not being able to find. It’s wishing someone had tied a rope around your waist so that you could follow it back. It’s needing to do something and just being unable to do it. It’s wrestling with an invisible part of yourself. And it’s unending. I’m good at keeping up appearances. The house takes an hour to clean and I spend six convincing myself to get up and do it. But, eventually, it gets done. It’s easy to take a pretty Instagram photo and sign below it a beautiful caption. Nobody has to know. Even if they did, I wonder if they would truly understand. You hear a lot of people say, “It’s OK if all you did today was breathe.” But they don’t understand the shame of just breathing while the world seems to move on without you. It is OK if all you do is breathe. Sometimes all you can really, honestly do, is breathe. It’s OK if all you did was the shower, or tackle a few dishes, or finish one homework assignment. It’s OK even though it doesn’t feel OK. I think so often people who say these things don’t understand the incredible burden of illness. The incredible burning of trying so hard and still getting nothing done. I understand. And it really is OK. Just breathe. Tomorrow isn’t going anywhere.

Syrena Clark

People With Psychosis Need More Than #EndTheStigma Movement

I write a lot about psychosis. I write a lot about schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder in particular because as someone with schizoaffective disorder, I have dealt with discrimination firsthand. I prefer to call it what it is. I’m fine with people wanting to “#endthestigma” because that’s certainly better than no advocacy at all. But let’s call it what it is: discrimination, not stigma. It wasn’t stigma that encouraged an admissions counselor to suggest I was unsafe on campus simply because I had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. To discourage me to return to school because of the idea people with schizophrenia are inherently dangerous wasn’t stigma, it was discrimination. To discourage people with schizophrenia from continuing to achieve their goals is discrimination. It’s discrimination and unfair treatment when you’re told your life is over after you’ve been diagnosed. When a third of all people shot and killed by police have a disability, many of whom have a serious brain illness like schizophrenia, do you think it’s stigma I fear? What I fear is being shot and killed by a police officer who isn’t trained in handling a mental health crisis. But I don’t believe police officers use deadly force because of stigma; being shot and killed by police is discrimination. When the president of the country I live in, like so many people before him, uses psychosis as a scapegoat for mass shootings and violence, that’s discrimination. The fear at the back of my throat when I tell someone for the first time that I have schizophrenia and bipolar disorder isn’t because I’m afraid of stigma, because stigma can often be worked through by proper education and conversation. I’m afraid that that person won’t ever talk to me again, or that they’ll become afraid of me. That they’ll act discriminatorily. While correct education about schizophrenia is important, it’s going to take more than that: a lot more. How can I educate people when some don’t even want to have a conversation with someone who has schizophrenia because they’re scared? When I choose to be open about schizophrenia, psychosis or schizoaffective disorder, it’s because 11 percent of all people who are homeless have schizophrenia and most likely you aren’t going out to talk to them. I do it because we don’t talk about the fact that people schizophrenia die an average of 14 years earlier than the rest of the population. Because there are more people in jail (24 percent jail inmates and 15 percent of state prisoners) receiving treatment than there are in hospitals. Because too often, schizophrenia becomes a disease people have to fight alone. But what we really, really need is support and love. Because people don’t understand schizophrenia and don’t know how to support someone with the disease. I do it because people forget that people with schizophrenia are people, not just schizophrenics. The “stigma” surrounding schizophrenia is far-reaching. It’s not just people wondering why you act “weird” sometimes, or why you’re so tired. It’s people getting shot and killed by police, people homeless and untreated, people in jail who could’ve avoided incarceration by proper treatment in the first place. It’s people being afraid to be around you, people thinking you’re a violent criminal, when you’re actually just a person. You’re just a person who happens to have schizophrenia. You’re a person. You are. No matter how awful people make you feel for having a disease far beyond your control. And your life isn’t over if you don’t want it to be. Just like any life-changing illness, you’ll have to adapt, but that’s historically what humans have been best at. 1.1 percent of the world’s population has schizophrenia (21 million people worldwide). Just remember you aren’t alone, and things are starting to change. There’s more research now than ever into better treatment, better preventive care and understanding how to create better support networks. If you look in the right places and seek out understanding clinicians, instead of being discouraged from pursuing your goals, you’ll find that you’re encouraged and supported to continue, to fight. With this growing movement surrounding mental health advocacy, there are more people open about having schizophrenia than there has ever been. And we’re all working together to empower each other. Stay strong, keep fighting, don’t give up. Follow this journey on Acceptance & Antipsychotics.

Community Voices
Syrena Clark

How I'm Overcoming My Schizoaffective Disorder and Hallucinations

“I’ve seen schizophrenics do great things and then crash,” he said, a quiet voice in a quiet room. Quiet dust settled on a thin sunlit window sill. Hot tension cooled. “Avoid anything that gives you any stress at all.” I looked at the doctor but didn’t say a word, angry words trapped behind my teeth. Great things aren’t done by avoiding hardship. I thought about the upcoming school year. It’s wasn’t going to be easy. But then, to defeat your diagnosis is a brave thing. It’s scary, and all along the way, people will like to tell you that you can’t overcome what you have set out to do. People living with schizophrenia, being gravely disabled, aren’t only faced with challenges that any disabled person might face; we are stigmatized too. Most recently, I’ve been told I won’t be able to be aggressively intelligent, a skill I will apparently need to do well in college. The first time I was ever told there was something wrong with me, it was third grade. The smell of strawberry-scented markers filled the air. I held my marker clumsily in my hand. I don’t remember what I’m writing with it but I remember the wind blowing lazily through two purple curtains. The breeze is warm so it must still be September. The class pet, a white mouse, is sleeping in his cage. It’s close to the end of the day. There is a fuzzy nagging at the back of the head, like a string being tugged on. Then there is a voice — a voice which only I can hear, creeping up my body like a ghost and leaving thoughts in my brain. There was a great stillness in my throat. I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t adhere to the margins of a page, all my writing coming out crooked. Mixed with my poor handwriting, it became a problem for the teachers. An occupational therapist came twice a week and tried to help. Holding my hands still and making me solve mazes. She thought that maybe there was a disconnect between my brain and my hands. She always wore skirts with animals on them. Blue skirts with dolphins and pink ones with pigs. By the time I stopped speaking as much as I should, the school didn’t know what to do with me so they decided to hold me back. I guess I was awkward socially. I don’t remember a whole lot of that year — just that the voices started. By the sixth grade, I believed I had magical powers that my friends didn’t. Most of my school day was spent staring at the classroom door and wondering what might come through it. Monsters, aliens, a demon sly on two black wings. Math was an issue for me, the voices reciting lists of numbers as I tried to work through problems. I saw a six and all I could hear were lists of 12s — a 13 and I could only hear sevens and 19s. I never had a problem with the written language though; the voices incited phrases and words for me, helping my sentences to flow. The third time I learned there was something wrong with me, I was looking over the shoulder of a police officer. I was watching a grainy tape of myself, interacting with nothing, my blue work uniform black and white. Surrounded by shampoo bottles. Not a person in sight, though apparently, I thought so. I was in high school and although I had started speaking years ago, so had the visual hallucinations. The fourth time I ever learned something was wrong with me, I burst into tears in the middle of math class. Unable to breathe. A pale darkness surrounded me and outside the classroom window, I saw the same man I had seen at work. Suddenly, I was being escorted down to the social worker’s office. Then an ambulance with giant lights and loud sounds. Then a hospital. But this hospital was a different kind. It had doors that locked you in. In this hospital, they take the shoelaces from your shoes. All of your belongings are tied up in plastic bags. There is an old pay phone on the wall, grimy from years of use. There are empty rooms and there are crowded rooms where all the patients huddled around windows that looked out onto empty parking lots. Nurses come by and give you medications. Food gets brought up to you. There is a security guard with a taser and a nurses station behind a wall of glass. It wasn’t a healing environment. I stayed for something like three weeks. That fall, I went to college. I’d been living on my own since my first hospitalization. After six more hospitalizations, a bad psychiatrist and a dozen or so medications, I had grown accustomed to how many things were wrong with me. “You’re sick, you need to be here right now.” “Take this med or we’ll make you take it.” “There won’t be any beds for a week, but you’re too sick to go home.” “Don’t tell anyone about your diagnosis.” “You’re not safe to be on campus.” “You’re a liability in the classroom.” “Your diagnosis is a death sentence.” The dust settled on my textbooks. Heavy doses of antipsychotics dulled my mind, turning it to a beehive — a mess with chatter but sticky with honey. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. So, I dropped out of college and became the image of the person my doctor claimed I would become. For three years, I let myself heal. Body and mind. I found a dose of a medication that worked for me. Finding that medicine was the catalyst that calmed the storm. A riled sea slowed inside of me. I could now pick up the debris which littered my brain. I turned back to writing for the first time in years. I used writing to create a reflection of myself that I could understand. Coming to terms with being sick. Even though schizoaffective disorder is lifelong, it’s still a life worth living. I learned I could use my voices as a gift, letting them express themselves through words. After a few publications, I realized it works. I started a blog to allow my voices to stretch their legs. They’re part of me, I can’t keep them cooped up forever. As my brain slowly clears, I’ve made the big decision to return to school. Now, I’m one year back and I’ve got a 3.7 GPA. I needed to pursue the one thing I was told I’d never reach. I’m braver now than I’ve ever been. Any life is a life worth living, and any knowledge is knowledge worth learning. I learned in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that to function properly, one has to balance rational mind with emotional mind. Doing this creates a calm that exists between the two: wise mind. A place we can all find peace. School teaches me the same thing. I’ve learned to balance my school work with my illness. It’s the best example of emotional mind and rational mind that I encounter on a daily basis — academia and schizophrenia , a place in which I find peace. The moral of the story: do what they say you can’t. Accomplish what they said you never would. Be the person you were told you’d never be. Stay strong, defy odds and don’t let anything hold you back.

Community Voices

"It's all in your head!"

I’ve been fighting chronic health conditions for years.

Every day when I didn’t want to get up I knew I couldn’t give in. But it wasn’t always so easy for me. When the voices started I listened to them. When they told me to hide I hid. When they told me to stay in bed I pulled the pillow back over my head. When they told me that there was a higher power, unnamed though it was, that whispered when the wind blew, I prayed to the wind. When they told me I was a piece of shit I believed them. When they told me my medicine was poison I dumped them down the toilet. I ate when they said I could and didn’t eat when they wouldn’t let me. I counted the patterns in the colors of the cars that drove by me.

When they suggested I kill myself I gave it my best shot.

Now I’m glad I’m here, alive, breathing, thinking, writing and creating. I’m glad to see the sunrise and the wind doesn’t whisper like it used to.

I used to have visual hallucinations. More real than you in front of me. More real because that’s what my brain told me. So real that I felt their breath sometimes, felt their fingers on the back of my neck, saw their eyes move as they watched me. You can’t know what it’s like to hallucinate until you have.

My last visual hallucination was of an alien set upon reading my mind by sticking his fingers in my brain. That was three years ago. My brain’s last attempt at lying to my eyes. Though sometimes it still plays tricks and I see red cats out of the corner of my eye.

But the voices, they never stopped. They’ve been a constant part of my life for about five years now. It’s never quiet. There is never an instant of silence. It sounds like a beehive inside my head. Like a congested subway. Like a too full elevator. It sounds like panic and sadness and mania and anger. Some I can understand and some I can’t. Some sound like a radio in the other room. Some voices sound like voices sound. Some sound like dull hum of white noise. Some come from outside my head and make me turn around, scan the landscape or the crowd. There’s never a source, at least not one other than my own head.

Not to be confused with, “It’s all in your head.” One thing I’ve learned is to never let anyone get away with saying that. As if your brain isn’t part of your body. As if they don’t function as a whole. As if they don’t work together to create absolutely every experience you’ve ever had, every feeling you’ve never felt, every movement you’ve never made, any sound you’ve ever heard, every taste you ever tasted. You cannot have one without the other. The brain and body exist together, one thing that has one goal. When you are sad it’s the whole body that is sad, and when you cry it’s the whole body that cries. It’s the whole body that becomes tired. It’s the whole body which achieves happiness. It’s the whole body which becomes sick. You cannot have the oceans without the moon, or day without night, or spring without winter.

It’s with my entirety that I have #SchizoaffectiveDisorder, it’s my entirety with which I fight. It’s my entirety with which I breathe. This how all things exist. With their entirety.

I’ve learned that my hallucinations are part of me. It’s who I am. Illness is a part of me. But life is a part of me too. Happiness is a part of me. And my body and my brain, they are me.“It’s not all in my head.”“It’s all of me.”You cannot fight a war against yourself. Instead, you’ve got to learn to live with yourself. You’ve got to learn to be gentle with yourself. To let yourself breathe and sleep and wake and you’ve got to move and experience. But that’s all. If you can’t bare anything else today, just exist.

Exist from where you are. Life can’t ask anything more from you.

Just exist today and tomorrow try and exist a little bit more.

 

2 people are talking about this
Community Voices

"It's all in your head!"

I’ve been fighting chronic health conditions for years.

Every day when I didn’t want to get up I knew I couldn’t give in. But it wasn’t always so easy for me. When the voices started I listened to them. When they told me to hide I hid. When they told me to stay in bed I pulled the pillow back over my head. When they told me that there was a higher power, unnamed though it was, that whispered when the wind blew, I prayed to the wind. When they told me I was a piece of shit I believed them. When they told me my medicine was poison I dumped them down the toilet. I ate when they said I could and didn’t eat when they wouldn’t let me. I counted the patterns in the colors of the cars that drove by me.

When they suggested I kill myself I gave it my best shot.

Now I’m glad I’m here, alive, breathing, thinking, writing and creating. I’m glad to see the sunrise and the wind doesn’t whisper like it used to.

I used to have visual hallucinations. More real than you in front of me. More real because that’s what my brain told me. So real that I felt their breath sometimes, felt their fingers on the back of my neck, saw their eyes move as they watched me. You can’t know what it’s like to hallucinate until you have.

My last visual hallucination was of an alien set upon reading my mind by sticking his fingers in my brain. That was three years ago. My brain’s last attempt at lying to my eyes. Though sometimes it still plays tricks and I see red cats out of the corner of my eye.

But the voices, they never stopped. They’ve been a constant part of my life for about five years now. It’s never quiet. There is never an instant of silence. It sounds like a beehive inside my head. Like a congested subway. Like a too full elevator. It sounds like panic and sadness and mania and anger. Some I can understand and some I can’t. Some sound like a radio in the other room. Some voices sound like voices sound. Some sound like dull hum of white noise. Some come from outside my head and make me turn around, scan the landscape or the crowd. There’s never a source, at least not one other than my own head.

Not to be confused with, “It’s all in your head.” One thing I’ve learned is to never let anyone get away with saying that. As if your brain isn’t part of your body. As if they don’t function as a whole. As if they don’t work together to create absolutely every experience you’ve ever had, every feeling you’ve never felt, every movement you’ve never made, any sound you’ve ever heard, every taste you ever tasted. You cannot have one without the other. The brain and body exist together, one thing that has one goal. When you are sad it’s the whole body that is sad, and when you cry it’s the whole body that cries. It’s the whole body that becomes tired. It’s the whole body which achieves happiness. It’s the whole body which becomes sick. You cannot have the oceans without the moon, or day without night, or spring without winter.

It’s with my entirety that I have #SchizoaffectiveDisorder, it’s my entirety with which I fight. It’s my entirety with which I breathe. This how all things exist. With their entirety.

I’ve learned that my hallucinations are part of me. It’s who I am. Illness is a part of me. But life is a part of me too. Happiness is a part of me. And my body and my brain, they are me.“It’s not all in my head.”“It’s all of me.”You cannot fight a war against yourself. Instead, you’ve got to learn to live with yourself. You’ve got to learn to be gentle with yourself. To let yourself breathe and sleep and wake and you’ve got to move and experience. But that’s all. If you can’t bare anything else today, just exist.

Exist from where you are. Life can’t ask anything more from you.

Just exist today and tomorrow try and exist a little bit more.

 

2 people are talking about this
Syrena Clark

How My Childhood Cat Saved Me After My Suicide Attempt

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. I was sobbing by the end. I had tried to die. I began to shake. I tried very hard to stay quiet. Hands pressed to my hot face, trying to hold the crying back. I was tired of crying in the grocery store and crying in the shower. Tired of the visits with the black dog. Tired of existing between what only felt like morning and night-time medication. Thinking over and over that I was undeserving of this spectacle of life. Bipolar depression making it impossible to ignore the schizophrenic hallucinations which frequented my head, hallucinations which often told me to kill myself. I wondered how well this would work if I couldn’t manage to stay still? How long would it take until I died? I focused on my breathing. In and out and in and out and in and out. A cellphone clutched in my right hand now, knuckles white. My left hand on my chest, below my heart. An inconsistent madness settling at the back of my throat, my pulse beginning to skyrocket. I could feel it beating in every part of my body, tight as drum. I tried to wait for death but I was too scared, too impatient for the silence. “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.” “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.” “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” “I never know what you are thinking. Think.” “I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.” I recall, jug jug, A Game of Chess. Next comes, The Fire Sermon. The Burial of the Dead. “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire,/stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” My brain is twitching now, spasms at the bottom of my brain stem. My entire frame begins to tingle and it is then that I call for an ambulance. I don’t want this. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t. I messed up. I started having a hard time breathing. The next part happened in pieces. Police appeared. Flinging back the door. Only to see me now, my left hand still near my heart, my other now wrapped around a crinkled  suicide  note. My eyes, I imagine, filled with tremendous pupils as round as the full moon. “I didn’t mean to—” was all I could manage before falling to the ground like a sack of laundry. Then it was the paramedic’s turn to arrive. At some point my bladder released. After that, I don’t remember much. I do remember all the kids in the dorm looking at me as they carried me away. I should’ve thought about this part; even in my incoherence, there is a sense of embarrassment. Laid out on that stretcher, arms restrained at the wrists. That nervous hot air pressed close to my face. My chest hurt. I remember the bright insides of the ambulance. Tubes and wires and needles and cuffs and lots of nitrite gloves all bathed in argent light. Rainbows of colored lights painted on my skin like watercolors. Then the hospital. And then a nurse. “This could do some damage,” she said. She seemed huge and looming, like a taciturn giant at the foot of my bed. Her hands wrinkled and she wrung them together as if trying to squeeze water from them. Was she too a hallucination? Was nothing real anymore? Even the nurses were fake and huge like cartoon characters. Between the suicide attempt and schizoaffective disorder, I knew very well that I couldn’t be sure of anything. Then she checked my IV and was gone. I lapsed into a deep sleep, and every second sleeping there was a sense of regret. I had strange dreams. Dreams of Christmas lights. Of dog-eared thrift store books, of dust settling in sunlight. Of my childhood cat somehow there with me, in the hospital — I could hear her purring but I couldn’t see her. I dreamed about hot coffee on cold mornings. Of second-hand baggy sweaters and used tennis shoes. I dreamed of silent snowfall and of deafening summer thunderstorms. I dreamed of cold and warm air colliding in the upper atmosphere. Of autumn and carving out the slippery insides of jack-o’-lanterns. Of pulling weeds and growing things. I dreamed of incandescent bodies, lit like candles. I dreamed of street lights, and skeleton bones and copper cups. I dreamed of cold river water and sharp river stones on the soles of my feet. All the while a sense of urgency grew inside my stomach, pressing at me from the inside. Why didn’t they pump my stomach? I could feel my mistake growing at the back of my brain like a warm blanket pulled over my body. Sleep. Stay. Stay. I can see my cat now, stretching her way up my legs and midsection. Purring onto my chest and then collapsing into a sleepy heap of night-time fur. Her gray body and white chin pressed to my face. I hadn’t seen her since I buried her under the lilac bush. I dreamed of lilacs, of pine trees, of sunflowers and of pinwheels spinning in the sun. And then I woke up to a terrible pain in my head. I had an IV in my arm and oxygen pumping into my nose. I was wearing a hospital gown and no longer the pants I had soiled. Everything was quiet and clear. And all I could think of was my old cat, sleeping bony and ancient under that lilac tree. Someday we’ll be fossils together, but for now, I just pulled on the restraints at my wrists and sighed quietly, knowing now that the only things we see at death are the memories we made while living. I wasn’t ready to be a skeleton yet; I wasn’t ready for my body to be in pieces, for those memories to vanish when my brain unraveled and my nervous system fell apart. There were still people I wanted to see again, still things I wanted to do. I wasn’t ready to give up breathing. Being human isn’t easy, and being a sick human… Well, that’s another story. Three years ago, I tried to take my own life, and I almost did. I was exhausted by my own illnesses and the sickening stigma I faced as a young adult with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (otherwise known as schizoaffective disorder). I lost myself to it, and some days still I find myself drifting knowingly toward darkening skies. Voices are still demeaning, depression still stalks me like animals in tall grass. I don’t suspect that to ever change. But I do spend my time and most of my little energy trying to change others. I write, I blog, I make art and normalize conversation about mental illness and mental health. I think that’s the only way I’ll ever beat this thing. That’s the only way any of us will beat it. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 o r text “HOME” to 741-741 . Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Photo by Alex Jodoin on Unsplash

Syrena Clark

The Long Journey to Schizoaffective Disorder Diagnosis

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Summer lightning storms in Maine are gray and dark and loud. They are, as most people know, created by the collision of warm and cold air in the upper atmosphere. The trees, unrestrained, whip back and forth. By morning tree limbs will have broken from their trunks. The rivers are also affected, swelling up like animals which feigned themselves larger. Another bout of thunder that’s drawn out from a slow and sweet summer sky. Lightning. My orange cat curled at the foot of the bed, his head resting on my feet; my gray one nervously pressing her face into her brother’s apricot coat. I’m torn between tired and fascinated, my nighttime antipsychotic dose leaving my eyelids heavy. If I close my eyes I’m surely done. I fight sleep though because I love the way the lightning fills the room with light and then leaves it dark again. I feel my medication cloying at the back of my mind: “Sleep, sleep, sleep,” it says. I can remember a time when I could’ve stayed up all night long. I can remember a different me. I can remember standing quietly in my hot, post-shower bathroom. Hands grasping the sides of the porcelain sink, thinking, “What’s wrong with me? These voices, these thoughts, these scars along my arms? What is all this noise in my head about?” I remember when I started pulling out my own hair. But oh no, soon people would see! So, logically I shaved my entire head and blamed it on too much hair dye. People said, “Wow you’re so brave you shaved your head!” I wanted to say, “No no, it’s not like that at all!” But saying it was in good fun was, by nature, it’s own diversion. I still can remember how the paranoia began, wriggling into the back of my mind like a fat parasite, planting disquieting delusions as if I were some dirty garden to just be filled up willy nilly. The delusions worsened. I rode the swell of mania. I checked myself into the hospitals and fought my own denied release. I emptied my bank account and couldn’t remember what I used the money for. Lost days and days worth of time. Took too much of my medication and then didn’t take any at all. I can still remember how, when I started getting sick, I expected I was dying — that after all the MRIs I expected they were going to say, “OK, you’ve got a tumor in your brain,” and the hallucinations were going to have a reason. The monsters I saw and the voices and God and the Devil and my antisocial behavior weren’t going to be my fault. I was going to be allowed to die. I was going to be able to fix all the relationships I’d ruined. Instead, there was nothing obviously wrong with my body, even though I was sick. My brain looked more or less normal. So the next thing they tried was an EEG. And I thought, “It’s OK, I’m going to have epilepsy.” Then the EEG came back normal too. All I heard was, “You’re normal. You’re normal. You’re healthy.” This and that test came back normal. Spinal taps, neurological exams. And there I was, watching the list of possibilities becoming more and more narrow. Chronic psychosis quickly becoming the only possibility. After four years of tests, imaging and hospitals, my doctors said, “You’ve got schizophrenia.” I remember how ungodly still I sat before this last doctor. In fact, only part of me that reacted were my hands. I wrung them out like they were rags made of wet fabric. You know the same hard way you squeeze all the water out of the dishcloth before you call quits on the dishes? That’s how I felt. About ready to call it quits. I knew I had it. I had known for years. The boa of psychosis had become a familiar tightness in my head. I thought it was an awful waste of time and suffering to take so long to diagnose me. By this point, I was homeless and had ruined the majority of relationships with family. I’d tried to kill myself. I had been mistreated in hospitals and in school. I’d been through so much and after all this time I’d finally figured out what it was. I can still remember sitting in that stiff chair asking, “What comes next?” Her answer wasn’t important. She didn’t know what came next, not really. She wasn’t schizophrenic. She was just the messenger and I was just a piece of news. The same as the other schizophrenics she’d diagnosed. “A group home maybe…” I had a sob caught at the back of my throat. I thought maybe if it had been an infection or anything else I wouldn’t have been alone for this. Maybe I wouldn’t have been homeless, maybe I’d be happy, even if I was terrified. A group home… a group home…? “Medication…” she said. I left the appointment feeling that my schizophrenia was very much my own fault. Medication.  A group home… what comes next? What comes next? What comes next? As it turned out a blur of medication was what came next. An almost max dose of antipsychotic medication. More hospitals. But illness is different now because nobody listens to me anymore. They just look at me and I know they are all calling me “crazy.” I’m now a schizophrenic after all, even though in reality, I’m still the same nervous person. Still quiet. Still reserved. I still have the same set of symptoms that doctors were once rushing to treat, only now every symptom is blamed on schizophrenia. Now they just dismiss me by stabbing shots of medication into my upper leg, because now the antipsychotic isn’t always enough. Now instead of praising me for keeping up with my schoolwork despite being sick, I am asked to leave. I’m unsafe now. Maladjusted. Now I’m considered the violent psychopath America fears. I’m a statistic. A Halloween costume. A movie villain. I’m not a person anymore. I’m just a thing that needs to be medicated so that nobody has to see or hear me. I’m the thing people agree needs to be locked up, hidden away. I’m a thing now. And people say, “Oh God, keep that thing under control. Keep it medicated. Keep it away… oh God, oh God.” At my worst, I could hear the thoughts of people around me. Scary thoughts, painful thoughts which induced incredible paranoia. Spies following me wherever I went. I was sure I was being abducted by aliens that wanted to control my mind. I suspected some huge conspiracy I couldn’t name. I tore apart my dorm single in the grip of a desperate search for hidden cameras I was convinced had been planted in there to spy on me. I cried. I felt alone. I was scared of myself. Scared I couldn’t resolve this unraveling life of mine. I don’t need help, I need help, please God someone help me. Don’t touch me! There’s nothing wrong with me! Something’s wrong with me! Oh God, what’s wrong with me!? My thoughts were so fast I didn’t have time to think them. I began drowning in the riptide of depressive episodes. Made attempts on my own life. My medication left my brain feeling full of sand. I couldn’t think straight. The hardest parts though were the fleeting moments of introspection. In these moments, I found myself aware I was losing this battle. So for me, schizophrenia soon became a degenerative experience. That’s the difference between schizophrenia and other illnesses. I feel that schizophrenia is a disease we are expected to fight alone. A clap of thunder suddenly, much louder than the rest, roused me from my thoughts. My cat is woken up too. He stretches his way up my legs and midsection, leaving his sister sleeping by my feet. He purrs onto my chest and collapses in a sleepy heap of orange creamsicle fur. I shook off the dust of late night thought-induced depression, and I quietly remind myself everything is OK. I remind myself of how it’s been over a year since a hospital admittance. About how my medications are working. I tell myself that my illness is even more pinned down now. At my last doctor’s appointment, my mood disorders and psychosis finally culminated into a schizoaffective bipolar type diagnosis. After nearly five years of being undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) I know exactly what I’ve got. My illness is now squirming like an insect pinned down under a microscope. So I’m able to learn more and more about this illness every day. Able to remind myself everything is OK. That I am OK. That I am not alone. That things really do get better. I press my thin lips together and push the voices back, focusing on the quiet breathing of my cats. Then on the breathing of my husband, curled fully into some dream beside me. His face pressed into the pillow. I focus on his breathing and then, finally my own. My cat lets out a long sigh and some of my anxiety is dismissed. I watch as my cat gives into sleep. And after I close my eyes, I can’t help but follow suit, my brain giving way to a medication-induced sleep. One more clap of thunder and I’m nearly there. Schizoaffective disorder makes me so very tired and, without warning, manic again. I’m always trying to sleep. One second a great lumbering, hibernating bear, the next a hummingbird with two heartbeats and a mouth full of language. Schizoaffective disorder is a combination of both schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder) and a mood disorder (ie. depression or bipolar). In my case, I have schizoaffective bipolar type 1 (both schizophrenia and bipolar type 1). Schizoaffective disorder affects 0.3% of the population and is very serious if not treated. It is treatable, however, handled in much the same way schizophrenia is treated (with antipsychotics) and the way bipolar is treated (with mood stabilizers and/or antidepressants). In combination with psychothreapy and education management, people with schizoaffective disorder — myself included — can lead functioning and independent lives, although lifelong treatment and support are needed for success. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 o r text “START” to 741-741 . Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. If you or a loved one is affected by body-focused repetitive behaviors, you can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors . We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock illustration via kevron2001

Syrena Clark

What I Want You to See When You Look at These Self-Portraits

The day that I created these images was the first day in my life I actually felt disabled. source: Art About Mental Illness I had been reminded that while you’re usually called “brave” for trying to succeed with a physical disability, when you’ve got something like schizoaffective disorder, you’re just considered a risk, a liability or some type of miscreation. No matter how hard I try, whenever someone learns I’m a person with schizophrenia, they never look at me the same. And every time I see them after that, it’s always with a bit of nervousness behind their eyes. They begin going out of their way to finish our conversations early. It’s as if just talking with me puts them in some type of danger. I’ve been discriminated and dehumanized because of schizoaffective disorder, but always unjustly. Countless people telling me to closet myself, to hide my illness. And of course, I can’t. Not while those with mental illnesses are still mistreated. Not while we are still killed by police who aren’t trained to handle situations of mental health crises. Not while more of us are in prisons receiving treatment than in hospitals. Not while treatment is so inaccessible. Not while mental illnesses are so misunderstood, and not while there is so much misinformation. Not while we can’t talk about it, and not while we can talk about it but don’t know what we’re talking about. Art is the only way I know how to do this. Over the course of just four years, my life moved from straightforward and understandable to five medications and a constant feeling of my reality being just out of focus, just slightly unreal. From being able to love the quiet to forgetting what it sounds like. With these self-portraits, I’ve tried to capture the noise of schizoaffective disorder. I’ve tried to capture the brightness of it. When you look at these images, I want you to feel overwhelmed, maybe even claustrophobic. And just like me, these portraits are just slightly out of focus and a little too bright. The haze of the color and lack of focus creates the cloudy confusion I have to fight my way through just to have a conversation with you, to just attend class, to just…appear…” normal.” I hope they help you learn a little bit about me. source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness source: Art About Mental Illness To see more from Syrena, visit Art About Mental Illness.