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Personal Accounts: Schizophrenia and Socialization
Valerie Fox
Psychiatric Services 2009; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.60.4.430
View Author and Article Information

Ms. Fox lives in Parsippany, New Jersey. Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., is editor of this column.

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During my childhood I was a happy, carefree little girl who loved her mother and her grandmother and her brother. I loved being with my family, but I also had a childhood friend whom I adored. She was about three years older than I was, but she always was nice to me. As a child I was not a late sleeper, so on weekends as soon as I was washed, dressed, and had breakfast, down our stairs I flew to knock on my friend's door. Her mother and she usually slept later than I did, but I was always welcome. We were friends until high school, when I was sent to Catholic school and my friend went to public school. Our friendship lasted about a year into high school; then we drifted apart. Looking back to that time, I can't believe I was so carefree and sure of my friend's acceptance of me and my idiosyncrasies. I was so secure in this friendship, so secure in thinking that my friendship was as important to her as hers was to me. She was my best friend.

When I was sent to a high school away from my friends, I was never accepted by many, possibly because I was becoming extremely insecure and conveyed my insecurity to others. I did my schoolwork, worked part-time, and socialized somewhat, but my family was the center of my life.

Later, at Katharine Gibbs School, I was accepted by a very nice group of girls and enjoyed socializing with them. There was a part of me during this time that was changing (possibly the very onset of schizophrenia). I would think very deeply about spirituality. Although I liked being accepted after a few years of nonacceptance, I sought solitude in my free time. I would take long walks. Possibly I was beginning to become isolated. I had a boyfriend whom I cared for, but deep down I really did not want to be in a relationship. I wanted to be a single person living the life of a Christian doing good works. I was always intense, a trait I did not have as a child.

After Gibbs, I got a great job with an airline and traveled extensively because I thought I might never have the opportunity again. I tried very hard in my job and was appreciated. My work I could do well, but some days I would just ache for a feeling of security. I was starting to have racing, insecure thoughts, although not delusional; these were very racing thoughts about intense subjects. I also was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with me. I would look at other people and wonder if they too had such thoughts, but I was afraid to ask anyone.

During this time, while I was working for the airline and had a boyfriend, I started growing away from my mother and grandmother. This was very difficult for me, but I thought this separation was appropriate, part of adulthood. My first schizophrenia episode came then, and there were two more close together. Today I think about when I left my family, which was my center; with no family around me, there was no distraction to my racing, intense thoughts—no distraction from schizophrenia's taking a firm hold. Once I grew out of the family unit and became independent, my thoughts were my guide to living, and they were ill; my judgment was not sound. I struggled for a few years until I realized that with schizophrenia I could not trust my thoughts alone and needed supports. Thus began my journey with schizophrenia. I was 21 years old.

The friends I had made at Gibbs and while working in New York tried to be loyal, but when the person they knew had disappeared, and in her place was someone being sent to a mental institution and taking meds that changed her personality, each left one by one. It hurt, and it crushed any feeling of normal I had. I would meet other friends during this period and needed to share that I had had a breakdown in order to feel liked for myself. Some tried to accept that I had a mental illness, but then my symptoms would appear, and these friendships too ended. I rarely sought girlfriends after this, and I had no other lasting friends during this period.

Mental stabilization did follow, and I subsequently married and had children. I regained my confidence and built a family life, but not on a foundation of openness. My illness was buried deep inside of me. I did what I had to do. I socialized as was expected of me, but it was superficial. My joy and good nature were on the surface, while inside I ached to be liked for myself, as a person with schizophrenia.

For a person suffering with schizophrenia or any other mental illness, there is what I would call a protocol for dealing with family activities. When there was a family function to which I was invited (I was invited to some events but not others), people seemed embarrassed or unsure how to speak with me. I was unsure how to act at these functions—something I never have learned. To this day, I go to the family functions that I have to attend. The stigma and the discomfort of feeling other people's discomfort in talking with a "mental patient" are not something I choose to subject myself to, so I limit these events to the most important.

After a number of years, I ended my marriage. I had felt suffocated by the strong vigilance paid to my behavior—is she getting sick? Is she taking her medication? My children with me, I left the marriage and was very happy living as a single parent. However, after many years of being medication compliant, one day I decided I would stop taking my medication, believing that I would remain well. I didn't remain well; instead, I decompensated quickly. My children were taken by their father, and I lost the life I had known. I spiraled into a world of homelessness, delusions, and voices for approximately two years.

After this painful episode of schizophrenia and homelessness, I sought treatment and continued with my journey of living with mental illness. I was different, and my relationships with my daughters had been scarred by this very devastating setback. I remained in their lives, but I did not have close relationships with them. Without the children's needs to tend to, I tried to think of ways to lessen my feelings of isolation and fear. I decided that when I was a young girl, I always had purpose—in school, church, or sports. So I decided I would have purpose by speaking about schizophrenia and writing about it, with the aim of eradicating the stigma. I would also work, remembering that I had always been a good worker. These things replaced my need for many friends. With purpose I was happy. I felt I was trying to make a difference, which was all that mattered to me.

I have worked in the field of mental health for the past 12 years, giving supportive counseling to other persons living with serious and persistent mental illness. Again I found a strong purpose to my life. I have written many articles, presented many workshops, and yes, I have even put aside my strong reservations and have committed to a "best friend" relationship with a woman I work with. It took a couple of years for me to accept the friendship she kept offering, but about a year ago I decided I wanted a best friend again. It was not a simple decision for me because of the scars of mental illness, but I am happy to have a close friend. It had been about 35 years since I allowed myself the pleasure of a close friend, and I am enjoying having someone to share both the good and bad experiences in my life and to have someone who is always supportive. This friend lives with schizophrenia also and has also suffered many losses because of her illness. I think we both value something good in our lives and so are willing to nurture the friendship. It is very nice to trust in a friend again.

My children remain in my life, and I believe they love me. I think they try to handle that I was mentally ill and homeless, but I think they find this very difficult to deal with. I accept what they offer to me of their lives; I always will.

I don't think it is productive to say, "What if I didn't have schizophrenia?" Instead, I think it is productive to say "Thank goodness for supports, counseling, and medications." These tools have been invaluable in my journey from an isolated person living less than a true-to-self life to a working woman with social relationships that are solid.

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