Redefining Functionality

  • Welcome to my third blog entry. I’m going to propose a novel idea, one also talked about by professionals who feel that the singular form of the word, schizophrenia, doesn’t do justice to the experience of living with the illness. For a couple of years now, I’ve struggled with survivor’s guilt. When I was in denial over ten years ago, I couldn’t understand how I could have the same illness somebody else did if I could work as an insurance broker and most of the ex-patients I knew collected a disability check and lived in the system. The more I examine this now, by reading first-person accounts like memoirs or blogs, and via contact with friends and acquaintances who have the same diagnosis, I’ve come to see things differently.
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    I believe the illness should be called “the schizophrenias,” because it manifests itself in a spectrum of behaviors and symptoms. Seeing it this way allowed me to understand that on one side of the scale are those whose agnosognosia causes them to lack insight into their condition, and on the other side is someone like me who is hyper-aware of what happened to her.

    Any mental illness is simply a variation, to whatever degree it’s expressed, from how a healthy brain functions. So-called normals could also differ in how they function, even without a diagnosis. Such variances can be subtle or bold, mild or in full-force. Yet above all, we are connected to each other across the spectrum from total disability, to slightly affected, to completely well.

    It isn’t helpful to speak of not being normal compared to others. That is the myth of mental illness: that one is terribly, terminally ill. The truth is that he or she is merely someone whose brain processes stimuli and functions in a way that is not healthy. I dare to speak of mental health and wellness as the optimal goal to set for people living with schizophrenia. More than that, though, we need to talk about the health of our brains. What can we do so that our brains are compensated well enough to act the way healthy brains act? Take meds. Rest and relax. Eat healthfully. Enjoy recreation and social activities. Do the things we love. Get enough sleep. Live alcohol and drug-free.

    These are core activities. What you do, specifically—like get to bed by nine o’clock, cook whole-wheat pasta, or sing in a choir—is your choice. That’s the beauty of recovery from schizophrenia: we can use our passions, strengths and personalities as the building blocks of a treatment plan that focuses on wellness.

    Thus, I urge everyone to nix speaking in terms of higher functioning versus lower functioning. It sets us up to fail because we’re judged against someone else’s abilities. As Robin Cunningham wrote in his companion blog to mine, it’s best to “compete against yourself, and not against others.” At one moment in your recovery, a good day for you could be walking to the corner store for toilet paper. Cheers! For someone else, running a marathon defines her progress.

  • I urge our loved ones and our psychiatrists: get past the hell we’re in and see who we are. Find out what makes us tick. Or tock. Treat us as human beings first. You can’t assume that those of us who do less well aren’t aware of our limitations. We could be in the woodshed or at a plateau, and if you give up on us, chances are we won’t recover. If you’re reading this blog entry and you are not involved with someone who has a mental illness, have the compassion towards us you’d want others to give you if your life situation changed for the worse.
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    We need to find common ground. Not only do those of us who are in recovery need to heal our pain, society needs to heal the stigma. What’s the best way to do this? Through education, which inoculates against ignorance. I’ll end this entry by circling back to my belief that the illness should be called the schizophrenias. The direct proximate cause of what happens to each of us is different for everyone.

    So much of what causes the illness—apart from genetics and neurotransmitters and scientific theories—is misunderstood or unknown. The triggers could be environment, stress, nutrition—a host of factors whose impact on our biochemistry needs to be researched and studied in more detail. I’ve hinted in this entry about how we as individuals can begin to take back our brains and reclaim our lives. In the next blog, I’ll talk about how making peace with the diagnosis enables us to move forward.

    Leave a comment below, or post your thoughts in the schizophrenia message boards.
Published On: January 16, 2007