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A Day With: Paranoid Schizophrenia

by Allie Burke

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[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]

I think a lot about the people who wake up in the morning and the first thing that enters their head is “today is going to be a good day”. There’s a woman I work with who is like that. Her name is Laura. She doesn’t drink coffee and every piece of her life is the best thing that happened, ever. Laura wears the biggest smile when you do something like bring her a lemon bar or text her hello. She must be like this naturally, I assumed. When asked, she informed me that she considers it a choice to live each day as positive as possible.

I am surrounded by these positivity elves. My boss, my boss’s boss, my boss’s boss’s boss. Every day is a good day and there’s nothing that can change that. It’s kind of a requirement where we work. One of the leaders on our training team tells us to “own the day”. Don’t let that bad driver on the freeway or the cranky worker at the drive-thru ruin your day. The way your day goes is up to you.

I’ve tried it. I’ve tried telling myself that “today is going to be a good day” when I wake up. I’ve tried those letters from the universe and I’ve tried writing myself an email every day. I have bad luck though; it always turns out badly. It’s like when you tell yourself it’s going to be an easy day because it’s Friday and then you get to work and there are 132 invites on your calendar.

I am a positive person though. I love my job and my life and feel thankful for what I have. The super negative ones—people like my mom who will find anything to complain about—I keep my distance from. But the ‘today is going to be a good day’ thing—it’s not possible for people like me. I was born with prerequisite bad days. I have paranoid schizophrenia.

I can never really plan my day to be good or otherwise. When I do—I’m wearing my favorite outfit, my favorite song is playing on Pandora, there’s no line at Starbucks, and one of my friends sends me a funny snap—it all falls apart. Not always, but sometimes it does, and it disappoints me. A friend once told me she never expects anything from anyone so she won’t be disappointed. I never expect anything from my day except how my brain will test me.

I live with auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, and depression as a part of my disease. I ignore people sometimes. The other day one of my colleagues said good morning and I didn’t realize it until she was staring at me, waiting. I felt so terrible. Do you have any idea how hard it is to decipher the sounds and voices around you when you have two or three more voices that only you can hear? It’s disorienting. I eventually responded, with an apology attached. I stutter sometimes; the content and design of your presentation are only as good as its speaker. But what am I supposed to be speaking about, again? Is it what’s on the screen or am I supposed to be responding to the voices in my head? I’m confused and unsettled for most of the day while trying to appear normal. My managers tell me they never notice—everyone at work knows I’m schizophrenic. My colleagues tell me they have no complaints, but the paranoia tells me otherwise. When I’m not obsessing over whether or not that conversation I had this morning actually happened, I’m worried my team is over in the corner talking about how unhinged I am.

They say that stress is the main factor that exacerbates symptoms, but if schizophrenia were that predictable, there wouldn’t be so many people in hospitals, on medication, on the streets, and on disability. There wouldn’t be so many people dying by their own hands. Its symptoms strike when things seem OK, mostly, to ground you and remind you that this disease is real, and it isn’t going away.

Sleep has become my remedy. There is a line of medications—all of which I have tried—but I can’t function on them, and I would never survive on disability. Disability wouldn’t be enough for me physically because I live in an expensive city, and mentally because I’m not functional on such medications. So I’m in bed right when I get home, wondering what I could have done better that day.

I focus on the good things a lot, treating schizophrenia as a blessing. After all, it has given me creativity and strength. And also, intellect, compassion, and empathy.

There is beauty in everything. You just have to be willing to look for it.

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The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.

This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.


Artwork by KAREN HONG

Allie Burke

Allie Burke is the creator of the literary magazine and writers society Organic Coffee, Haphazardly. Her writings have been featured in Vice Magazine, Refinery 29, and in bestselling books sold nationwide.

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