I type out the last sentence, sit back, take a sip of my coffee and read the whole essay through one more time. “I think this is good,” I tell myself. I make sure to save it one more time. It is under the file on my computer that no one else sees, the one named after the James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only.” I sing a few words from the theme song out loud and try not to think how my work, probably my best work, is in that file that only I will see.
I once tried to post one of the files from “For Your Eyes Only” on my blog, but I couldn’t stop the racing thoughts. The article was about a company that makes video games. I thought one of their games was demeaning to people with schizophrenia. I wanted to have my voice heard. I wanted to publish my views on the game so others could read it and decide for themselves. I wanted to express another side of their story. The article was up for approximately one hour before the thoughts about internet trolls and how they make death threats and harass writers they don’t agree with defeated my publishing attempt.
This past year is different from every year prior. I watch the news every day. I feel strongly about and am outraged by many things. There are essays and articles that I don’t see written about the hypocrisy of so many politicians. I am a Christian and the things some of the most vocal Christian are saying about politicians being “ordained by God,” make me feel like Christianity has fractured more than just Methodist and Lutheran – there are fundamental beliefs that some people hold that are in direct opposition to the ones other’s hold. At this point, it is clearly a separate religion. I have an essay about it, but I fear to take a stand against the Christian Right.
So many people romanticize being an artist and having a severe mental illness. I once did the same thing. I thought reading the poems of Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath made me dark and edgy. I thought artists needed to be dark and edgy, especially poets which is what my younger twenty-something-self desired to be. I used to tell people that I thought I could drive myself over the edge, make myself crazy – like really crazy, like “Girl Interrupted,” crazy. That was all before I had my first psychotic episode. That was all before there was no more “acting” edgy, or “acting” dark. My mind was dark, and I wouldn’t call hallucinations, delusions, or suicidal tendencies “edgy.”
My first diagnosis was bipolar disorder. I still held on to some of the romance of mental illness – brilliance. I looked up every famous person with bipolar disorder. I read books about them. So much talent, so much intelligence. I might not be able to play at being edgy anymore, but I could show signs of intense creativity and intelligence. I wanted so hard to believe like so many people do, that mental illness is somehow a gift. Gift of the gods they say. I gave up all notion of romance when I ended up in a hospital room with doctor and nurses using paddles to start my heart. This illness, this disease of the mind, was trying its hardest to kill me and as far as I can tell there is no great evidence of creativity or genius after death.
I started taking my medication regularly, even though on the medication I no longer felt like writing poetry, or writing anything for that matter. I put the romance behind me to stay alive, and that included my desire to be a poet and identify with the ill geniuses, creative and otherwise. I married my boyfriend and lived a pretty quiet life for some years. My psychiatrist at the time said I was “too well” to be mentally ill and said that my previous psychotic episodes were caused by trauma. He took me off all medication. Within one year, I was having conversations with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I believed the second coming was just days away and I spent six months believing I was a healer. I made cakes. I made more cakes. I made three cakes a day. I gave them to the mailman. I gave them to everyone living in our apartment building. I believed my cakes could cure anything from cancer to MS. I wanted everyone well. The hall of our building smelled like a bakery for months. I ended up in the E.R. with suicidal thoughts, and that led to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
It took almost twenty years to discover the root of my problem, but here we were, my husband and I, with a diagnosis that seemed bigger and scarier than either of us knew how to handle. The two words paranoid and schizophrenia even sound scary. Having them placed on me as an identifier as in, “I am someone with paranoid schizophrenia,” was almost more than I could take. But as with any illness, you keep moving forward – a step here, a movement there, a jump, and then without realizing it you have been living with that illness for a month, six months, a year, ten years, and you go on.
Even though I had received my bachelor of arts long ago, I was never one to give up learning. I enrolled in several poetry classes at UCLA’s Online Extension and Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and I even joined a local poetry group. I was rusty, but I wasn’t dead. I started publishing again and getting support and feedback from poets I trusted and respected. I applied and was accepted to an MFA program.
Once in the MFA program, I was required to take classes beyond poetry. Having never thought of an idea for a novel in my life, I avoided the fiction classes and took a non-fiction class. I fell in love with the longer form. I fell in love with writing essays instead poems. I asked to change majors but found out I would have to start the program over. I wasn’t willing to do that. I kept taking writing classes online, but this time they were non-fiction classes instead of poetry classes. I started to publish some of those pieces. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to write about what I saw, how I felt, and responses to popular culture and the world around me. I thought my biggest obstacle would be going public with my new diagnosis, but that wasn’t it. My biggest obstacle was a symptom of the illness I had thus far been hiding.
I went public with my diagnosis in an essay posted to Facebook by a mentor and friend. The post was how all of my friends and my husband’s family found out about me having paranoid schizophrenia. My husband and I planned for a year before we agreed to the announcement date. We thought people would disappear. We thought people would be angry, confused, and we braced ourselves for people making an exodus from our lives. Well, people were far more graceful than we could have imagined and if those two words that make up my diagnosis scared anyone away, we haven’t missed them, but what all this writing and exposing of myself did was make me hyper-aware of my symptoms.
Paranoia means I can’t publish essays that devel into my feelings about this president or any other. I am terrified of openly criticizing corporations; I fear their reach and power is so much bigger than a person like me. I’m not currently suffering from delusions like that the government is wire taping me (I have believed this and feared it in the past), or that I am in contact with aliens or hearing the voice of God. I do not hear voices at all. But I do live in a fragile state where I am afraid of what people will do to me if I oppose them, challenge them, or offend them.
Living with paranoia is my biggest challenge as a writer/artist. Not being able to fully express myself because I fear being targeted by internet trolls, the government or large corporations can keep me silent, and it can kill creativity. I might not be able to speak up, but I’m grateful my creativity isn’t dead. The proof of it is for my eyes only in a folder that sits on my hard drive where only me and James Bond, or someone posing as him, can gain access.