I have mourned who I was before mental illness. When I was 19 years old and a student at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a psychiatrist delivered my diagnosis of schizophrenia. Four years later, when I was back in my hometown of Chicago and had just started earning my master’s degree, I was re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. Here’s how my life changed when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later schizoaffective disorder and why I mourn who I was before mental illness.
My Life Changed with a Mental Illness Diagnosis
With my initial diagnosis of schizophrenia, I transferred to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to be closer to home. I had wanted to go to SAIC out of high school, but I couldn’t resist RISD’s status and reputation. I don’t know if it was sedation from the antipsychotic medication I needed or depression over leaving RISD or both but I felt numb for years after learning I had schizophrenia. I felt numb until I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and put on different medication.
It was really unfortunate that I felt that way for so long because I often slept through top-flight classes in photography, performance art, and the art history of Dada and surrealism. And, unfortunately, some changes in medication that I did seek early on hurt more than they helped. SAIC is a great school—I soon loved it. But I know I missed out on so many opportunities because my brain was in a fog. I still managed to graduate with a stellar portfolio of work, though.
I had missed out on RISD, too, even before my diagnosis. I was taking an antidepressant that kicked me into mania. I feel it led to psychosis. Since I was far away from home, no one noticed I was not acting like myself, not even my therapist. Everyone just thought I was flighty, zany, and happy—and that I talked a lot.
I Mourn Who I Was Before Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder
My manic spring at RISD occurred over half my life ago. My life is so different now—in good ways. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from Columbia College, Chicago. I’ve lived in New York City for a semester and traveled to France and Italy. I’ve quit smoking. And, last but most importantly, I’ve been married to a wonderful man for almost nine years. Still, I mourn the person I was before mental illness. I miss not needing to take a fistful of medication every night. I miss being effortlessly skinny.
At the same time, I wouldn’t trade in the life I have now. The diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and new medications that worked and lifted the fog gave me hope and a sense of purpose—a lot of my identity is wrapped up in being an advocate for those with mental illness. My husband is so wonderful and I am so lucky to have him. Even if it meant not having to take medication, I wouldn’t trade the life I have now for a life without him. And, of course, if I didn’t have schizoaffective disorder I wouldn’t be helping other people with this blog. Maybe I don’t mourn the person I was before I got mental illness as much as I thought I did.