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Photo: Tovin Lapan/ABP

What I’ve learned during five years of treatment for mental illness

Schizophrenia is a loaded term.

About one-third of people associate it with split personality disorder, another third think it’s something crazy homeless people have and only the final third are actually familiar with the disease. I am one of those people. I have schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, most of the connotations around schizophrenia are negative, focused on the idea that it is something bad that should not be discussed in public. I was told to never disclose my illness to anyone. But I want to break down the stigma, and demonstrate the power of sharing your story of living with mental illness.

A journey into—and out of—the dark

My first symptoms started soon after I graduated from UCLA. I had just gotten out of a relationship, and I was applying to medical school but not getting in anywhere. These were big emotional stressors, and I started having strange thoughts that someone was hacking my computer. Pop-up messages appeared on my Facebook and Dropbox pages, and I believed someone was using the sites to communicate with me surreptitiously. I asked my friends if they were in on it, and even though they said no I imagined they were part of some big secret. It felt as though I were in the movie The Truman Show, and everyone was a part of the conspiracy.

While these thoughts persisted, I started work at University of California—San Francisco as a research coordinator. My symptoms continued for about a year and gradually worsened. As my mind sank into darkness, I started to isolate. I couldn’t concentrate; I couldn’t have conversations with people; I wanted to sleep all day. My mind slowed to a halt. I felt as though my brain was covered in mud.

Eventually, I visited a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with anxiety and depression and put me on antidepressants. At first, it helped. I returned to work and felt better, so I stopped taking my medications. But I was in denial. My condition would only grow worse.

One day in June, 2012 I was feeling very empty and not myself, so I went to my family’s house. I was watching the San Francisco Giants and eating In-n-Out, but something was terribly wrong. My brain had returned to that mud-soaked state, and I couldn’t carry on a conversation. I felt so hopeless and pained, and I had the delusion that the only way out was to fight my brother. He looked at me concerned. “Are you okay?” he asked. In my head, he was starting a fight. I lunged at him, believing it would relieve my anguish. My parents called the police, and when they arrived, I lunged at them too. They handcuffed me and took me to a psychiatric hospital.

I spent a week at the hospital, where I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was traumatized. My brain felt like it was on fire and being crushed simultaneously. The pain was so excruciating, my only release was to scream at the top of my lungs. I remember walking up to the nurse on duty and asking for a drug to commit suicide. Instead, I was tied down and sedated.

Brandon Chuang, a graduate student in the psychology program at UC Berkeley, suffers from schizophrenia and has to take medications regularly to manage his disease. Tovin Lapan/ABP

After I stabilized on medication and left the hospital, I had to reassess my life and accept that I had a mental illness. Could I ever go back to being “normal” again? Would I have a successful life? At the psychiatric hospital, I saw the devastation of mental illness first hand. I remember a woman who screamed at “ghosts” she saw. There was a man who talked to himself in a corner and another woman covered in self-inflicted scars. Would I end up like these people? Was this my fate?

Those were the dark days of my disease. Today, I’m working toward my doctorate in psychology at UC Berkeley so I can help others with mental illness. While things have improved significantly, I still have off-days when I feel like I’m slipping back into the shadows. I’ve been able to manage those days, but only with support. This is key. You must get support. Do not let stigma (internal or external) get in the way of seeking help. I hope my story, and some of the things I’ve learned during five years of recovery will help others beat the stigma of mental illness.

Lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Accept there is a problem. Half the challenge of living with schizophrenia comes from first recognizing that you’re struggling. Here’s a great resource for people who think they may have a problem, but aren’t sure how to get help: http://strong365.org/

You can’t do anything great alone. All great things are built with support: Companies have large teams to work on projects; scientific investigators have labs with students who do the bulk of work; everyone needs help to build their best self. People with schizophrenia just happen to need a different kind of help—medications and psychosocial treatment—which is unfortunately rather stigmatized in society. Once you are able to seek out help for this, you can get the right treatment and support.

You will suffer unnecessarily if you do not get help. This is a disorder of the mind and there are biological underpinnings that show this is a biochemical imbalance you can’t control. No matter how strong you are. No matter how sure you are that you can “push” through. I have to take medication. For me, that’s non-negotiable. Without medication, I would not be able to function.

Be compassionate toward yourself. People with mental illness can be hard on themselves. I tend to take things seriously, and have to remind myself that it’s okay to rest sometimes. There’s a tendency to think of your illness as weakness, that if you were just stronger, then you’d be cured. But that’s not how this works. When we accept this is a disease and not a personal defect, we can start treating it properly.

Join a community. Whatever you enjoy, do it and commit to it. For me, that’s science and improv comedy. Because of this dedication, I’ve found friends and colleagues in both areas. I’m part of a team and derive a sense of accomplishment and importance from both. I feel that I can contribute to things that are bigger than myself.

This is your journey. Do not compare yourself to others. It may seem like all your friends and everyone your age is off doing great things and that you’re somehow behind. However, you’ve been through incredible trauma that most other people will never experience. Measure yourself by your own standard. How have you improved from your previous self? Where do you want to go? Commit to working hard at something that you love.

Care about developing relationships. It’s hard to connect with others when you have schizophrenia. It is such an isolating experience and it can feel like no one understands you or gets what you’ve gone through. But the more you can talk openly about your illness, the more you will attract the right kind of people in your life. These people are everywhere—you can find them in the hobbies, passions and work you enjoy. When you find these people, foster relationships with them. Stay in touch and make it a priority to keep these people in your life.

You don’t have to end up a permanent resident at a psychiatric hospital. You don’t have to work a meaningless job. You don’t have to feel isolated, lonely and hopeless. It may take more work and it may seem unfair, but as long as you have the courage to work hard and keep moving forward, you can live a beautiful life.