Running From Reality

Being schizophrenic isn't all it's cracked up to be

I have schizophrenia. When I read my last article back again – and I did that a lot – I realised that I never actually typed out the word. I described my schizophrenia quite plainly in the article but I still left the label out because… well, when you see schizophrenia it conjures up a few unsettling images, doesn’t it? Not just serial killers – although you hear about a fair few of those – but worse, in some ways, that guy who you see around town who people know “isn’t right”. That’s my worst nightmare. I want to project normality. Maybe that’s part of the problem but it is what it is.

In some ways, I miss the time when I didn’t know I was schizophrenic. At least then, I didn’t know I had a mental disorder. It’s like Trump and his COVID tests, I suppose. If I didn’t end up in a psych unit I wouldn’t have schizophrenia! But, like Trump’s COVID tests, I was positive for schizophrenic whether I was diagnosed or not and, on the balance of averages, it’s better to know that you have a serious mental disorder rather than not.

I don’t want to be schizophrenic but it’s part of who I have become. If I wasn’t open about it, I’d pretty much have to be hiding it and while I don’t want to be a mascot for schizophrenia, I have to try to be honest about what it’s like. Maybe that will help someone. Maybe it’ll help nobody except me by writing it. Hopefully, it’ll give a bit of insight into what it’s like because more than a few people have asked me since my article a few weeks back.

Most of the time, schizophrenia fucking blows.

The meds I’m on mean that I sleep really deeply but that usually means I get up at 10 AM at the earliest. Sometimes it could be closer to midday. I tried taking them earlier but I woke up at the same time regardless. My doctor thinks the amount of sleep is a good thing but my meds are extended-release, so if I didn’t stay up quite late I wouldn’t have time to get anything done.

I don’t hear voices in my phone or whispered loudly into my ear anymore, which is great. Sometimes I can’t remember much of what I did the day before, like for example, what did I have for dinner yesterday? I can’t remember. I’d have to ask someone. Who did I talk to earlier today? Sometimes I’ll know, sometimes I’ll have to check my notebook. I pause between sentences and get lost mid-sentence sometimes.

My delusions, though, I remember in perfect, exact detail. I remember what they sounded like on the phone, I remember what they sounded like when they spoke to me and I remember what they told me in complete detail, down to the pauses and vocal tics.

The thing is with schizophrenia – especially untreated, as I was for most of my adult life – it can be tough to work out what’s real and what isn’t. Duh, says you. That kind of phrasing of real/not real gets thrown around a lot but I’ve only come to know what it means in the last year. Imagine someone relatively unimportant in your life that you know personally. It could be a cousin or friend you see occasionally for a pint and a €9 sandwich & wedges. Visualise the way they speak and some characteristics about them – haircut, glasses, style of clothes. Now, what if I told you that they didn’t actually exist and that the things you thought you knew about them were not real and could not be real.

It would be disturbing. Believe me.

Last year, on a Saturday night just like this one, I began to come to the realisation that things I had thought were happening because of people I knew were not happening and indeed could not be happening, because those people didn’t exist. There was an uncle that didn’t exist, a bunch of solicitors that didn’t exist and a whole complicated story to go with it.

I even tweeted about it.

This solicitor I’m talking about in that tweet? They didn’t exist. They were a delusion. That tweet is completely mundane but I was having a manic episode on the other side of the black mirror, documenting a meeting with a solicitor that wasn’t real, about a problem that didn’t exist anywhere outside of my own skull.

Except that isn’t totally accurate. It was causing problems in the “real” world too because people I loved and that loved me believed that I believed what was going on. That’s a dangerous place to be, especially for someone who earns their money in a way that’s as unusual as I do. Most people don’t earn a living writing and podcasting about rugby independently via a fan-supported subscription service powered by a social media presence. I’m not saying that to flex, I’m just using it to illustrate how unusual what I do sounds to regular people anyway without adding in manic delusions.

It’s like, “well why wouldn’t all this other mad shit be happening if his base way of making a living is as unusual as it is”?

And there’s also the base assumption that people are generally reliable narrators as to what they do day to day. That isn’t to say that everyone is 100% truthful in how they live to the people in their life 100% of the time, but they are pretty reliable for the most part.

You might tell your wife that you had a salad for lunch, for example, when you actually had a pizza because you were starving and you don’t want her to be angry that you broke your diet (again). That’s a lie, yes, but an understandable one and a small fib in the grand scheme of things. Not something to make a habit of but it happens, right?

You might tell your boyfriend that you don’t feel like going to the cinema this weekend because you’ve got a thing at your parent’s gaff when, in reality, you’re having second thoughts about the relationship but you aren’t quite at the “we need to talk” stage. It’s a lie but it’s better than a “current” truth that might not be a “future” truth and telling your boyfriend that you’re having questions might (a) hurt him unnecessarily and (b) set off a chain of events that you don’t want yet.

You might tell your friend that you’re grand when you’re actually seriously depressed. That’s a lie that happens a lot.

Now, what if you told your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend that a solicitor called you at lunch to say that you’ve got money coming to you? That was me. I remember the phone call. I remember what the voice sounded like, clear as day. It was a Cork county accent – not a Wesht-along accent but a mix of it with a bit of city in it – that had an air of authority about it and that coughed right after he said: “I can send those details to you today.” Was it a lie? Well, yes it was, in that it wasn’t true that a solicitor called me. I know that now but at the time, I believed it was true because I had (and still have) the memory of that phone call.

It’s still a complete head wrecker that I’m working through in therapy. There’s other stuff too like person’s unknown trying to hack my computer/phone and then the same people calling to threaten me. Then there was the time I was running around Cork city on a weekday morning convinced that people were following me and trying to kill me. It goes on. And it’s been happening for years. Things like this were happening as far back as 2006 but I just forgot about them or wrote them off as weird sequences of events that just so happened to literally ruin my life every few years.

The worst part is the times in between these episodes when you aren’t manic but you’re still living in a world where your delusions are considered truth. I would be deeply uneasy that something was drastically wrong but I would convince myself that, while everything is certainly weird, it has to all be happening because the alternative was … horrifying. I would remember things that I felt were real but, at the same time, I had a deep unease that it wasn’t. That dissonance would get really bad at night and sometimes I’d be logically planning out how I would kill myself in a way that wouldn’t overly disturb my then-girlfriend and my family back at home.

But I’d pull myself back from the edge by convincing myself that I was OK, push the disturbing thoughts away, stomp them down and before long, I’d be manic again and the whole cycle would kick-off for weeks at a time. And by manic, I don’t mean running out into the street with a chainsaw. I mean looking normal 95% of the time except for when a voice would tell me what was happening next and have conversations with me anytime I was alone.

What’s it like? It’s like someone tells you a thing and then you become that thing. If the voice would tell me to be calm and just go to the shop, I would do it. If the voice told me that someone was coming to kill me, I would then exist in a world where that was as real as the sun coming up in the morning. Schizophrenia, for me, was like weaponised, toxic belief and this time last year, it finally saw me end up in a Garda station with my world falling down around my ears and then, on the Gardai’s recommendation, I was taken to a psych unit at 1AM.

So when I say that my meds make me sleepy, flat and forgetful, believe me when I say that it’s infinitely preferable to the alternative. 

I mention all this because there’s been a bit in the news recently about Kanye West, his bipolar disorder and his supposed run as a presidential candidate in the United States where he said a number of distasteful and damaging things about race among other things that late included seemingly manic behaviour on his Twitter account. He might have deleted it by the time you read this but it’s ranged from accusing his wife of trying to have him committed to saying he wanted to abort his daughter and more.

By his own account, Kanye has unmedicated bipolar disorder. He isn’t unmedicated by accident, as he calls being bipolar his superpower. I’m sure he feels that way but his recent words and behaviour have hurt people from complete strangers to his closest family and friends.

There’s also been a bit about John Connors explaining his recent unacceptable, disgusting behaviour towards Roderic O’Gorman as being a product of his poor mental health. Given the high profile of Connors’ appearance at a far-right rally and the disgraceful, unfounded heartache and pain it caused Roderic O’Gorman, some people naturally saw his admission as being a handy enough excuse.

Connors has long documented his mental health issues prior to this so it’s not that much of a stretch for me to believe that he could have been in a place that would allow him to fall down a far-right internet rabbit hole. I don’t know what disorder Connors has – or if he has one – but I do know that some mental disorders can drastically shift your thought processes to make you believe weird shit that you normally wouldn’t even joke about if the right stimulus starts you off. I know those thoughts can last for weeks and then, all of a sudden, they can disappear as if they were never there. And yet what you did while under that belief still exists in complete opposition to who you think you are.

Was this the spur for Connors to apologise as fulsomely as he did? Maybe. I have no idea.

My point is, if his (or Kanye’s) mental health has pushed them to behave unacceptably, then that is not an excuse for their behaviour. It is a reason. It does not excuse that behaviour. It does not lessen the impact on the victims or the righteousness of their anger. It does not mean they are bound to accept an apology because someone with a mental illness was the cause of the hurt. It is just a reason for a thing happening in the same way that it rained on Thursday because clouds picked up water from the sea and then dropped that water overland.

Most of this year has been dealing with the guilt I feel over the last decade and last two years in particular. I didn’t kill anyone or physically hurt anyone like you’d expect from a movie ‘schizo’ but I made people believe increasingly mad shit that wasn’t true because I believed it was true with every fibre of my being.

I feel guilty that I was an unmedicated schizophrenic that couldn’t piece together the obvious sooner.

My days are quiet now. No mad shit happens or has even threatened to happen. No voices talk to me other than the real voices of the real people in my life. Stuff happens with TRK that I then doubt later because history tells me that’s a prudent thing to do but anything strange or cool that I’ve done – like the live podcast in Thomond Park – I was able to confirm afterwards to my satisfaction.

There I am in the video in the far left in the red and navy coat. That happened.

My point is this, mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar and others of that ilk are messy illnesses. I’m lucky in that the meds I’ve been prescribed actually work quite well with minimal side effects. It does mean that some days I sleep until midday and walk around in a fog for the rest of the day. It sometimes means that writing an article takes longer because when I was manic, I could do way more, way quicker. Some days my voice is completely flat on a podcast and I pause unusually long between sentences but at least I can trust my internal record of the day.

If you guaranteed me that peace for the rest of my life, I’d take it in a heartbeat.