Seeing Schizoaffective Disorder and Sanity from Different Angles
Sherry M. Joiner
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I have lived with Schizoaffective Disorder the majority of my life. I have the experience of being with and taking caring of this illness that affects me day in and day out, and I know which drugs that will keep my mind healthy and help me to stay well.
As I sit the gallery at the Oregon Society of Artists where my paintings hang with other artists in Portland, I’m looking at a photo. That’s me in my bright blue dress and long flowing red hair with President Obama’s arm around my shoulder. I’m shaking his hand. As a member of Ladies in Blue, we phone banked for Obama and as a reward we were able to meet him for a photo op. A happy picture
As I look around, I see other images that evoke other emotions. I focus on the painting of a man in a cowboy hat hunched over at a bar with a can of beer and cigarette in his hand. I reminisce about my step-dad, Ralph and sorrow sweeps over me. I can feel my eyebrows sink in, and I see my reflection in the plastic covered note pad before me. It began when I was in junior high, and Ralph became my step-dad. I was young and innocent. He gave me a fat lip for defending my brother who was seven, when mom and Ralph left him alone to go drinking. I depended on my intellect to reject his brutality, but there was a price to pay for such resistance. Five years later, Ralph, mom, and I were at the Friendly Tavern in Roseburg, Oregon after I came home for Christmas from college. He snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray, and he picked his teeth with a match from a half used matchbook. He drove us home. When we arrived he jumped to his feet, clinched his fist and struck me for mentioning the fact that I had been raped at 19 and had a German girlfriend. (He didn’t like German people and thought that I was still innocent). As I caught his blow, I hit my head hard against the fireplace. Mom defended me that night and I left for a place I dreaded to return to once again. My mental system of dealing with the pressure began to erode and I became an empty shell of pain and doubt. I hitchhiked back to college.
As I turn around facing the opposite wall in the gallery, there are daffodils reflecting in a garden pond. They caused me to reflect on a vision of three lilies in the pond fussing about and talking to each other on the south side of the Oregon State Hospital where I was committed. Two lilies with broad smiles on their faces, and the third like she is in trauma. As I bend down to pick one up, the one nearest me spouted, “What are you doing here? “You are not good enough for us.” I said, “I don’t know they just put me here.” I carried on a conversation with each lily. It is important for me to remember these lilies because they represent the insane trip and hallucinations I went through when I went insane and was hospitalized in the state mental hospital in Salem, Oregon. It was the work and stress which was caused by a man named Ralph Sherman, the man in the cowboy hat hunched over at the bar with a can of beer and a cigarette in his hand.
A combination of events contributed to my becoming insane and how I was hospitalized: I was abused by Ralph at Christmas; men were extremely cruel to me; I fought a sexual discrimination case for equal pay; I took on different personalities as I visited several health institutions and Correctional Facility for a Health Safety class; and a psychiatrist prescribed a medication called Thorazine which I was allergic to. I was labeled a paranoid schizophrenic and suffered hallucinations and images of demons.
My paranoia occurred before the time I was hospitalized in the asylum and continued on through my sixties and to today. My paranoia could have been transferred to me genetically since there seemed to be mental illness in my mom’s family. I had an uncle in Brazil who committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in a hospital because he didn’t have the money for pain medication. He asked a nun for a match to light his cigarette, and when she was gone, he took his life. I faced my mother’s suicide when she was 67. She possibly could have been bipolar with extreme highs and lows. I think her drinking made up for the mood swings she was experiencing, too. And during the same year, my mom passed, my brother contracted the AIDS virus and died of AIDS. During my teens, I was popular in school engaging in extra curricular activities. But at the same time, felt all alone, thinking students were conspiring against me and talking behind my back. Ready to do me in. I couldn’t confide in anyone because I was so paranoid. I could have benefited from therapy then, but I didn’t reach out to a counselor or doctor in fear I’d be laughed at. I was ashamed of myself. It was distressing and because of my emotional circumstance at the time I couldn’t come up with a fair way to compensate for the stress. Feeling worthless, I went farther down the path of destruction.
I have had schizoaffective disorder since I was a teenager in the sixties, yet I was first diagnosed with it in 2001, at age 51. I still have the combination of paranoia schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Schizoaffective Disorder is a chronic brain disorder and affects me, and .3% of the population. It is comprised of emotional disturbances, mood disorders, and psychosis, characterized by distorted and stressful thoughts. The causes of schizoaffective disorder may be stress, genetics, abnormalities of cells in the brain, or viruses and toxins in the womb. I believe that the childhood abuse I suffered at the hands of my alcoholic parents, contributed to the onset of this disease. When I am without medication, my schizoaffective disorder is active, symptoms will include, paranoia, delusions (thinking I am Jesus Christ), auditory hallucinations (radio announcing and voices in my head telling me to do myself in), trouble with thinking and concentration, depression and mood swings which lead to mania- over stimulation and too much activity due to lack of sleep- and then psychosis. Sometimes I may switch from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder and back and forth. I have psychosis going on all the time. With medication I am stable and can control the disease, and my experiences with paranoia and depression are less often.
I’m drawn to a 3rd painting at the gallery. Like a magnet, it captivates me. High above a mountain with a bright blue sky in the background, a bald eagle is flying, uplifting my spirits. This painting symbolizes my mom leaving her suffering behind. It symbolizes my breaking free from my past. I am the eagle soaring high above the trenches of insanity to the liberation of my soul. I am going sane, and I am able to leave the mental institutions, psyche wards, and grief behind as a changed person with a willingness to live. I enjoy my time lecturing at the psych ward for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Multnomah, bringing hope, peace, and resources to those who leave the hospital, and being an In Our Own Voice presenter for NAMI speaking at Universities, Hospitals, Research Centers and Government programs in Oregon. In addition to helping people and their families with schizoaffective disorder and other mental health conditions, I have written a memoir called, Sherry Goes Sane: Living A Life With Schizo-Affective Disorder, available on Amazon and Create Space . My writing, art, doctors, family, friends, and medicine have kept me stable.