ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Chronicle of an Episode

By Jack Bragen
Friday March 07, 2014 - 01:36:00 PM

Most people have, at some point, encountered someone with a mental illness. Perhaps there is an aunt or cousin with mental illness, or the son or daughter of a coworker. Yet, people in general have limited understanding of the life of someone with serious mental illness. It might help you understand if I explain to you what it is like for me to experience a psychotic episode and then recover from it.  

First of all, when we become psychotic, it seems to us as though we're just fine, and the world has gone cockeyed, or else we may feel that there is a massive conspiracy centered on oneself. We may be completely unaware that something has gone wrong with our thinking. The illness will usually block out this awareness.  

We will become unable to communicate properly with people, and we may feel that everyone is being unreasonable toward us. We do not understand why people are acting strangely to us, and we may get very angry about this, or will at the least be extremely irritated.  

When I was last severely psychotic, which was around this time of year in 1996, I was hostile and nonviolent. I yelled at people, including the person who would later become my wife. She called the police on me because I was acting too belligerent.  

At another point during the same episode, she dropped me off in the Pacheco area, and from there I wandered the streets of Martinez for many hours in 90-degree heat. I believed I had died and gone to Hell, until I finally made it home, which at that time was the Riverhouse Hotel.  

Later during the same episode, I believed my building would be blown up, and I believed it was urgent that I get some distance from there. I walked from downtown Martinez to a church in Pleasant Hill. Coinciding with this, there was an explosion at a nearby refinery in the Martinez area which was visible for miles.  

The rector of the church called my mother and girlfriend, who advised having the police take me to the hospital. (I wasn't a member of the church or anything--I just showed up there at random, and also, I refused to leave.)  

The police had a difficult time with me because I was nonviolently resisting them, and in 1996, tasers had not yet come into use. (The police weren't going to get too rough with me because the church minister was present.)  

When someone is psychotic, they may feel that their life is being threatened, and this can be quite frightening. We may believe that we can read people's minds, or we may believe that our thoughts are being projected into other people's minds. We may realize that something is wrong, and we may feel that someone is doing something to us to make us that way.  

When psychotic, we are aware of the information given to us by our five senses, yet we interpret this information in a bizarre and erroneous manner. We will be preoccupied with the thoughts in our mind, and these thoughts are strange and incorrect.  

If we become excessively psychotic, we may be unable to obtain food, to brush teeth and to bathe. Rent will go unpaid, and we may not even be organized enough to spend money that we already have in our bank account. The instinct of thirst will usually but not always prevent us from being excessively dehydrated, yet we could go days or weeks without food, unless someone is putting food directly in front of us.  

There is such a thing as tactile hallucinations, in which we feel as if bugs are crawling on our skin. We may hear voices when no one is speaking--auditory hallucinations. We might see spots--visual hallucinations.  

We might think we are being attacked by the Devil, and we may believe we are a historic religious figure. We may be unable to contact family even though this might merely require picking up a phone and dialing.  

When finally brought to the hospital, we may feel a great sense of relief that someone is getting us out of a hole we could not get out of by ourselves.  

Once medicated, medication side-effects can create a great deal of suffering, but this is usually less suffering than during fully-blown psychosis. It can take weeks or even months of staying medicated to return to a relatively normal state of mind. Once back to a fairly normal state, we may become aware that we have a long road of recovery ahead.