SANE Peer Ambassador Greg Ralls is a professional engineer, husband, father and author, who lives with schizophrenia. He shares some of his experiences in this Q&A guest blog.
When were you diagnosed with schizophrenia and what was your first reaction?
A psychiatrist made the diagnosis in 2005. It was a while coming, as the symptoms first surfaced in 1997 and my first-episode of psychosis happened in 2000, during which time I found myself deeply in crisis.
I kept diaries and wrote letters in those early years, and having recently reread them I can say with certainty, I was floored when told I had schizophrenia and that my first reaction was shock and denial. I wouldn’t be surprised if this reaction is common for people in similar situations. To quote directly from a letter I sent my treating doctor, “I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I believe this diagnosis is incorrect.” It’s fair to say that even today, I’m still somewhat sceptical and in denial.
How does schizophrenia affect your life?
Profoundly! That said, whatever schizophrenia is, it’s something I’ve adapted to. Thankfully, I’ve had the good fortune to find a way of living with it, which means taking medication and managing to devise effective tactics to stay well. I take a low daily dose of a medication which seems to reduce the symptoms but also resulted in metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, which I manage through diet and exercise. Over the past couple of years, I’ve successfully reversed the diabetes and largely kept on an even keel, both physically and mentally, which takes effort.
Keeping diaries and writing letters has led me to being an author. I’ve spent ten years of my life writing two memoirs, in part to make sense of the illness I’m told I have. I also started my own publishing company which I undertook to show that I’m not beaten, that there’s fight in me. I’m here to do my best and make the most of my life.
How would you describe schizophrenia to someone that doesn't know much about it?
In the throes of an episode, it’s a belief that nobody can be trusted. It’s the supernatural, voices in one’s head that can be either audible or telepathy-like, an unshakeable belief in aspects of consciousness that no others can perceive, or, if they do, that they apparently choose not to talk about. It’s a weirdness that feels completely natural and right, weirdness that others might observe but a person will heatedly argue is nothing of the sort.
It’s periods of recovery. Years of trying to make sense of it all, to find one’s own meaning and trying to regain what it seems is lost, slipping in and out of knowing and unknowing, sometimes never being quite sure which is which.
Alienating people. Moving on. Moving forward. Trying to never get too caught up in it all. Letting go but not forgetting. Feeling wounded, wanting to share the experiences, to heal and learn better ways of being, and then be the person being there - helping others find a way through.
Do you have a strong support system around you?
Yes. My family is my rock. I have a childhood best friend whom I still call for a chat every now and then. I’m fortunate to work with amazing and talented people who accept me as I am. I engage the services of a consultant psychiatrist and separately see a clinical psychologist, and I’m a member of multiple organisations connected with mental health. I network widely and maintain contact with people who know my history.
What would you want people to know about schizophrenia?
That with the right supports it’s something that can be managed. It’s possible to live a good life, to be productive, to do things in life which are meaningful and fulfilling, despite the diagnosis. That there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to dealing with it, that different things can work for different people. There is hope.
Do you think there are misperceptions about what schizophrenia is? What are some of them?
The most common question I’m asked when I tell people I have a schizophrenia diagnosis is, ‘So, do you have a job?’. It’s usually mental health professionals who ask so there’s obviously a bit of education needed there. I’ve proudly worked for over 20 years as a professional engineer, attaining a position of some responsibility. It’s certainly possible to have a career and a fulfilling life. I’m married, a dad, I’ve been blessed to realise the dream of home ownership, to have travelled, and I’ve had the opportunity to do countless things I love.
Recovery is possible. Somehow, against the odds, something went right for me. My biggest wish now is for others - despite what is sometimes a struggle, and no matter the place the person is at in their journey – that they, too, may experience in some measure the joys and fulfilment I’ve known. I want to see others succeed.
Guest Q&A with SANE Peer Ambassador, Greg Ralls.
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