I don’t like to think about the, “What ifs” or the, “That could be me” scenarios. I like to go about my days thinking about writing, about what is for dinner, about the environment and the hundreds of other issues I care about. I don’t like to have my illness, schizophrenia, or the worst of it, brought to the forefront of my mind.
Of course, I think about the fact that I have schizophrenia every day, it is, unfortunately, a constant companion, but I have made peace with the majority of what the symptoms and their consequences look like for me.
There are those days though, those walking down the street days and encountering someone who is screaming and gesturing at someone who only they can see. Those days when the news reports that the police shot a mentally ill person who couldn’t, but they interpret as wouldn’t comply with their commands. Those days, I can’t escape the terror of what my illness does to some people.
People try to use polite terms, and I appreciate that “an unwell mind,” but the truth is a psychotic mind is a ravaged mind. Psychosis untreated is uncontrollable, unpredictable, frequently terrifying, fraught with voices, and delusions, conspiracies, both Gods, and demons.
I think I have only vocalized my greatest fear once, and that was to my husband. I like to be the person with schizophrenia who everyone says, “You can’t have a mental illness! You are so normal!” Although those statements cause me some sadness, it also makes me breathe a sigh of relief. I can pass. I can pass in stores, and streets, and restaurants, and other places I like to go to. I am a middle-aged woman with nothing remarkable going on. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Last Thursday the State of Tennessee put Billy Ray Irick to death. It isn’t the fact that his execution was botched and it appears that he was tortured to death, that makes me go to the dreaded “what ifs” and “That could be me” thoughts. It is the fact that Billy Ray was most certainly mentally ill (he spent time in a psych hospital before the rape and murder) and there is some evidence to suggest he may have been experiencing psychosis during the crime.
Here it is, this is my biggest fear: I will become psychotic and hurt someone, and then the doctors will prescribe medication, and I will become aware of what it is that I did, and have to find a way to live with it. That guilt, that knowledge, living with that scenario is worse to me than the death penalty.
To start from the beginning of this, I don’t believe in the death penalty for anyone, but giving the death penalty to a mentally ill person seems particularly barbaric. Was Billy Ray capable at the time of the crime of distinguishing between right and wrong? Did he hear voices? I’m not suggesting that there should be no punishment for the mentally ill who are dangerous (a small portion of the people who live with a diagnosis are dangerous), but I have been psychotic on many occasions, and I know that I was not responsible for the things I did. How could I be responsible when I thought I was Jesus, or talking to God, or listening to the Holy Spirit? How can a person following orders from celestial beings be in control of their actions? They can’t, and you can’t understand it unless you have experienced psychosis and then returned to clarity.
Psychiatrists and therapists and some artists like to imagine that they know what it is like to lose complete control of your mind and your actions. I suggest that they are simply imagining knowing unless they have experienced what so many who are mentally ill have experienced. If justice is receiving a guilty or not guilty verdict by a jury of your peers, then why not have those of us with firsthand knowledge hear the cases involving the mentally ill? If the lawmakers keep passing laws but never consult the people who are affected by those laws, is that fair? Is that just? How can people know what is right if they don’t know what they are dealing with in the first place?
It’s a dilemma, a situation, a crisis that needs to be solved. Lives, treatment, and ethics depend on it.