I’m writing a play about a family member who lived with schizophrenic symptoms for ten years. She had been diagnosed and medicated. She spent a year in a care facility for people with mental illness. She stopped doing all the things she excelled in: writing, singing and acting. And she was very good at these things.
But she’s not schizophrenic. She has something called somatoform disorder. And she’s been told that in 2-5 years, she’ll be free from most symptoms. Plenty of people with schizophrenia live life to the fullest, but she hadn’t had time to get past the idea that the illness was a life sentence. A sentence that has now been reversed.
I’m not writing from her perspective. I don’t think I could ever really understand what she went through, and what she’s going through now. I’m writing from my perspective, a family member who abandoned her when things started to fall apart. I told myself she was faking it. But I noted with no shortage of fear how much her reported symptoms sounded like my own. I was diagnosed with pretty severe anxiety in third grade, and it’s the kind of disorder that mutates into a thousand other weird symptoms if you don’t take care of it. It’s not something I like to talk about, because I hate sounding like a victim. But it’s there. Things were pretty out of control for me around the same time she went to the hospital. I didn’t leave the house much, and when I did, i felt like everyone was watching me. I used to sit at home, frozen on the couch, because I thought that if I moved, the kitchen knives would fly out of the drawer and stab me. I was embarrassed about this. I joked with people about it! But I was trapped in it. I assumed that my anxiety had crossed the line into the full blown crazies.
I convinced myself that a diagnosis for her was a diagnosis for both of us.
So I avoided her, as if that might keep it away from me. I told people she was faking her symptoms because she wanted attention, and I argued with my parents about whether she was actually sick. I had to go through every tiny wrong she had ever committed against me with my therapist, like I was banking reasons to cut her off. When we were together for family events, I simply endured her. I never told her how I felt. Sometimes, she hinted that maybe she knew. Over time, we just stopped interacting.
Now, she’s “well” and on her way to recovery, and from what I understand, she has been suffering from an illness that is anxiety related. On the mental health front, we did have something in common.
She sent me an email when she found out.
“I didn’t want it to be anxiety,” she said. “I know that is your thing.”
“I didn’t want to take away from what you’ve been through.”