TRIGGER WARNING: If you have experienced hallucinations or paranoia, or get scared easily, these pictures might trigger you. While it is not my intention to scare people, I know this may still happen, and I apologize. All I want is to show people what it’s like to experience symptoms of schizophrenia. I hope to pull back the curtain and show people the strange and terrifying world I lived in for so many years. I hope to raise awareness, explain my odd behavior, and destigmatize my illness. I want others to know it’s okay to share their experiences, too, no matter how odd or scary they may be.
Some of these pictures were taken by me, and some were taken by others (attribution not required). I hope you note the inconsistency of style. Schizophrenia is not uniform, logical, and cannot be made sense of. I put these pictures together to create something that was similar to what I saw and felt so that others might understand. I made sure they were different in style because my symptoms changed faster than I could identify them. One day things were clear. The next, my world was cracked and inaccessible. Life felt fake and forced. I often felt like I was watching everyone else live out in the real world, while I was trapped behind a glass wall, stuck in a bad movie with too many plot holes. Life didn’t make sense.
When I was younger, I was silent out of fear and confusion. Then I was silent out of an inability to put into words what I was experiencing. Now that I am in recovery, I wanted to take a look back at what life was like when I was at my worst, when I wasn’t being treated for symptoms of schizophrenia. I can only speak for myself. I don’t know what schizophrenia looks like for others out there. But I do know that it can be just as dark and strange.
The first time I hallucinated, I was in 4th grade. I had moved schools, was living in a new home, and I had no friends. The stress got to me. I couldn’t sleep, but this was nothing new. What was new were the shapes and colors that shifted before my eyes at night when my older sister was fast asleep next to me. The bright blurry shapes changed into bears, vampires, and witches. As I grew older, my hallucinations began to resemble the villains in movies and books. My fear attached itself onto the concrete ideas and images in my mind, and my secret world was born.
I will never completely understand why or how I am the way I am. I will never be able to explain everything to myself, much less to everyone else. And these pictures are not exactly what I see, while these words are not exactly what I mean. The hallucinations are more of a feeling than anything else. The people I see are fragmented and blurry, not clear like these pictures. But it’s an attempt to bring you into my world so that you might understand not only me but others who have schizophrenia, as well.
By high school, my life had completely crumbled and turned into a nightmare. I looked around at the world my mind had created, and I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. When I found Sylvia Plath at 15 years old, I did not know that I was experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. All I knew was that the world was a scary place that made me sad. And I related to Plath’s sadness. Her words echoed in my head then as they do now:
“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little?”
The hallucinations began to appear slowly. I would have a bad feeling that someone was in my house. My skin began to crawl. My heart raced. I didn’t feel safe. I yanked back the shower curtain and there she was.
Her name was Martha. She was an old lady, probably a ghost or zombie. Her identity changed. All I knew was that she was seething with rage. She wanted to kill me. She reached out, knife in hand, trying to cut my throat.
Do you know what it’s like to think you are looking death in the face? I was rarely able to run. Usually, I froze in fear. I could not move. She was killing me right then at that very moment. I could see the blood draining from my neck. The world felt darker and colder. My mind tried to fill in the blanks, bridging the gaps in logic. I was no longer in my bathroom, but in some alternate universe where Martha lived. She lived in my bathtub, but she was from a different dimension. I could only see her because I was special. She had traveled to my world to kill me. She brought my spirit back into her world, and I knew I was dead, dead, dead… I was done for. I knew I was in Hell. I looked around me and knew I was in the alternate universe, stuck with her forever.
I cried and screamed and sobbed and ran. I ran down the stairs outside into the fresh air. My thoughts were racing.
Why did my family leave me home alone again? I know I am 18 years old, but I am being killed all the time. How could they let me be killed liked this? Because they don’t know. They don’t understand. I hold the key to the other worlds, and it is my job to keep my family safe from the bad people in these other places.
The delusions explained the hallucinations. It was a cycle that I could not think my way out of. One justified the other. Outside, I sucked in air. I did my mental routines to close back the gap between Martha’s world and mine. Counting, praying, stepping in a certain place again and again, tapping my teeth together. Then I began rewinding time with my mind. Back, back, back up the stairs to the shower. There, I killed Martha with my eyes before she could slit my throat. I stared her down until she was gone. I repeated it out loud like a spell, whispering, “Gone, gone, gone.”
Now I am alive again. I have saved the world. I have saved myself.
Later, I was hanging up my clean clothes. All at once, there was a dead little boy standing in my closet. He was murdered. By who? Did I kill him? I think I did. He was mad that I killed him. Now he wanted to kill me. I pleaded silently. I prayed. I gasped. Tears squeezed their way out of my eyes. I trembled. I spoke to him with my mind. I don’t remember killing you! It must have been an accident! Please! Please! I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to…
He turned me into stone. I could not speak. I could not think. I was frozen in time and space, invisible to the naked eye. He killed my physical being, and now I could only exist as a shadow of who I once was. I am dead. I am gone. I am dead. I am gone. I knew what I had to do next. Dead people are supposed to be buried. I had to bury myself. I picked up my dead body, and I looked out my bedroom window. I looked at the ground and thought the dirt must feel so soft and cool. I thought of what Sylvia Plath said:
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
I looked around me, and I was covered in darkness. The boy stared at me. He stood tall and proud. He knew he had killed me. And I knew that I must bury my body if I was ever going to make it to whatever lies beyond death. I walked down the stairs into the garage. I looked for a shovel.
I heard a car door slam. I looked out the garage windows and saw that my family was home. I should have just gone to the football game with them. I hate football, but I should have just gone with them. Now I am dead. My world was dark. I could smell my corpse. I panicked. My eyes were scanning the garage for a shovel when my mom found me.
“Hey, we brought you some lunch home. What are you looking for? Your bike?”
She looked at me, and the world was getting lighter and brighter with each word she spoke. I saw clearer. The air felt fresher. The brain fog was lifting. I knew I was safe now. I was alive. I was here. I was whole. I am not dead. What a silly thought. The boy was gone. The lights were on. I felt calm and safe.
I looked at my mother, and I wondered if she could ever understand me and my dark, secret world.
But I just say, “What’s for lunch?”
That is how life was for me. I kept the world turning on its axis by counting and praying in my head. I concentrated as hard as I could in order to keep the world going. It was all up to me. I locked the doors between alternate universes by closing and reclosing the kitchen cabinets until the world felt right again. I was being killed all the time, but I came back to life. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was exactly.
I look back now and wonder how I hid it so well. I wasn’t in any real danger, but my mind and my body reacted like I was. I had crippling anxiety. My eyelids twitched from stress. I had daily headaches that turned into weekly migraines (I still get those). I washed my hands until they were cracked and bleeding. I bit my nails and could never kick the habit. I couldn’t control the world I fell into when I was alone, when I was stressed, or when the sun went down. Darkness enveloped me and my mind. They were my triggers that transported me into my strange and terrifying world. I did not know what was happening. And it got worse and worse until I was no longer hopping in and out of the strange world my mind created. I was stuck there. And the dead people multiplied until they followed me behind me wherever I went like I was Queen of the Dead. They stood around my bed, while I tried to sleep. They sat behind me in class and watched me cook dinner until I couldn’t hold this secret world up on my shoulders any longer. I collapsed. It was only then that I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Not all my symptoms have gone away completely, but I am in recovery. When I am alone, scared, or stressed, sometimes I still experience paranoia or delusions. When stressed or upset, I have trouble remembering words and articulating my thoughts when I’m speaking. I still see things occasionally, but it’s manageable most of the time. My biggest accomplishment had always been hiding how scared I was, how unsure I was because I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want others to be uncomfortable. But I am past caring about that now.
I was scared to put together a post like this. Will people think I am an evil, scary person because I see scary things as a symptom of my schizophrenia? For the longest time, I lived in shame. I thought I saw bad things and bad people because I was a bad person. I thought I belonged in Hell. I did not know what intrusive thoughts were. All I knew was that bad thoughts entered my head and that sometimes I saw bad images and even bad people. I thought my mind must be evil if it created something so terrifying.
But that wasn’t true. I have a mental disorder. When I am not being properly medicated, or if I am stressed, I can descend into psychosis. This means that my deepest fears become a reality for me. If I’m at the mall, I may see a dead child in the dressing room. My heart explodes, blocking the path for air to get to my lungs. My nerves feel shot. I am in shock. Who wouldn’t be? My sister smiles at me, holding up a shirt she likes. She wants my opinion. I try to smile. I try to breathe slow. I try not to cry, but I am so scared. I try to put the image of a dead child out of my mind.
I saw things at school, at church, at the mall, at friend’s houses, outside, at home. My hallucinations followed me wherever I went. I thought the world was a scary place. I thought bad people stalked me, that they were trying to kill me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t understand how everyone else was okay all the time. I lived in a nightmare. My only way to cope was to perform mental exercises that gave me the illusion that I controlled my hallucinations, that I could keep myself safe. The paranoia and hallucinations were like an itch that I learned not to scratch when I was not alone. I couldn’t let people know about my secret world. And the hallucinations would diminish greatly when I was with others because they made me feel safe and reaffirmed to me that I was in the real world. But if I was alone, even for a few minutes, such as walking to the bus stop, then my safe world would crumble. A hooded figure would appear behind me in the mist as I walked down the street in the morning. The logical world disappeared when I was alone. The delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations took over.
And there was this urge, of course, this compulsion to explain what was happening, but an inability to do it. My parents would find me crying in bed on a Saturday. Why? I felt their anger, frustration, and exasperation. They fed me, clothed me, gave me anything I needed, and it wasn’t good enough? Soon, I found the words to tell them I was scared. Then, I found the words to tell them I was sad. But there was always the questions after that I could not answer: WHY? Why are you scared? Why are you sad? I didn’t know. So I wrote. I filled notebooks and notebooks, trying to think my way out of this impossible puzzle, this deadly brain fog where I lost the ability to think clearly. I knew I was different, but in what way exactly? The big question behind every diary entry was always the same: What is wrong with me?
August Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and social media manager. Her biggest passion is being a mental illness advocate. She loves reading, sweets, and warm weather. She writes primarily about her life. 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 is available for pre-order and will be in stores November 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her personal blog.