In 2001, I had my first psychotic break. I was 38 years old and had never had one before.
It started out subtly. I had a technical writing job, which I loved and did well at. Near the end of the year 2000, I felt I was working in the middle of quicksand with limited energy and motivation to deal with the job. The job hadn’t changed. I had. I thought it was depression, which I had had before. I decided that changing jobs would help and found another job.
Around Memorial Day of the following year, I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything. The slightest thing would distract me. I also found that I couldn’t think of the names of some things. I would be close — think “pen” for “pencil” — but the correct word eluded me. I knew that the word was wrong.
Somewhere along the line, I became convinced that people could read my mind. The strange thing about a delusion like that is that you know for certain that it is true. I started thinking racial epithets, which I ordinarily didn’t use, and I was really miserable, thinking that people could hear me thinking those racial epithets.
I also believed that others could see through my eyes. I would cry through my showers because I thought people were watching me.
Then, one day, I was looking at the mountains while commuting to work, and I heard a voice say “Beautiful”. At first, I would only hear the voice occasionally, and it didn’t bother me. I thought it was friendly. But then one day it hit with a vengeance. I heard voices most of the time, which was very distracting and made it difficult to get anything done. Some weird things happened while I was hearing voices, which led me to believe that they were real. I heard a voice speaking Hebrew, which I did not know, but recognized a word or two. And one time I thought it was 4:30, and the voice said that it was 5:00, and the voice was right and I was wrong.
I also became convinced that someone from work was following me and staking out my home. I wound up staying up all night until sunrise because I was worried that someone would break in. I was lucky that I didn’t lose my job.
I debated calling a psychiatrist — about the racial epithets. I didn’t mention the voices because I thought I was a telepath, and there was nothing anyone could do about that. A voice finally told me to call. I found a psychiatrist that I really liked, who decided that I had OCD, the version with the intrusive thoughts. I joined a group for people with OCD and anxiety disorders, but it wasn’t helping me. They also put me on the medication. Prozac, which wound up making me manic. The doctors agreed I was manic and weaned me off of the Prozac and put me on lithium for the mania.
Around the same time, I mentioned the voices, although I didn’t think that anyone could do anything about them. The doctor wanted me to go into a mental hospital, but I had no one to take care of my cat, so no go. The doctors also put me on a medication called Risperdal, but I couldn’t handle the side-effects, so I stopped taking it. The third weird thing happened with the voices on lithium; the voices got really fast and my thoughts were slow. Nonetheless, a sort of fog lifted, and I started hearing voices much less frequently. My diagnosis was Bipolar Disorder I with Psychotic Features.
I also had problems with my thinking. I described it to my doctor as taking a sentence from each paragraph of a book. He called it disorganized thinking. I also would think the same thought repeatedly. That sometimes happens to this day, and it is really annoying.
Around the same time, I decided the symptoms would go away if I went back to my original job, so I interviewed, but there was a hiring freeze. I had delivered my library of books at my job (despite the psychosis!), so I quit my job and stayed home until the hiring freeze was over.
I was sort of right about the original job. I still heard voices occasionally, but it was much better. My problem was with my limited energy for the job. Eventually I accepted a buyout.
I found another job. I was scrambling to all hours to get the documentation done for the upcoming release. At the end, I had a major relapse into hearing voices, etc. I contacted my doctor, and he put me on the medication Zyprexa and told me to take a leave of absence until the meds kicked in. But when I came back, I was dealing with the limited energy again. Plus, I was having problems getting up in the morning because I was on a boatload of meds that cause tiredness. I had another relapse the following fall, and I got laid off during it.
I moved back to where I was previously living. There I found find a doctor that I really liked. He changed my diagnosis to Schizoaffective Disorder because I had more problems with psychotic symptoms than mood symptoms.
I didn’t find another job, although I was a second choice for one. I decided to change careers, move back to the Midwest, and go back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I thought that living in the Midwest would help me because I had taken a trip back while I was hearing voices, and the voices went away about a half-hour into the flight, and didn’t come back until I was back in San Jose. I told my doctor about that, and he mocked me for thinking that there was something in the environment that was triggering symptoms. He thought it might be less stress. Somehow, Silicon Valley is not a comforting place to get sick.
It worked. I got my degree, and I have been working successfully in the library field ever since. I almost never hear voices now. But there is an element of luck in the illness’s path. Some people have one psychotic break and that’s it; some people never find a treatment that helps them; some people are in the middle like me.
In subsequent articles, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from my experiences with the mental health system. Please subscribe if that interests you.