When I was 16, I was ranked number one in North America’s National Hockey League central scouting agency. Most scouts considered me a shoe-in to play professionally. But by the time I turned eighteen, both my grasp on reality and my aspirations to be a professional hockey player were gone. This is when my mental illness journey began. This is when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Since then, I’ve been hospitalized twice—both times in a dramatic fashion. Before my second hospitalization, my visual hallucinations were out of control and I nearly died. I was carving gibberish on the walls of my apartment with a knife and I thought I was made of sand. I threatened to prove this reality with the knife and began gliding a (thankfully) dull knife all over my body. My mother was forced to call the police.
I spent two weeks in a psychiatric ward after that episode and narrowly avoided being committed to a more permanent facility. Nearly every time I write or talk about this time of my life, I cry. I feel so blessed and lucky to be alive so many years later. My symptoms have never completely gone away, and I’m always at risk for a psychotic episode if I don’t take all my medications. But I’ve learned to better manage my condition.
After nearly twenty years living with schizophrenia, I’d like to share a few key pieces of advice that have helped me during my recovery:
Find the Right Treatment Plan
Managing schizophrenia starts with finding the right medications, and there are more options for treatment now than ever before. Everyone reacts differently to various medications, so getting the proper diagnostic assessment is very important. And developing a relationship with a professional can be very valuable, as it increases a person’s chance of finding a medication that works. Learning to speak truthfully and openly to a medication provider may prove to be the greatest asset to a person living with schizophrenia, especially in the beginning stages of treatment.
Find a Support System
Sometimes people experiencing mental illness choose to isolate, but we can all benefit from relationships—remember that no one is an island. Finding healthy activities that foster relationships may be intimidating for someone with schizophrenia, but having a support system is invaluable. One place to start is support groups within organizations like NAMI.
There is a special bond between people who have mental illness or have a loved one living with a mental illness. Having an informed, listening ear can provide immense healing for someone with schizophrenia. While living in fear of relationships is a reality for many, there are tools and programs to help people conquer these fears and maintain fulfilling relationships.
Find Your Own Road to Recovery
Medicines and relationships are incomplete without addressing what a person can do to improve their own quality of life:
- Eat healthy. A well-balanced diet offers many mental health benefits. Side effects of antipsychotic medicines can cause constipation, dehydration and weight gain. A healthy diet and plenty of water can remedy those issues.
- Exercise. Walking is a fantastic source of exercise and many people find peace in the great outdoors.
- Find work that isn’t too stressful. If a person with schizophrenia is unable to work, they can still accomplish small tasks that can make them feel productive.
- Spirituality. Religion can offer help in conquering addictions, finding community, support and help in navigating delusional thinking.
- Art therapy. Painting and drawing is a common practice in mental health facilities throughout the world. Expressing yourself through creative art can help reestablish identity lost to delusional thinking.
Schizophrenia is not a hopeless situation—people living with schizophrenia can experience recovery and live fulfilling lives. I’m an example of that. I may not be a professional hockey player, but I’m grateful for my life. I’ve learned to manage my mental illness and you can too.
NAMI also recognizes the importance of research in managing and recovering from schizophrenia.
Last night, Dec. 7, we recognized Sophia Vinogradov, M.D. for her contributions to schizophrenia-related scientific research. Learn more about Dr. Vinogradov here.
Andrew Downing is a published co-author, alongside his wife who is a seasoned mental health practitioner. Their book, “Marriage and Schizophrenia: Eyes on the Prize,” vividly details their fifteen-year partnership together. You can check out the book to hear the full story. Andrew now lives in recovery and has been stable for nearly seven years.