Learning to cope with my mental illness transformed me

A person with schizophrenia talks about his journey to becoming independent and confident in managing his illness

My illness began in school, it was in the 1970s. Coming from a middle class household, I found it difficult to adjust in a school where most of my peers were from the upper middle class. While I tried to focus on my academics, I constantly felt inferior to my friends and classmates, who were better dressed than I was and also possessed gadgets that I did not. In those days, the school uniform for boys changed from half length trousers to full length in high school. My family, however, could not afford a new uniform, so I did not make the switch. This had made me so conscious that I began to fear being looked at strangely by my peers. This is my first recollection of a feeling of fear, that I was not like those around me. 

I managed to complete my schooling, but my problems increased when I moved from a small town to a city for pursuing my MBBS. I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to the city life and this was compounded by ragging in my college. Because of my extreme fear of ragging, I had recurring fearful thoughts in my mind and was unable to control them.

Initially, the doctor diagnosed it as an adjustment problem. I hoped the medication prescribed by the doctor would take care of the problem, but it did not. I was irregular to college and even skipped tests and examinations. During the end of my first year of MBBS, I was diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, but I did not know what it was. From the fear of being ridiculed of my illness, I discontinued college in my second year. 

I had to face several challenges in my life while recovering from my illness. I also had to face the stigma of having a mental illness in areas of work and social life. My supportive family wanted me to develop a work habit. Being the son of a doctor, I started assisting my father in the hospital as a cashier. Some of the patients, who were aware of my educational background, said, "What are you doing here as a cashier? You should be studying further or work in some other hospital.” On one hand I was recovering from an illness, but such comments from people made me feel worthless and I stopped going to my father’s hospital.

Another challenge was that all my cousins were getting married and I was not. To protect myself from feeling embarrassed, I did not attend any of my classmates' weddings. In those days, some of my uncles also suggested that 'marriage will solve the problem'. Looking back, I feel I have taken the right decision by not getting married. The responsibilities that come with marriage would not only be stressful for me, but would have been more stressful for my partner.

The lack of awareness about the illness in me and my family prevented me from recovering faster. I assumed that it was merely an inferiority complex. It was only after 7-8 years of medication did I come to know that I was suffering from schizophrenia. My background in MBBS also made me curious about my illness. However, I was not aware of the other part of my illness -- obsessive thoughts. For nearly 20 years, I was only taking medication and staying at home.

The process of learning to cope with the illness was not an easy one for me or my family. In the 1970s and 80s, the medications prescribed by the psychiatrist in my city had side effects, they used to make my eyes roll. I had to take injections to counter the side-effects, but even these injections had side-effects. In the 1990s, the psychiatrists prescribed a new antipsychotic medication that freed me from the side-effects. After a few years, my psychiatrist recommended that I visit NIMHANS in Bangalore for better treatment.

In 2010, I came to Bangalore, where the consulting psychiatrist said, “Medicines help in curing 50% of the illness, the other 50% of the improvement comes from your effort.” The doctor referred me to a rehabilitatation centre. 

At the rehabilitation centre, I learned to maintain a routine. Waking up on time, getting ready, attending the vocational training classes, all of this helped me improve my social skills. I learnt to work and move in a group. I had come to Bangalore for my treatment and decided to stay back here. I also learnt money management and became a more responsible person. Now, I live independently in a paying guest accommodation, take care of myself and manage my money. Taking medications, attending counseling and cognitive behaviour therapy sessions, going for a walk and doing pranayama regularly, has helped me keep my mind and body calm. The experience of having gone through a mental illness has made me spiritual too. At the same time, having the right knowledge and understanding of what actually was going on within me and my mind helped me towards recovery.  

Today, even though I live independently and take care of myself, I fear making new friends who do not have mental health problems, due to the fear of not being accepted and ridiculed. I also fear of the day when my parents are no more. However, I'm sure that I have the support of my brother, NIMHANS and the rehabilitation centre.

Overall, my experience of having a mental illness and learning to cope with it has helped me to transform into a new person. 

As told to White Swan Foundation. Name has been withheld on request.