I suffer from Schizophrenia. Before you jump to any conclusions about me…before that word “schizophrenia” flashes its stigma and makes you think of serial killers, mass shooters, and the like, let me dispel a few things. I am not Norman Bates. I am not Ted Bundy. As a matter of fact, most sufferers of this illness shy away from violence. I do not have multiple personalities. Dissasociative Identity Disorder is a completely different condition than what I have.
Most of the time I’m just like you. I go to work, I watch television, I read books, listen to music, indulge my hobbies, and spend time with people I love. I just occasionally…see and hear things that aren’t really there.
When this happens…when I hallucinate or hear voices, I refer to these episodes as experiencing “interference”, because that is how it feels to me. They are interruptions in my every day life. It’s also a good way for me to signal to someone I trust, who knows about my condition, that I’m in the midst of an episode without having to use that word. I simply tell them, “I’m sorry…There’s some interference happening,” and they understand.
Not everyone is understanding. My father was one of those people.
I was diagnosed at a very young age. I was only six when a child psychiatrist reluctantly wrote “schizophrenia” onto my diagnostic chart. It’s not a diagnosis assigned lightly, especially to children. Most people with this illness don’t begin displaying symptoms until the late teens or early twenties. I was six. However, in a weird way, I consider this a blessing. I never had to experience the jarring phenomenon of living a normal life to suddenly having the carpet pulled beneath my feet. Better to be born blind than lose your sight later in life. I’ve never known anything else.
This has also given me a long time to come to terms with my illness and to learn to live with it. I take medication, and as long as I stay on them most of my days are just as boring and mundane as everyone else’s. Mild episodes will always happen, but the big ones, the ones ranging on the scale 8 or above, are few and far between.
The most difficult thing about living with schizophrenia is not always being able to tell what is real from what is not. Sometimes, it’s very clear. If I see a purple elephant riding a tricycle through my living room, I can pretty much assume that isn’t real and not give it much thought. The ones that get to me are the more subtle ones…answering a phone that wasn’t ringing…responding to someone calling my name when there was no one…attempting to sit in a chair that’s not really there. This sort of thing can be extremely embarrassing when they happen in public, so I tend to stay away from most people. I know I come across as creepy to some. Strange. It’s like they know there is something “off” about me, but just can’t pinpoint what it is.
Another annoying thing about this illness are the delusions. I have been fortunate, though. I haven’t been plagued by delusions the way some schizophrenics are. I don’t believe the government has planted a chip in my brain or that I have been abducted by aliens. I don’t buy into conspiracy theories or anything like that. However, there is always that danger. I’m always afraid of going off the deep end that way, so I avoid anything that might trigger it. Sometimes all it takes for a simple idea to take root. A word. A phrase. It’s not always purple elephants. Often times, it’s something much worse.
One thing I avoid above all else is religion. I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful to anyone who is religious. A common delusion for schizophrenics to fall into is the belief that they are hearing the voice of God, or that their hallucinations are actually angels or demons trying to show them visions. I’ve even had well-meaning people tell me that I’m not mentally ill at all- that I’m gifted. I can see into the spiritual realm whereas others cannot.
Of course that’s ridiculous. This is not a gift. Yet, I do fear someday believing it. Who wouldn’t want to believe that they are special that way? I suppose that’s why it’s such a common thing. Yet, it’s very dangerous thinking. As appealing as the notion of being chosen by God is, the reality is that I have an illness. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t romantic. It just is. Besides that…I don’t have such a great track record with religion.
My father…I mentioned him earlier…was a Southern Baptist Preacher in the backwoods of Louisiana where I grew up. He was a devout Christian and held his family, myself included, to strict standards. We were examples for the community, and he took that position very seriously.
In public anyway. Behind closed doors things were quite different. My father drank heavily and had a hellfire and brimstone temper. It went even beyond that, however. There was a meanness in him- a side the rest of the congregation never saw. He reveled in his position of power over his followers, and that bled heavily into our home life. We weren’t his family. We were his flock.
You see this scar across the corner of my mouth? That was delivered with a strip of barbed wire. I could show you my arms and my back as well, but I keep those covered. No matter the weather, I’m always in long sleeves.
Having a schizophrenic son was not news my father took well. At first he didn’t believe there was such a thing. He was convinced I was behaving this way for attention- claiming to see things that weren’t real. Then it got more sinister. My father became seized with the idea that was in fact, possessed. My hallucinations were Satanic visions. I was hearing the voice of the Devil. That’s when I stopped being human in my father’s eyes. I was no longer his son. I was a thing to be tormented whenever he saw fit.
He derived a sick pleasure in not just the physical torture- the beatings, the burns, the chokings, the cuts- but the psychological torture as well. He stopped calling me by my name and instead used nicknames like “Schizo”, or “his personal favorite, “Hellspawn”. He enjoyed taking advantage of my fragile psychological state. He would say or do things he knew would trigger an episode, and then use that as further evidence that I was filled with the devil.
One day, when I was about 7, he came home in a drunken stupor as usual, but this time he clutched something in his left hand as he staggered through the front door. At first I thought it was some sort of dead rodent, but when he brought it into the light it was clear. It was a teddy bear- torn in places, with matted fur and bald spots. In his gravelly, slurred voice he tossed it at my face and said, “Here, ya go, Hellspawn. Pulled that out of the dumpster for you. Mind you watch out. It’s got a mind of its own.” With that he plopped on the sofa and passed out.
Mind of its own. That’s all it took. That simple phrase. A seed was planted. I regarded the haggard thing my father had thrown at me. It stank. I believed him when he said he pulled it from the garbage. My first inclination was to just throw it away. In a few hours my father would probably not even remember giving it to me and would never miss it. But what if he did? What if he got angry that I tossed it out? Hanging on to a smelly, rotten, stuffed animal seemed more appealing than whatever punishment my father my inflict on me, so I took it up to my room.
This was most likely some sort of mind game. He wanted to see how long he could make me keep this thing. Make me sleep with it. Make me take it to school. Make me eat meals with it. As his petty torments went, this seemed pretty mild so I figured I could take it. It was just an old bear, after all. But those words kept seeping into my brain- mind of its own. I began to regard the bear with suspicion. When I was 7, I didn’t have the discernment skills to be able to tell when a delusion or an episode was about to overtake me. I’m much older now and I’ve lived with this for years. I now have coping skills and strategies I can use to combat things like this. But back then, I did not. I stared into the beady, plastic eyes of the bear, and I could feel it staring back at me. It has a mind of its own.
I threw the bear across the room. It landed face down on the wooden floor. I decided then that I wasn’t going to take it into the bed with me. I would just leave it there on the floor. I went to bed and after what felt like hours of lying still with one eye fixed on the bear, I managed to fall asleep. I’m not sure how long I slept. It may have been a couple of hours or just a few minutes, but I was awakened by a strange wooden sound. I say “wooden” because it sounded like snapping twigs and creaking branches. When I opened my eyes, they were already pointed in the direction where the bear layed, still on the floor. But now it was changing. It’s furry limbs twisted and lengthened in a jerking and unnatural way. That was the cracking noise I was hearing. Its arms and legs grew and jerked, lengthening and thinning like spider legs. Finally, it lifted its head from the floor, it was swollen to several times its original size, and distended across from fluffy ear to fluffy ear was a row of sharp teeth that dripped with drool. It opened its jaw and released a roar that shook the room. I felt its hot breath hit me in the face, and I bolted from the bed.
I ran into the hall and headed for the stairs. Behind me I could hear the sounds of crackling wood as the thing lifted itself to its feet. I turned to look and it scrambled behind me, walking on spindly legs and using its spider-like arms to dig its claws into the opposite walls of the hallway to propel itself forward. The house rattled with its growls. As I reached the stairs I slipped on the top step and tumbled to the bottom floor. I twisted my ankle in the process and couldn’t get back to my feet. I looked up the stairs and staggering its way down was this monstrosity- no longer a teddy bear, but a scarecrow-like thing with the skin of a teddy bear stretched across its wooden skeleton. It opened its mouth again and spoke. “It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home. For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain because today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic…”
I screamed and closed my eyes, sliding myself back across the floor like a slug. I began reciting a nursery rhyme that sometimes brought me comfort when I was having an episode. I tried to remind myself that this wasn’t real. “As I was going up the stairs, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away. As I was going up the stairs, I met a men who wasn’t there, He wasn’t there again today, I wish, I wish, he’d go away…” I whispered this to myself over and over.
When I opened my eyes I was in my mothers arms. She was shaking me and calling my name. I looked past her worried face and up toward the stairs. My father stood at the top, with the bear in his hands. “What’s wrong with him now?” He said. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I think he had another night terror.” “Figures,” my father said in that familiar, dismissive tone. “Gonna chain you to the bed, boy if you don’t cut this shit out.” He threw the bear at me again and disappeared into the hallway.
My mother carried me back up to bed.
For the next few nights this happened again and again. The bear would transform into the monster, chasing me, and my mother would find me in various places of the house- hiding in closets or in cabinets, shaking and reciting nursery rhymes. After the sixth night my mother begged my father to let her get rid of the bear. She offered to burn it, bury it, whatever it took. My father just smugly smiled and said, “You’d burn a gift a father gave his son? How ungrateful!”
Somehow, my father was still more terrifying than anything my broken mind could invent.
Even so, the constant disturbances during the night were wearing on him too. So he made good on his promise to restrain me to my bed. The seventh night, he tied me down with ropes and sat the bear square on my chest. “Sleep tight,” he said as he closed my bedroom door.
It wasn’t long before I felt vibrations on my chest as a low growl began to rise from the bear. Slowly, it’s mouth began to stretch across its face in a toothy, distended fashion. Immediately, I closed my eyes and began to recite the rhyme. Over my own voice, though, I could hear that crackling sound. It was growing again. Transforming. I abandoned the rhyme and instead began to scream. I called for my mother. I struggled and strained against the ropes until they began to cut into my wrists and I felt blood trickle down my arm. I could hear voices in the hall. My mother first. “Let me go to him, please! He’s having a nightmare!”
Then my father, “Stop babying him! He’s driving us all as crazy as he is! You want a stop to it? I’ll make it stop!” What happened next is a blurry mix of hallucination and reality. To this day I’m not quite sure what actually transpired. I remember my father bursting into my bedroom. I remember the door flinging open and crashing against the wall behind. I remember the crackling noise the bear made as it grew. I remember the bear’s voice, “Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic!”
There was a scream…but not my own this time. My eyes were clenched tightly shut and I just kept repeating, “As I was going up the stairs, I met a man who wasn’t there, he wasn’t there again today, I wish I wish he’d go away.” There were growls, and roars, crashes, the sound of ripping flesh and screaming…then silence.
Finally, my mother came in. She saw me tied to the bed and ran to me, frantically removing the ropes from my bloody wrists. My father was nowhere to be seen. The bear lied face down on the wooden floor, as it had the first night when I had thrown it aside.
After attending to my wounds and making sure I was all right, my mother asked me, “Where is your father?” I looked up at her and simply shook my head.
That was nearly thirty years ago. The community assumed that my father must have wandered away in a drunken stupor and had some sort of accident. There was a search in the nearby woods, but nothing was ever found. I still have the teddy bear. Never since that night has it ever transformed again. It’s just a bear. Just an old, worn, teddy with dead plastic eyes and balding fur. When I first saw it, it frightened me. But I was just a child then, and now I understand that it was all a delusion brought on by my illness. However, for reasons I can’t quite describe, I have a certain respect for this old thing. Sometimes, the scariest things in this world are just misunderstood. Sort of like me.
After all. All of us have a mind of our own.