44: Believing Anna

44: Believing Anna

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Believing Anna

If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.

~Mary Engelbreit

I used to feel like I was carrying a terrible secret, always afraid that if I said the wrong thing I’d give myself away and people would know. I say I’d give myself away because this disorder was a part of me and had always been, even though it hadn’t surfaced until my third year in college. I had spent my childhood and adolescence blissfully unaware of my schizophrenia. Like some hideous monster, it had lurked within the dark maze of my mind, finally reaching the end of the labyrinth and manifesting itself just before my twentieth birthday.

For the longest time I feared having another breakdown and being sent back to the hospital. I had been a psych patient at several hospitals. Every time I was released from in-patient treatment, I vowed I would never go back. I would actively monitor my thoughts for signs that I was relapsing. As ridiculous as it sounded when my doctor would ask me these questions, I posed them seriously to myself: Was I having racing thoughts? Was I obsessing about numbers? Was I seeing or hearing things that others didn’t? I asked myself these questions, foolishly believing that I could somehow outrun a monster that already had me as its prisoner.

My very first breakdown happened like anything truly awful does, without warning. I remember not sleeping for I don’t know how many nights on end. I must have been acting strange because my friends noticed. Which is saying a lot, because I’m usually the quiet one who people overlook.

I remember having some pretty strange thoughts at the time, mostly about God and myself — I think my doctor called them “grandiose delusions.” I had always been an imaginative person, it’s true, but before my first breakdown I had always had a firm grip on reality. I honestly don’t remember when I actually snapped, or if it can even be pinned down to one specific moment. I do know that I was experiencing what psychiatrists refer to as a manic phase. I had so much energy and so many thoughts racing inside my head that I couldn’t sleep. I also know that these bouts of extreme energy gave way to some bizarre thought patterns.

I thought I was receiving messages from God. I thought that God had a special secret mission for me. I thought that the world had ended and God was coming for me. I thought that I was God. I can’t explain how my brain created these ideas, or why I actually believed them. I was acting out a chemical imbalance. I was not in my right mind.

During this time, I hallucinated quite a bit. I can’t decide which hallucinations scared me more, the ones I saw or the ones I heard. Familiar faces became sinister and warped, like frightening caricatures. Sometimes I saw bright flashes of light and other times I couldn’t escape the shadows that only I could see. I heard strange clicking metallic animal voices, the likes of which reminded me of the sounds I heard when I was swimming underwater and the pool was being vacuumed. Only, I wasn’t swimming and the sounds were all in my head.

It used to make me physically sick to talk or even think about things I had done under my delusions. For a long time, I tried so hard to pretend that everything was okay, that I was normal. I couldn’t face what I had done.

I took a ride in a stranger’s van. I walked the middle white line of the highway with cars swerving to avoid hitting me. I believed the voices in my head that told me, “God wants you to kill yourself.” I didn’t trust the kind faces of those I loved; I hit my father and pushed my best friend down. I threw water at nurses and went to court hearings in handcuffs. I did so many things I would never ordinarily do. The ones who understood the nature of schizophrenia told me it wasn’t my fault and that I shouldn’t blame myself.

It was a hard line to swallow, though. I couldn’t reconcile that with my long established ideology that I could overcome any obstacle if I wanted to, that my life was the product of my own actions and therefore of my own making. I didn’t understand the nature of mental disorders nor did I understand people who suffered from them. I used to believe that people could overcome anything if they tried hard enough. I might have kept up this unrealistic notion had I not had another breakdown.

It was my third hospitalization and it was where I met Martin. Martin was a balding middle-aged man with bright blue eyes and a sad face. He had checked himself in because he was suffering from severe depression. He usually kept to himself and only came out of his room for meals and the occasional Group or Occupational Therapy session. Seeing him sitting by himself looking at his hospital tray with disinterest, I decided in a rare moment of bravery to join him.

“Gotta love this slop they call food,” I said in an attempt at humor. He looked up at me and gave a feeble smile.

“Yeah,” he mumbled.

I asked him how he was doing, expecting the usual (and often phony) “good” response. He was so close-mouthed in Group that I was surprised when he actually answered honestly.

He told me he was depressed and didn’t know why. He said depression was a different kind of sadness, one that no amount of tears could alleviate. That it was an intense feeling of hopelessness and isolation, that it was a struggle to get out of bed in the morning, an immense burden to summon the will to go to work or to shower or even to eat. That there was this intensity of feeling and yet a powerful numbness at the same time, as if he was somehow still breathing but not really alive.

Out of candor, naïveté, or just plain stupidity, I asked him why didn’t he just find something that made him happy and do that.

He stood up, anger in his piercing blue eyes, and said, “You just don’t understand. This isn’t something I can just will away!”

And that was when I finally understood. I couldn’t just will my schizophrenia away. I had to recognize that my illness was beyond my control. I could manage it with therapy sessions and medication, but it would always be a part of me. I had to forgive myself for what I had done and face the memories I had blocked out for so long.

I began to talk to Martin and some of the other patients and I shared with them all that I had gone through. Talking to them, I remembered how to laugh again and cry again, I remembered how much I loved art and music, how I wanted to be a writer. I remembered who I used to be before my diagnosis. And I remembered who I could still be, in spite of it.

I began to paint again. I expressed my memories through brushstrokes, describing the frightening world I had lived in during each mental collapse. It was more cathartic than painting a pretty yellow birdhouse.

But I created happy things too; I made birthday cards with rainbow-maned unicorns for a male patient’s young daughters and did a portrait sketch of a female patient named Darla. “You made me beautiful,” she said when she saw it, and I told her she was. I enjoyed therapy and the colorful community it gave me. I laughed when a patient named John dubbed arts and crafts “Total BS” and elected to roll homemade cigarettes instead, saying the cigarettes would make him happier than a picture made of macaroni, but could he make a ceramic ashtray?

On my last day at Lakeview, a girl named Anna, who had jumped off a bridge, stopped me to say goodbye. “I’m glad I met you, Abby,” she said. “I know that I’m going to be okay now.”

Wondering how someone could be certain of something like that, I asked Anna how she knew.

She said, “Because you’re going to be okay.”

I made my way outside the hospital with my mom holding my hand for probably the first time since I was seven. I smiled at the brilliant summer sunshine, knowing I could believe what Anna had said.

~Abigail Hoeft

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