It’s difficult to express how an entire world could crumble at a flick of a switch or what it feels like to live in a sensorial nightmare. Schizophrenia, perhaps one of the most documented mental conditions is, among other things, fleeting the unseen, dealing with the inexorable, and living with the idea that there are no distinguishable boundaries between illusion and reality.
Clinical aspects of schizophrenia
Schizophrenia has been described as severe and frequently debilitating mental disorder, characterised by hiatuses in the thought process, audio and visual hallucinations, an altered sense of self, and, most importantly, the inability to process external stimuli. The crux of schizophrenia is not being able to distinguish between what’s considered real, worldly, socially-acceptable, and the ‘new’ reality being shaped and reshaped by how the brain ‘chooses’ to interpret invariable external stimuli.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with schizophrenia include: delusions, hallucinations, disorganised speech, behavioural impairment, difficulty with focusing, movement issues, among others.
In some cases, experts have noticed long bouts of silence during speech. This form of schizophrenia is commonly referred to as catatonic schizophrenia, and it’s characterised by unnatural body postures and movements. Sometimes, this subtype is accompanied by echopraxia (patient mirroring someone’s gestures) or echolalia (repeating what someone is saying).
Psychiatrists and psychotherapists tend to agree on the condition’s duality – a physical aspect, involved a brain chemistry imbalance, and a thought-related aspect, which impairs the individual’s capability of relating to a socially-accepted reality.
Experiencing the world through the eyes of a schizophrenia patient
If we were to surmise, using only a couple of well-penned phrases, what the world looks like for someone coping with this mental disorder, we turn to Shakespeare. In Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1, the protagonist says:
Life’s nothing but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Coming down from Mount Parnassus and into the world of the living, the difficulty lies in how one perceives the outside world. Shakespeare was right when saying that life is a ‘tale, full of sound and fury’.
This is mostly what a patient with schizophrenia would perceive – a world filled to the brim with dissonant melodies, overlapping and disembodied voices, and shapeless objects that taunt and haunt your dreams.
Interestingly enough, the narratives of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia have inspired artists to create visual depictions of how the condition could manifest.
For instance, That Rick 904, a YouTube channel belonging to Rick Frasier, has produced 6-minute-long footage entitled ‘Schizophrenia Simulation’. The purpose of this clip is educational in nature, borne out of the desire to help people better understand what it’s like to live with such a condition.
In the video, the protagonist wakes up to the sound of the alarm clock and proceeds to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The sulcus between the inner and outer world occurs after the man looks out the window.
The image appears distorted, twisted into an unrecognisable mulch, very much like what happens in case of tunnel vision. This is a visual hallucination, one of the telltale signs of schizophrenia.
The voices are soon to follow. Just like Shakespeare’s actor who says his part before leaving the scene, these voices appear to caution the protagonist about some hidden danger. The voices overlap, become increasingly loud, and terrifying.
Those voices mirror how the brain of a person with schizophrenia ‘picks up’ and interprets external stimuli. Whereas unaffected patients would hear the laughter of a child or the chime of a phone, someone with schizophrenia would perceive a force of destruction.
In other words, the world of someone diagnosed with this condition revolves around the conflict between being and not being there. More specifically, the brain’s having difficulty ‘understanding’ synchronicities: Past, present, future, and anything in between are churned into a big cauldron, and the result is a world where fantasy and reality intertwine.
More of patient’s perception of reality
In 1961, University of California’s Department of Psychiatry, released a series of short patient interviews. One of these historical footage features the case of a young man diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.
After the nameless man tells the interviewer that him wanting to play the piano resulted in his commitment to the mental facility, the patient pauses for several seconds (patients with catatonic schizophrenia frequently pause, as though they are distracting or at loss or something in the thought process is incompatible with the premises and conclusion) and says that: ‘I sit differently when I play the piano and when I’m away from the piano, I occasionally look different from other people and this has caused dislike from people.’
The interviewer then asks him: ‘What way do you sit at the piano that the people would dislike you?’ His reply is concise but meaningful: ‘I cannot describe an illustration of how I sit.’ From this dialogue we can deduce the following: The young man’s pursuits revolve around wanting to play the piano to entertain people, but, at the same time, the young man’s wanting to play the piano makes him the target of people’s dislike.
As you can see, the thought process is subjective and can be severely altered by something that conflicts with an individual’s moral fibre. In this young man’s case, the conflict stems from his delusion that people behave differently around him because of his posture or movements. This is not uncommon among schizophrenia patients.
Words will never have the power to express what it is like living with this kind of mental disorder. Everything from completing day-to-day chores to talking to your family or friends will become completely altered. If you fear that you have one or more of the symptoms mentioned above, you should consult a specialist as soon as possible.
Alex Moore is a psychology undergraduate and blogger who advocates for mental health awareness in general and a better understanding of schizophrenia in particular. You’ll typically find him contributing to SchizLife. Alex is very active on Twitter @alex_moore01