Never a Productive Member of Society

submitted by Erin Emiru, Vancouver BC

Imagine you are in a swimming pool - the deep end - and you don't know how to swim. You flail and kick and all your resources are desperate for a gasp of air. You are drowning. But imagine, then, that there is a table placed in the water, one you can climb onto and get your head above the waters. Your life is no longer be focused on bare survival - you can now breathe, and talk, and even sing... you can ask for help, express your needs, and find more to your life than not knowing if you can rise above the deadly depths.

For me, that table is medication. Without it, I drown in my schizophrenia.

There is no hope, and giving up the futile flailing is near; suicide befriends me. But give me that measure of stability, the table, and my whole perspective changes. I engage with my friends and family instead of not even knowing, in my drowning, that they are there; I can ask for and accept the help I need. I can also speak about my experiences of the deep waters and let others know that there is so much more to life with mental illness than fighting the throes of "deep end" symptoms.

Not everyone thought that I'd stand above the schizophrenia. I was labelled: "Chronic." "Severe." "Refractory." One psychiatrist went so far as to say that I'd never be a productive member of society.

I wish I could remember which psychiatrist it was who gave me that hopeless verdict. I've seen too many of them to accurately place that blame. Hospitalizations - 14 of them - dragged me downward as hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms preyed on my life. I was being stalked by a man with a sniper gun and a murderous intent. Voices told me that I ought to kill myself while microscopic rats ate my brain. I was "inaccessible... mute... flat" as per the nurses' notes from my certifications. There were countless forced injections ("Help me! They are injecting rats into me to eat my brain!" I was terrified, not "resistant."). These were accompanied by physical restraints: shackles on my ankles and wrists. Isolation in the cells (they are not "Quiet" rooms). Again, again, again.

I was drowning.

It was the eighth antipsychotic that was a tall enough table to lift me consistently and sufficiently up above, and, coupled now with another high-dose antipsychotic, they give me the chance to make my mark as a "productive member of society."

I have been given the chance, the honour, to say "I know" to others who are struggling with mental illness. This I have done by both written and spoken word. The written words are my memoir, titled, aptly, "When Quietness Came." The spoken words may be a talk to 200 "suits" at a conference of the Clinical Neurosciences or a one-to-one as a Peer Support Worker on a mental health and addictions outreach (ACT) team in Vancouver. My memoir's subtitle links the two: "A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey with Schizophrenia." Yes, I know my share of the neurobiology and neurochemistry behind my illness; no, the scientific mind that gave me a MSc in Neuroscience cannot save me when reason departs and I am psychotic.

I write and speak out loudly. I am not afraid to, for example, tell Global TV's BC audience about the brain-eating rats. The loudness speaks also to my own inner ears and keeps me taking meds three times a day to keep that table solidly under me. From there, I tell my stories to provoke what I see as the three fundamental reasons to be loud: To promote the understanding of mental illness, to provoke empathy, and to offer hope.

I wish I could simply learn how to swim, and do away with the table for good. I've tried this, but am thwarted by something (a gene? a trauma? a neurodevelopmental combination?) that makes it thus far impossible. Just as my other organs - my kidneys, my liver, my heart - could ail and jeopardize my health, so can my brain get "sick." Meds may be the best we've got so far, but I do see a future as advanced from today as the prefrontal lobotomy is to the present. And though the question, "Is it me or my meds?" has been raised repeatedly, I think that the proper question is thus: "Do my meds allow me to be myself?" To that, I affirm, loudly, "yes." Brain-changing, life-saving, "yes."

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Erin Emiru (nee Hawkes) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 22. She was finishing up her BSc in Biology and Chemistry in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when she had her first major psychotic break, first hospitalization, and first antipsychotic. Elected "Most Likely to Succeed in Research" in her Honours program, she then fought hard to obtain her MSc in Neuroscience at UBC in Vancouver - a position fully funded by national (NSERC) scholarships. Five years ago, under her maiden name (Hawkes), Erin's memoir "When Quietness Came: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey with Schizophrenia" was published. It has gone on to sell more than 1500 copies worldwide. Erin, now a Peer Care Coordinator in mental health and addictions, speaks publicly about her experiences, hoping to counter stigma and raise hope. Check our her publisher's website for her book at www.bridgeross.com/hawkes.html.

About Erin Emiru

Msc Neuroscience, Peer Care Coordinator, author of "When Quitness Came: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey with Schizophrenia"
Never a Productive Member of Society
Never a Productive Member of Society
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