Alex looks back on the first time she experienced symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and her road to recovery.
I was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was 20 years old, and was hospitalised and then sectioned after experiencing a severe psychotic breakdown at the end of my second year studying English Literature at Leeds University.
At first, I didn’t realise what was happening to me. When I first started experiencing symptoms they were so pervasive that I was unable comprehend that it was the early stages of mental illness. Instead, I experienced weeks of confusion, terror and intensely complicated delusional perception.
It was as if my mind had shattered, and nothing around me held the same meaning as it had done beforehand.
I couldn’t relate to my friends any more. I wanted to, but I was unable to function with the deep terror the voices quickly installed within me. The voices were the first symptoms I experienced, and were to signal the intensity of the schizophrenia and psychosis which followed. At first, they were intriguing. It was so overwhelmingly weird to sit in a room surrounded by all your friends, and to be experiencing two levels of conversation. The first would be happening in the room around me, and the second seemed only to be taking place in my mind. Moreover, the paranoia would make it really hard to distinguish which was “real” and which wasn’t.
For the first couple of days the voices, which sounded like my friends, were friendly and fairly innocuous, but they quickly shifted into a more negative tone and eventually became derisive and jeering as I didn’t seem able to comprehend their meaning.
One night I knocked on my neighbour’s door at 2am because I was convinced that my friends were in the upstairs room that was next to mine. But on entering the house and checking upstairs to find no one there, I was left confused, embarrassed and afraid. I had thought they were watching me through a camera and had needed me to do things to prove my loyalty to my boyfriend. It was a horrendous, gruelling experience, and I remember falling asleep and waking up still terrified about what the next day might possibly bring.
After about three weeks it became clear to my friends how unwell I had become; I was hearing voices and messages through the TV and radio, was intensely paranoid about people on the street, and couldn’t communicate rationally or sensibly anymore. The psychosis had completely taken over the way I related to the world, and I was living in a world of delusion, fantasy and fear. My friends eventually bit the bullet, and called my parents for help.
I remember my dad suddenly appearing in my bedroom door one day, looking scared and agitated, and telling me he was taking me back home. The journey back was a long arduous nightmare. I was sure dad was being influenced by the devil and was going to have a heart attack. I thought he was going to crash the car, and that we were being pursued by enemies and dangerous people. I screamed, and cried and railed against him all the way home.
The next two weeks must have been so difficult for my parents. I was beyond their reach, and completely disconnected from the person I had been before I’d become unwell.
My sense of reality had become deeply distorted, and I couldn’t relate to or understand anything they said or did.
So much was happening for me, within my own mind, but none of it made any sense to them. They were scared and worried, and completely helpless in the face of the condition which had claimed my mind.
Eventually they did the only thing they could and called the mental health team. A doctor and a social worker came out to do an assessment. I don’t remember much about it, other than the fact that I was worried about the doctor because I thought that he was messing with events he shouldn’t have been, and that he was in danger. But I also knew that he didn’t know this, and so was trying to help him, as he tried to understand what was happening to me.
A few days later my parents bundled me into the car with a duffel-bag filled with a few changes of clothes and a washbag, and sped me over to the nearest hospital. They needed four doctors to get me out the car, and I only calmed down after I’d been sedated. I remember my mum crying and my dad holding onto her as I was marched onto the psych ward and committed to a period of 28 days hospitalisation.
As much as it was horrendous, it was the best possible course of action. I was too far removed from reality to be able to function, and my parents simply couldn’t help me on their own anymore. I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia a few months later and began my long road back to recovery.
We're funding Dr Petra Vertes to investigate how schizophrenia first develops in the brain, so we can gain a greater understanding around why these symptoms Alex describes emerge.
Last updated: 6 December 2017