- Patrick Dylan
The Word "Psychotic"
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
What do you think of when you hear it?
A horror movie? A Stephen King novel? The kind of terror that keeps you up at night, jumping at every sound?
That's what I used to think, too. I don't anymore.
“Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?" -- Talking Heads
Any serious illness is scary. Cancer is scary. Heart disease is scary.
Maybe you love someone affected by these diseases. Perhaps you’ve held a vigil with them, holding their hand while they fought through pain, despair or fear.
But in these situations, as difficult as they were, you never lost the human connection with the person you loved. You could still communicate with them. You could strive to provide comfort, make an attempt at laughter or find hope together.
This doesn’t happen when a symptom of your loved one’s illness is psychosis. That person disappears and any relationship becomes severely strained. You might find flashes of kinship, but these glimpses appear at random and fade quickly, like someone splashing the surface only to be pulled under again.
“She's out of focus; she's a warp in time. She's discontinued, a break in the line.” -- Devo
Perhaps this is why as a society we treat mental illness so differently than other serious medical conditions.
Your brain makes you who you are. It gives you a personality, stores your memories, enables rational thought and connects you to other living things. When someone becomes psychotic, the brain short circuits. The chemicals that fuel its proper function become unbalanced. That person becomes disconnected.
If you have never witnessed this, I can assure you that it is at first shockingly scary. The terror comes from the immediate realization that if not for the correct processing of your own neurotransmitters, you too would be lost. Our consciousness—our own identity—lies on the frightening edge of a finely-tuned biochemistry in our brains.
“Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking.” -- Queen and David Bowie
But this is similar to other essential organs of the body. The heart requires electricity. The lungs require the efficient transfer of oxygen. The intestines rely on an army of diverse and essential bacterial colonies. The difference, of course, is that when illness strikes these areas our spirit remains intact. We become sick, but our identity doesn’t change.
We treat brain illness differently because it doesn't just scare us--it terrifies us. It has for centuries. And popular culture perpetuates the trepidation. But with time and interaction, psychosis loses its alarm, and we realize that those who suffer shouldn’t be punished. With love, support, and proper treatment, these people can successfully manage and overcome their conditions.
The same is true for other brain illnesses and their related symptoms. As a society, our challenge is to move away from the fear and shame of mental illness and towards compassion and understanding. By telling our stories, those of us with direct experience can help educate those without. Professor Bernice Pescosolido captured it perfectly when she told the USA Today:
“Fear is lodged with people who don't know someone with mental illness."