My mother has spent her life trying to fix herself. Like all of us, she has some things she’d like to be better at, some healthy habits she wants to build, and some issues that she wishes would go away. Unlike most of us, she also has schizophrenia, so her own negative self talk is amplified by a culture that sends the message that her mental illness is not acceptable, and voices she literally hears telling her she’s not good enough.
Our whole family wants her to “get better.” To get the right psychiatric care and take the right medication and just be able to live her life. But, unfortunately, there is no cure for schizophrenia. For some people with fewer hallucinations and delusions, medications may be enough for them to operate fairly well in the world. For those like my mother, the medications may turn the volume down, but the cacophony of disordered thinking and intangible experiences never shuts off. This is something she has no means to fix.
What this means is that it is very challenging for her to manage daily life. She is distracted by a stream of voices and imagined realities, and she forgets to take her medication, or eat. She’d stay up all night if her meds didn’t knock her out. I’ve never known her to sleep on a regular schedule. She hasn’t been able to work since the early 1980s.
She also has a hard time communicating. Her words are slurred from the meds. Her thoughts are tangential and stream of consciousness and punctuated by non-sequiturs like, “I don’t take showers because I was killed in Auschwitz.” Generally speaking, people find her a bit hard to grasp. Once they get to know her, almost everyone finds her kind, smart, creative, and funny, but at first she might scare some people off.
She can’t get out much, due to a crippling agoraphobia that has plagued her since the 1970s. The pandemic has amplified her phobia, and the winter weather in North Idaho has made even going outside for a smoke almost impossible recently.
Part of her complex of symptoms is a tendency to hallucinate torture and rape. She left me a voicemail on my birthday in which she mentioned in a rather offhand fashioned that she had been raped for twelve hours straight. Sometimes she feels her throat close up, like an invisible hand is strangling her. She wants to move out of her assisted living facility in hopes of escaping nightly torture.
So, indeed, there are some things about herself and her experience that she would like to change. I would like that for her as well, but most of this is beyond any known psychiatric treatment. It doesn’t help that she’s in a small town and does not have access to “good” psychiatric care. It doesn’t help that she tends to fire her doctors and psychiatric professionals if they tell her something she doesn’t like. It doesn’t help that many services were reduced or shut down during the pandemic and she’s now on a waiting list to even get a case manager.
What does help her is reading the Serenity prayer and reminding herself that some things she cannot change, no matter how hard she wishes. It helps her to draw and do her special daily rituals with cigarettes and crystals. It helps to walk over to the bank for coffee and cookies on Fridays, where the kind tellers let her hang out as long as she likes. It helps her to eat, exercise, and sleep (just like everyone).
On our most recent call, I asked her, “What if you’re fine just as you are?”
She paused, then said, “Wow, when you said that it was like all the tension left my brain. THANK YOU.”
The fact is, each one of us is not only fine, but perfect exactly as we are. We are in constant flux and transformation and are never just one thing…and it’s all fine. It’s natural. You and I are part of nature. Schizophrenia is part of nature. We don’t get to control exactly how we are, but we do have the power to accept it even when we don’t like it.
And acceptance is the first step toward any positive transformation. You can’t kick an addiction without accepting that you are addicted. You can’t improve your health without embracing the reasons you do unhealthy things as part of your (perfectly wonderful) nature. What if you are actually fine, just as you are?