Living with schizophrenia

While writing a report on one of her clients for her practicum studies on social work, Lynne suddenly heard a voice outside her head.

While sitting at her desk, writing a report on one of her clients for her practicum studies on social work, Lynne suddenly heard a voice outside her head.

The voice started commenting on things she was doing, like writing a report, getting dressed or pouring a glass of juice. Eventually it moved on to two hour conversations that Lynne would participate in, talking about every day things like movies, sports and activities planned for the next day.

But as time progressed, the conversations became more frequent. Then more voices entered the conversation, discussing what Lynne was doing.

“It was kind of weird. I thought I had special powers so it was kind of like a cool thing,” said Lynne, who was 23 at the time.

“At first the voices were friendly so it was fine, but then they became scary. They started saying derogatory stuff, that I was a bad person, I was evil and I would have to die. It became very negative.”

Once she finished her practicum in Salmon Arm, B.C., Lynne took a year off and moved to Vancouver to live with her sister, but the voices started to consume her thoughts.

Then came the delusions where Lynne thought people were out to kill her. She also believed she could communicate with people on television.

Concerned about her well being, Lynne’s sister tried talking to her about what she was experiencing, but Lynne shut down, unable to form any words. Eventually she moved back to Victoria to be with her mother, who she thought was trying to poison her with food.

One night, Lynne became so scared from the voices that she went running into the streets and was nearly hit by a car. She was preparing to jump off a cliff when the police arrived and took her to a hospital. At the age of 24, Lynne was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“It was really bizarre. I just had these pieces of paper and I was writing down stuff that the voices were telling me — stuff that I had to do to save the world,” said Lynne, who did not want to publish her last name. “I thought this voice identified themselves as Jesus Christ.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, schizophrenia is a complex biochemical brain disorder that affects a person’s ability to determine what’s reality. It’s as though the brain sends perceptions along the wrong path, leading to the wrong conclusion, and it can affect anyone.

When it comes to the cause of the illness, Dr. Andrea Bardell, director of Schizophrenia Services at Island Health, said there is nothing specific, but genetics, a traumatic brain injury or Cannabis use at an early age could be contributing factors.

However, if symptoms are caught at an early stage and the right supports are in place, Bardell said people with schizophrenia can manage their lives quite well.

“There’s a broad range of people living with schizophrenia, many of whom you would have no idea. They are working, they have families and things are going really well,” said Bardell, noting the illness affects about one per cent of the population in the region, but carries a lot of stigma.

“Some people are very uncomfortable about it (schizophrenia and psychosis) mostly because they don’t know much about it. People have pictures in their mind that this is what people with schizophrenia are like and it’s very inaccurate. People with schizophrenia that are on treatment are at no increased risk for violence than other people in the community, but there are a lot of misconceptions.”

Patty was 35 when her world was turned upside down in a way she could never imagine. Working as a legal secretary, she had a good career and a loving family. But then the voices started inside her head, followed by hallucinations and delusions that she was being spied on.

Within a couple of months, Patty was hospitalized for psychosis (a loss of contact with reality) and put on medication, but the voices didn’t go away. Eventually she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“It’s (psychosis) like being in a scary nightmare, a horror film, and you just can’t stop it. You lose touch with reality and start seeing things that aren’t real. I thought people could read my thoughts and I thought my thoughts were projected to them,” said Patty, who did not want to publish her last name.

“Your mind just starts swirling and spinning with negative thoughts. I would hear voices and I thought they were the voice of God and it was telling me some very nice loving things, but it would also tell me some very bad things.”

For the next several years, Patty was stuck in a viscous cycle, spending time in and out of the hospital for more psychosis. She was given medication, but would go off it three months later, thinking it was no longer needed. That’s when the white truck would appear, driving around, stalking her movements — or at least that’s what her brain told her.

Suffering from paranoia, depression and anxiety, eventually Patty was too afraid to leave the house.

“It was very confusing. I had a lack of insight for a long time,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing for me, was coming to an awareness and insight into my illness. It took me five years before I was on injectable medication to gain some slight glimmer of insight that I needed medication and I needed to stay on it.”

After years of being on the right medication combined with the proper support, both Patty and Lynne (who are now in their 50s) feel they are in a good place, working part time, volunteering in the community and talking about their illness.

Consumed by schizophrenia in her 20s, Lynne thought her life was over, but now she hasn’t been to the hospital in six years. For years, Patty was unable to talk to people about the nightmare she was living. Now she wants to break the stigma associated with mental illness and give those who are suffering from schizophrenia some hope.

“I want people to know that there’s hope for recovery, that people do move on with their lives and live with this. Some people recovery fully, some partially, but they do recover and recovery is an ongoing thing,” she said, adding she still feels odd sensations in her body from the illness.

“(My life) is totally different, but I’m very happy with what I’ve got in my life and I’m very pleased with my situation.”