When Diagnosis is a Relief

When I was in high school, a strange thing began to happen. I couldn’t recognize my friends in the hallway. I’d stare at people, frowning, trying to figure out if this person was a friend or just a face I remembered from somewhere. I’d run up to someone to hug them, and their body would freeze. I’d pull away, realizing I had mistaken someone else for my friend. This happened a few times until I learned not to smile, wave, or hug people unless I was sure it was my friend, or if they had initiated it first. I joked about it with my friends in the cafeteria, laughing about how I freaked random people out. We didn’t think it was anything serious. Sometimes I was spacey. Sometimes small chunks of my memory were missing, like when the coolest guy in school tried to talk to me in middle school. It was strange, but no one seemed concerned when I said, “I don’t remember.” People forget things all the time. There were just some things about me and the life I lived that didn’t add up, but that’s how life was, I thought. Only, it got worse.

During my freshman year of college, I began to realize that I couldn’t recognize people who obviously knew me. It wasn’t that I was popular and didn’t remember people from a party. It wasn’t that I was forgetful. I really couldn’t recognize people, couldn’t tell who this or that person was that was waving to me in the hallway or talking to me in class. Usually, I could blame not recognizing someone on my awkwardness or my tendency to get lost in my thoughts. But it was more than that. I still remember clearly the day when I realized it was a problem. I walked into the counseling office at Georgia State where I went often. The woman at the front desk greeted me by name, and my eyes widened. My body grew stiff with suspicion. Who the hell was this lady? Was she stalking me? How did she know my name? Did I know her? I squinted, trying to make out her features, but they only blurred together. Was she an imposter? A stalker? Was she a secret agent who was pretending to be a receptionist so she could spy on me? Was she following me because she knew my big secret and wanted to kill me?

“Hi,” I said finally. “I have an appointment.”

I went to see my counselor and told her that more and more I’d been having trouble recognizing people, and it wasn’t really a big deal until today. It didn’t really become frightening until now. My counselor listened to me, nodding.

“Do you need a new prescription for your glasses?”

I frowned, annoyed, but I went to the eye doctor. My prescription was fine. Now, what was going on? I never found out until today, over three years later. Weird things have happened in my life. Enough of the weird things were explained away as delusions or hallucinations. But this experience of not being able to recognize people around me was never explained. It sat in the back of my mind, collecting dust and doubt. I started writing about it in my memoir, just to see if it made any sense because I had never spoken about it to anyone but my counselor, who didn’t seem to think anything of it. A small voice in the back of my mind, a voice I have learned to listen to told me to keep searching for answers. Sometimes that voice tells me to sell all my material things and become a farmer, and I tell myself that I am experiencing mania. Sometimes that voice tells me that my loved ones are imposters, and I tell myself that I am experiencing delusions. But sometimes that voice tells me that someone is lying to me, and I call them out on it. I am right. There is a difference between intuition and delusion. The voice in my head doesn’t know that, so I have to sift through everything it tells me, deciding what’s logical and what’s not. Is the TV really a portal to hell or do I just need to calm down? Is there really a dead girl living in the dishwasher? That gut feeling…It feels the same to me no matter what the voice says. It’s up to me to figure out what’s true and what’s not. I’ve become my own parent, an essential part of growing up. I tell the voice not to lie, ignoring it when it gets carried away.

And I thought that voice was lying about the blurry faces and not being able to recognize friends or acquaintances, but a part of me didn’t want to give up. I wasn’t diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder until a little over a year ago. Little things that I never understood, big things that seemed impossible to understand or make sense of… Most of them were explained as symptoms of schizophrenia. I searched for answers for so long in books and movies. Sure, my life had an eerie similarity to authors suffering from schizophrenia in books I read in high school like The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness By Elyn R. Saks. But I was just a girl who liked to read, not a doctor, right? When I was diagnosed, it all seemed to finally make sense. Questions that haunted me for years finally had an answer. But there are a few things left that have not been explained, like how small chunks of my memory are missing or that I’ve had trouble in the past recognizing facial features. So I looked it up the other day. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but when you’re diagnosed, they don’t give you a sheet of symptoms you may or may not suffer from. It is your job to figure out where you begin and your illness ends. With treatment, it becomes easier to distinguish between you and your symptoms, but memories of confusion and uneasiness still haunted me. And big questions like “Is everyone puppets?” or “Is God real?” seemed silly to search for online. But I tried, anyway, typing what I thought was probably nonsense into the search bar and pressing enter. I knew that I had not had trouble recognizing people ever since I had started taking antipsychotics, and I wondered if there was a correlation.

And after years of staring uncomfortably at people that I felt like I should know, at people that are talking to me like they know me when I have no idea who they are, I finally have an answer. People with symptoms of schizophrenia have trouble processing facial features, according to an article in the Schizophrenia Bulletin. The answer was right there all this time. I just didn’t know how to put into words what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what to search for. Being diagnosed helped me with that, but it did not provide an answer for everything. My jaw hung on its hinges as I read the answers to a question that had been bothering me for years.

I remember sitting in my room night after night with several books from the library open on the floor. I was desperate for answers, for anything that might shed light on my confusing, sometimes interesting, sometimes scary existence. Philosophy didn’t satisfy me, raising more questions than answers. Organized religion seemed to evade my questions, addressing something else altogether. Novels had no concrete proof or facts. But I kept searching. That is why I started reading nonfiction and writing so much. I became interested in psychology and sociology. I started writing about my questions, hoping to find my way out of the maze by getting it out on the page. And some questions still hover around me unanswered, but so many have been answered with my diagnosis. And it’s a relief. It is a privilege to learn more about myself and finally understand what is going on. Being diagnosed did not put my experiences into a box, forcing my symptoms to fit into one illness or another. It provided enough answers to finally give me a sense of peace. I may never know why small parts of my life are blotted out, inaccessible to me, but I trust myself enough to know that there is an answer, and I will never stop searching for it.

This article originally appeared on The Odyssey and later appeared on Niume.

August Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, feminist, and mental illness advocate. She loves reading,  sweets, and warm weather. She writes confessional poetry, personal essays, and articles. One of her current projects is a collection of prose poetry available on Wattpad.  A story about her life with schizophrenia has been published in the next volume of The i’Mpossible Project. It will be available for pre-order on April 11th and in stores November 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. 

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