My first psychotic break was triggered by a series of events culminating in me seeing a dead deer lying in a small body of water.
The deer was real (someone else was with me and she saw it too), but it disturbed me so much that I was unable to stop thinking about it, and my mind began to conjure up a host of other animals, both dead and alive. For years, I had animated conversations with a snake named Henry, who I believed resided inside of my body, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
I don’t hear from Henry much these days, and when I think about the years during which he and I conversed daily, I don’t remember a lot about what I did, how I coped, and what life was like back then. Then, in 2016, I was raped, and the trauma of that incident, combined with past trauma, both real and imagined, led my mind to invent a conspiracy with me in the center. In some kind of psychosis-logic, I believed that I was the target of an organization of “Bad Men,” who sought to harm other people, and that my existence would somehow stop them from succeeding. As I continued to ruminate on this, I decided I was not quite human, and I dabbled in research about “starchildren,” which only served to further this delusion. I spent a great deal of time worrying about invisible surveillance devices implanted in my body, my food, or my home. I felt like my death was right around the corner, and I frequently felt compelled to do all kinds of strange things involving dead animals, fire, etc. One of the strange rituals I invented was “magic tape.”
I don’t exactly know why it played out the way it did, but for some reason, I found a very specific brand of Scotch Tape that had a sheer, silver, glittery pattern on it. I originally bought it for crafting, but at some point, it became a sort of protection for me against the “Bad Men,” which is to say, it quieted my nerves enough that I could go to sleep or do other basic tasks without fear of being killed (by people who didn’t even exist, much less were out to get me). I’d cut little strips of the tape and put it on my fingers–Bam! Protection!
I did this for years. I once bought every single roll of the tape I could find at the store, which I thought would serve as protection forever. I shared this trick with others in schizo-spectrum forums and fellow patients at the hospital where I frequently found myself under a 72-hour hold. Much like a child with a security blanket, I was comforted by this odd ritual. As far as strange delusions or compulsions go, this one really wasn’t all that out there. No, it’s not ideal for situations like going to work (customers will ask you damn near anything, and the tape drew attention to my hands when making change and such) or meeting someone new. But compared to the time I found myself trying to take a photo of a dead bird in the middle of a busy intersection near a local university or carrying a burnt-out lightbulb everywhere with me “for protection,” or banging my head into a tree to dislodge something I thought had been implanted in me, the tape wasn’t so bad.
At one point, I really did need a barrier between the world and me. I was entrenched in my trauma, spending hours looking at “vent art,” online, ruminating on it, reading things like Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad, (which I would not recommend!), etc. I did very little in those years besides sleep and go to work, and while I was still writing, it wasn’t anything of substance. All I wrote were thinly veiled reconstructions of what had happened to me. To put it succinctly, I was living in the past.
As I put more space between myself and the trauma, I found I needed the tape less and less. Imagine you’ve watched your favorite movie numerous times and the action scenes that once seemed intense are now predictable. It’s the same with the psychotic symptoms I experience. The thoughts and voices that used to terrify me and render me unable to perform at work and school are now just background noise.
This is largely due to the Abilify injection, which I get every three weeks. Coupled with Clozapine, this is the most effective combination of medicine I’ve ever been on. Still, psychiatry is more of an art than a science, so at the end of the three weeks when the Abilify begins to wear off, I can get a little bit shaky. The past two nights have had me feeling “off.” My mind is adept at inventing stories, and starts trying to fill in the gaps between the strange things I see and hear.
Last night, I was quickly convinced that there was a creature in my house, and that my cat had been replaced and meant to do me harm. I had homework and a personal writing project to work on, but I was afraid to sit down and stop moving, so I tore my house apart looking for that tape.
I couldn’t find it. I knew I was running low, and I’d found a few similar rolls, but that wouldn’t do. To add one more obstacle to the situation, the company doesn’t manufacture that particular pattern of tape anymore.
These thoughts and fears of the “Bad Men” have plagued me for years, and because I am guaranteed a couple of weeks of lucidity a month thanks to the Abilify injection, I am able to use a little bit of logic with myself in scenarios like this. Instead of allowing myself to fall into a panic, I realized that I don’t always feel this way and thought back to a time about a week ago when I was free of these thoughts and knew that no one was out to get me. I figured I could feel that way again very soon.
Weirdly, this helps. Tape or no tape, I was able to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Even while my mind was doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out a way to keep me scared and stuck, I was able to relax enough to move about the house, do a few chores, and text my boyfriend and another friend about some unrelated things. (Hey, I think that’s called distracting myself, which may be one of those coping skills!) These days, these breakthrough symptoms are like unexpectedly getting caught in the rain: unexpected and annoying, but I certainly won’t melt. I am no longer completely entrenched in a frightening fantasy world, and when Archie’s face does seem to melt like a Salvador Dali clock, I don’t have to panic. Sometimes, the best thing I can do is keep calm and carry on.