The concept of recovery and healing is so complicated. For now, let us assume that people ‘heal’ as a by-product of their recovery, which includes many other aspects.
These aspects include their overall stance on healing, approach to recovery, rate-of-recovery, and so many other nuances that contribute to our overall healing from trauma, self-inflicted harm, and organic brain disease. I would like to explore my own lived experience with first-onset psychosis.
I always knew the qualities of my personality were altered by schizophrenia. I approach problems differently today than before my disorder. I even handle positive insertions into my life differently today. These insertions can be as simple as good conversation during the workday or meeting a new person and experiencing a budding relationship blossom. But, what exactly do I mean by different? The difference is at the level of how I handle such occurrences. These extend beyond the normal development of my personality, I believe. We all grow and mature over time. There is no question that some of the changes I am gesturing towards are due to my development’s natural progression. However, I know myself better than that. I also know I’ve had to mature a lot faster than most people my age.
This is mainly because, developmentally, I cannot afford to make the same mistakes people at my development stage make. Since my psychological landscape has little room for error, I need to be extra cautious, extra careful, and speedy in how I go about maturing and the maturation process.
I need to handle things differently. But my question is: how much of this is a by-product of the changes due to the first onset?
I genuinely wonder if the resultant changes that manifested in my brain necessitated me to handle things differently? Meaning, because my mind now functions differently, is the need to feel things differently from the first onset, or is it a result of how my brain went about healing? Are the changes the direct result of trauma to the brain, or the development of my mind healing ‘normally’?
I will tell you one thing. For the most part, I have not gone about changing the way I handle things because I simply wanted to be spontaneous and change things up. No, I have had to because, after the first onset, I was so disordered that I couldn’t speak intelligibly enough for others to gather anything meaningful from my speech.
I have written extensively on stilted language and the changes during my episode when the first onset first hit my brain’s synapses. However, I rarely evaluate how my speech was before my disorder and after my recovery. More importantly, given my findings, how do I find my own brain’s capacity to heal from psychosis? I am no speech analyst. In truth, my expertise is in rhetoric, and really only helpful when studying the words used, delivery, style, memory, and delivery.
But even with my limited knowledge of how rhetoric works, a side by side comparison of my speech and ability to communicate before the first onset and after is bothersome on many levels and remarkably telling on others. Incredibly, speaking of the energy I invested in my recovery, the specific skills I was able to relearn, and how far I could push forward in areas that benefited from relearning how to speak and communicate. That is to say, not every aspect of my rhetorical canon was repaired, or responded to the work I invested in regaining my language facilities.
In my 2006 Radio Show, County Speak, on WHRW 90.5 Binghamton, I was at the height of my college speaking career. Thoroughly before any schizophrenia symptom, I was in complete command of what I wanted to say and how I went about saying it. After listening to the show alongside a recent interview from this year, I was taken aback. I sounded like an altogether different person years ago.
Let’s break it down on the level of rhetoric. In terms of style, my speech was certainly more spontaneous in 2007, with less effort and energy expended on my part to seem so. My memory was remarkably better in 2007. I needed to pause less to gather my thoughts, and the flow and diction were more even and smooth. All of these aspects of rhetoric have taken a turn after the first onset.
Given these, aspects of my speech responded well to the effort and energy I invested in my treatment targeting my language. However, they did not reconstitute completely and heal up without a hardened scab and layer of nonfunction or impairment, still visible to this day. Only on the level of delivery have I been able to learn how to be more impactful. This has nothing to do with my illness, though. This simply harkens back to what I was speaking about earlier. That I’ve had to invest a ton of energy into the process, and my delivery, how I capture my audience’s attention, keep it, and redirect my life’s sheer inertia into the work is clear as day and uncontested.
I can’t help but cite the greatest, Muhammad Ali, who wasn’t as fast on his feet as he once was after returning to boxing after years of political exile. He learned to lean on the ropes with the famous icon ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy and outpace his challengers with the imposition of will and his unrivalled stamina. While I am not as savvy with my ability to choose words as quickly and effectively or speak smoothly and spontaneously, I have learned to lean on my energy.
My sheer will to rise above my impairment is genuinely the main asset I have in my corner. Sure, identifying my weaknesses and pinpointing what works, and what hasn’t along the way was also important. But certainly, my energy and the level of intensity I put into the work ahead is what continues to drive my healing forward.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.