According the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), Psychosis is a syndrome defined as a mental state with at least one of the following symptoms present; delusions, hallucinations or disorganised speech, thought or behaviour (APA, 2013). Psychosis is considered as one of several psychotic disorders existing on a spectrum of psychopathology (Arciniegas, 2015). Psychotic mental illnesses are a serious health issue Worldwide, with an estimated 80% of those affected by psychosis are young people between the ages of 16-30 years old, with 100,000 adolescents each year in the US experiencing their first psychotic episode (Orygen Youth Health, 2002).
There is still very little awareness and understanding surrounding this condition, even within the medical field. This is due to limited research, made available via mostly qualitative studies (interviews). In my final trimester of my diploma in psychological science I submitted a research proposal to further investigate the causes of psychosis and early signs in young people. Commonly associated with mental illnesses like Schizophrenia and Bipolar, Psychosis can be experienced once in someone’s life time. This is rare and can be caused by multiple factors including chronic stress or traumas.
Disclaimer: The following is a personal account of one person’s lived experience told by their point of view. It does not include professional advice. This site is not a professional help or advice service. If you feel you’re at risk and need to speak to a mental health professional, please call your local mental health line or if in Australia click here for resources and contacts.
It’s taken me a long time, to truly own this story you’re about to read.
Even though I had been blogging for a while, I’d still be tip toeing around the topic whenever it came up.
This was because the only thing I was told as a 17 year old was that I had a “Psychotic breakdown”. That was it. It was said once and then over the course of 10+ years it was never discussed again. Like a taboo subject. So for almost half my life I carried around this memory and trauma and shame, trying to piece together what had happened and why it happened while navigating through my healing journey alone, during a time I was supposed to graduate high school with my peers, go to schoolies and all the rest of it .. trying to move on as if nothing happened .. But something did happen, something that took me years to acknowledge was a deep trauma.
At 17 years old, I had experienced a stress induced, near fatal psychosis that saw me hospitalised twice. Once in my final year of high school and the second and last time, a year later. I’ve only ever had 2 episodes and am very lucky it never developed into a more serious illness like Schizophrenia which is very rare. My body rejected any kind of medication, a very common form of treatment and again very rare to be able to recover without it. My self esteem was shattered. My hopes and dreams lost. My social support gone. Followed by fear of abandonment that would follow me in my shadows for years, manifesting itself into situations that forced me to confront the pain and discomfort, to find a way to heal.
But why didn’t I talk to someone or get therapy back then. Oh but I tried. How much I needed an adult to tell me what the bleep just happened. Because I sure as hell didn’t know. And this only added to my misconception and belief that if anyone was to know, they would think I was “crazy”, only further adding to the isolation I was already feeling. But every-time I reached out to a professional I was shut down with blank stares and confused expressions. I am not blaming anybody, It’s no ones fault. It is because stigma is very much kicking and it takes a very evolved person to be able to sit with something so deep and difficult to talk about. And these people are as rare as a needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, I gave up trying to talk about it. For a very long time. I was tired of opening up only to be shut down. Again.
Until, randomly, a teacher at University showed some slides in a lecture where he spoke about Psychosis and it instantly registered; OMG, this is what I went through!! Almost immediately, I went to my GP to write me up a mental health plan and searched psychologists who had a special interest in this area. Apparently during the last decade, some developments had been made because finally, I felt like there were people out there who might get me. And I only knew how to do this because I had just spent 2+ years working in private practice, in reception and administration so I knew how the system worked. This is something that also needs to change, too many people don’t know what help is available. Heck, I didn’t for almost half my life!
It was actually when the doctor had asked about my history, and asked me if there was any history of Schizophrenia that caused me to really look into it. I don’t have schizophrenia but it is so rare for those who experience psychosis not to develop it. With the help of therapy, I learnt there were different types of psychosis for example, many women experience it after birth, and it is actually very common. And is a common symptom for those with Bipolar. But the problem is – nobody talks about it. Because there is also still so much stigma around the term “psychosis” and it is still very much attached to the term “psycho” or “loony” from the old days when there were mental asylums. Which is just not what It’s like at all.
I remember, at one spiritual convention held in Sydney, in the hype of the energy of the room something came over me and I got up and spoke vaguely about what happened to me. But it only did more damage. There is nothing more damaging then to open up your heart and reveal a part of your soul and not be heard. This is one of the very toxic aspects of the spiritual, self development World. Or any organised group of any kind really. Anybody with a reasonable following can call them-self a leader or a “light-worker” but it doesn’t mean they should attempt to hold space for people who might have complex mental health issues. The same goes for health professionals that call themselves “experts” or “leaders”.
For many years I had been carrying shame and fear of abandonment from those closest to me. But for them to really understand, I needed to understand first. I had to get clear about wtaf happened to me first of all. And only I am responsible for that.
I set out on this journey, to seek answers for myself for over 10 years.
These were all really instrumental to helping me feel stronger within myself.
In the beginning when I was too unwell, my parents tried every therapy and health professional they could find. I owe so much to my parents in supporting me and loving me when I couldn’t even love myself. They were my anchor, my life support.
From the age of around 18 or 19 years old, I began my healing journey which began after my second and final psychosis episode. You know those people that talk about seeing the “light”, I did. And I remember being able to see myself being brought back to life by the paramedics through the lens of someone looking over me. This is the first time I think I have revealed this, here on this blog. I’ve always kept it to myself until now. I remember thinking I could not get any worse unless I was going to leave this Earth and it took every ounce of strength within me to do something about it.
During recovery, I was also going through an eating disorder. And a deep depression for at least a couple of years but I won’t get into that now. You know those moments, when your body goes into “fight or flight”, that”rock bottom”, life changing moment that you only every truly experience once in your life because you are literally surviving to stay alive. Most people call it a mid life crises. Only mine was at the beginning, when life was really supposed to begin. Yep, that was it. I knew I could not sink any lower and if I did, there would just be no surviving it. So I fought.
I hope one day I can help remove this stigma and talk about this in public and spread more awareness and understanding around it. Especially in schools, where our Youth need us adults to let them know they are not alone.
There are common types of mental illness that are openly discussed these days, that seem to be the more “accepted kinds” that most therapists want to work with. Which is great and a step forward. But there are other types too, the “uglier” looking ones that are easier to ignore and push aside. But when we don’t talk openly about these things, it only exacerbates the issue, enabling the stigma to continue to exist.
A young person or any person for that matter should not have to wait in the dark, for years to find out what happened to them. They should not have to go at it alone, to try to fight and be their own advocate no matter how much it looks like they are coping. Nobody deserves to have to go through something so traumatic but the thing is, it can happen to anyone, unexpectedly like a tsunami. Well, that’s what it felt like for me. Although, looking back I can almost connect the dots leading up to it, but that’s for another day.
For a long time there was this piece of me missing that I was yearning to find.
My incredible parents were already doing all they could to get the best help for me and I believe it is their love and support that actually helped me survive beyond hospital. There weren’t enough beds in the children’s unit so I was put in with adults. It’s sad but I can really understand why most of my friends disappeared during this time. There is just not a lot of awareness, or education around this topic. Young people are only just getting their head around the more common mental health illnesses like depression, and how to navigate complex issues as it is. It’s hard enough for a young person to try to make sense for them-selves, let alone trying to have the people around you understand. Especially in those days.
One of my most painful memories, is sitting in the corner at my high school, tears just flooding my eyes so much that everything looked blurry. But it was like I was invisible. People walking past, looking behind their shoulder like I was better off to be ignored than deal with. Somehow I got myself up and left that building and somehow got my mum to pick me up. From that moment on, I developed a coping mechanism where I’d hold things in and soldier on and not talk about it.
This thing we are so good at, looking the other way, and ignoring the issues only makes you feel more isolated than you already are, further adding to the stigma and oppression that so many who live with psychosis daily already feel. Most people who find out you have gone through something so heavy, just want to look in the opposite direction too. Not because they don’t care, but because it is easier and most people don’t know what to do or what to say to someone who has been through something so intense and traumatic. But it is not their fault. This is just how, as a society we are conditioned.
Most people want to help but don’t know how.
But it shouldn’t have to be this way. And I think as a community we’re getting a lot better at understanding mental health issues and its impact on the individual, their families and the wider community. But we still have so much work to do. And there is a long way to go.
When traditional medicine let me down, creative and natural therapies was pivotal to my recovery. Ironic, considering so much of this kind of therapy is not recognised, even today. It was around that time I studied and pursued my first career (and business) in remedial massage, another therapy that helped me a lot. A few years later with a degree in business and marketing under my belt, I also did a life coaching course and started my first blog which later led to my second career, in online marketing. I continued to blog at the same time, where I found I was able to open up and be vulnerable for the first time, something I was previously unable to do.
I think it was this feeling of connection and belonging (which was achieved through sharing words) that helped me feel like I was not alone in what I was going through.
My late teens, very early adulthood were the most difficult time of my life. When you go through something like that, you develop perspective. When you are so close to losing your life and you are gifted with another chance, and manage to reach the other side of the most difficult moments of your life reasonably well and functioning, you begin to restructure your values and develop a renewed sense of appreciation for the smallest things like the love of family, and a warm house to come home too.
Suddenly, the little things that may have been big things before and used to stress you such as worrying about the future, don’t have so much of an impact on you anymore. I’m really fortunate with how things got better for me. I’m aware it’s not the case for everyone, unfortunately. For most, psychosis develops into schizophrenia. Mental illness is even more of an issue within our minority groups and indigenous communities and this really needs to change. I am working with a lovely man with schizophrenia at the moment and unfortunately it is going to be with him for the rest of his life. But he is one of my most special clients because of his outlook on life and positive attitude who I have the pleasure in visiting.
There are still many issues I continue to work through, but I know I am not alone, and being able to work through these things whether it is through talking (therapy), writing (blogging) or movement (yoga and dance), It’s all helping a lot. Whether we are a cleaner, a handyman, a teacher or therapist ourselves, It’s our responsibility to work on getting better, everyday so that we can be our best selves for those around us.
What I have learnt the most from working in mental health is that people just want someone to really listen to them, they want to feel heard and not judged. This is why I want to help others, especially teens. I want to be that support, that mentor I wish I had.
If you or someone, you knows are going through a hard time please reach out to a health professional. You can start by contacting your family GP. There are many great resources for you that are available, and if you are in Australia some helpful resources can be found here.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Arciniegas,B.D.(2015).Psychosis. American Academy of Neurology,21(3),715-736
Connell, M., Schweitzer, R., & King, R. (2014). Recovery From First-Episode Psychosis and Recovering Self: A Qualitative Study. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/prj0000077
Fusar-Poli,P., McGorry, P. D., & Kane, J. M. (2017). Improving outcomes of first episode psychosis: an overview. World Psychiatry, 16(3), 251–265. doi: 10.1002/wps.20446
ORYGEN Youth Health. (2002). The early diagnosis and management of psychosis: A booklet for general practitioners. Retrieved from https://oyh.org.au/sites/oyh.org.au/files/gp_manual.pdf