What does schizophrenia feel like?

All your ideas come from somewhere. If I asked you to imagine a mountain, a tree, or a planet, the image you would produce is probably one you’ve seen in a book or on a poster. The same goes for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Unless you have first-hand experience, chances are your ideas about these conditions come from books, movies, or conversations with people who suffer from them.

But what about less common mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder or bipolar disorder? We have ideas about what they look like, but it’s often difficult to tell where they come from. Given their relative rarity, there’s a good chance you’ve never spoken directly to someone with the condition about what it’s like to live with. This can leave you with misunderstandings.

One of the most common examples is schizophrenia. Schizophrenics are often described as the craziest of the insane. They are often conceptualized as psychopathic and abusive. If they are not laughed at, they are to be feared. But what exactly is schizophrenia and how does it feel to have it?

The early stages

Like any mental health condition, the symptoms of schizophrenia are as varied as the humans who suffer from it, but there are some things common to all sufferers.

Schizophrenia often begins similar to much worse versions of more common conditions, such as paranoia and anxiety. Schizophrenic is someone who hears things they have no rational basis for hearing. They become anxious about made-up or exaggerated problems or become paranoid about things that seem to wish them harm. At this stage, the schizophrenic perception of the world is not entirely inaccurate (they are not hallucinating, for example) but their mind invents worries. They approach the world with a schizophrenic lens: one where everyone is trying to get them and where catastrophe is around every corner. It is this paranoia that defines early-stage schizophrenia (indeed, schizophrenia is sometimes called paranoid schizophrenia). As one account says:

I became suspicious and felt like I was being watched and monitored by everyone: family, friends, and even strangers. I thought the security cameras mounted on the local buildings were recording my every move. I thought strangers knew who I was and were whispering about me as I passed.

Early stage schizophrenia is really hard to diagnose because the symptoms often resemble other mood disorders. But, of course, things get worse.

What schizophrenia feels like

What characterizes schizophrenia is experiencing hallucinations: perceptions that seem real but are created by the mind. One hallucination looks like all the others, True, sensory experiences. Many schizophrenics, however, will correct their hallucinations by thinking about them. Encountering an 8-foot tall bat or a talking tree runs counter to what we know about the world, so many schizophrenics can, and do, say, “This is clearly a hallucination.”

The most common type of hallucination is auditory – hearing voices. Here’s how Betty S Ruoss, who has schizophrenia, put it in a 2019 article:

One day I was walking home from work when I start hearing voices in my head. It wasn’t just one voice speaking: there were many low voices. I could not make out what they were saying. It felt like a radio between stations, with a lot of static. Time has passed and the voices have become clearer.

These rumors will vary enormously among schizophrenics. Sometimes the voices can sound positive – they can be funny or even supportive. More often, however, these voices are auditory manifestations of an underlying paranoia or anxiety. As this account says, “[The voices] they are sharp, demeaning and seem to have the goal of defeating me.

Red eyed goats and skulls in the wall

In its most advanced stage (and if left untreated), schizophrenia can lead to visual hallucinations: a stage that is sometimes labeled “psychosis.” As in hearing voices, the content of these hallucinations is extremely variable. For example, this study tells a happy case where:

A A Mexican American woman … described how her two deceased children visited her three or four times a week, in the evening, often after dinner, reassuring her that they were well and chatting and joking with her. Although the experiences were initially frightening, they have become more and more pleasant.

Other times, the visual hallucinations are terrifying. A Reddit comic artist recounts the time his schizophrenic wife saw a red-eyed goat. She lay on the bed, turned over, and there he was: a horned monster from a horror movie, staring straight at her. Seeing the dead, especially dead loved ones, is very common. So too is the macabre, like seeing skulls in the walls or demons floating above your bed.

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As with voices, hallucinations are usually pathological representations of underlying anxieties. For example, a lady suffering from traffic-related anxiety experienced the following:

I see someone stepping out onto the road in front of my bike and I run them over. The film runs constantly, the position of things is very distinct. It’s like watching a movie or actually seeing an event. I can see the woman I meet, and all the people in the background, all the cars across the street… I don’t feel like conjuring up images. They come by themselves and they run by themselves.”

A spectrum to understand

The more you learn about a mental condition, the more you can begin to understand it. And the more you can understand it, the more you can empathize with it. Most mental conditions do not exist as a binary but as a spectrum. Most everyone will be somewhere on the mental health spectrum. Yes, the medical and psychotherapy communities require definitions: They need points on the spectrum to say, “This person is schizophrenic and this person isn’t.” But as we have seen, there are degrees of schizophrenia.

It’s like schizophrenia is a road, with anxiety and paranoia at the beginning and red-eyed goats at the end. We are all somewhere on that road. Appreciating this fact helps to destigmatize and understand schizophrenia (and all mental health conditions) much more.

#schizophrenia #feel
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