ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Living with Low-Level Symptoms

By Jack Bragen
Friday July 27, 2012 - 03:02:00 PM

With many medical conditions, doctors and patients seek the "magic bullet" that hypothetically cures the illness and allows the patient to live happily ever after. In some instances it is found, such as with penicillin and the various types of infections that it cures. Another example is treatment for cataracts, in which vision is restored without much likelihood of complications, and with a relatively simple and relatively painless surgery. 

In the 1950's when Thorazine was discovered to have uses for psychiatric patients, it was thought to be just such a cure. It allowed people who were otherwise hopeless to begin on the long road back to normality. 

Prior to the Thorazine, psychiatrists mainly performed lobotomies and electroshock, and also performed insulin shock as a treatment. None of this worked very well, and when it did work, the outcome of the person being treated resembled a zombie state. 

Thorazine and medications that came later seemed like miracle drugs, since they offered restoral of people who were very far gone and when nothing else worked. However, taking an antipsychotic turns out to only be the beginning. Thorazine and other medications didn't solve all of a person's problems. The person on medication is often left with low-level symptoms as well as numerous life issues. 

Even today, the medications that we have work imperfectly, and they produce numerous side effects that range from physical discomfort to a dire health risk. A person with paranoid schizophrenia or another mental illness must often deal with residual symptoms on an ongoing basis. The newer medications that have been introduced to the market in the last twenty years, surprisingly, are stronger and block a greater amount of brain function. This can be a good or bad thing. The question arises of how much "good" brain function are we sacrificing in order to put down the psychosis, mania or depression? Even though the newer medications block more brain function, the psychiatric consumer is almost always left with some amount of residual symptoms. 

An exceedingly stressful situation can trigger a resurgence of symptoms for a person with mental illness in spite of he or she being medicated. A treatment practitioner or family member should not assume that we will be fine in all situations just because of taking medication. 

For someone with schizophrenia, what this looks like is someone who is operating out of partial paranoia. The person may become unusually cautious, may exhibit abnormal fears, and may behave strangely and in an inexplicable manner. Low-level psychosis could sometimes mean that the person is headed for a worse relapse unless corrective measures are taken. In other instances, the person "recovers," meaning their illness is again under control, a while after the stressors in the situation have been removed. Stress can also have a delayed effect. The return to a person's individual normal, upon removal of stress, can also be delayed. Most people, mentally ill or not, require recovery time after a difficult situation. 

Partial paranoia, a term I am adopting but which I haven't heard used, means to me that someone hasn't split off from reality but may have some irrational fears, and may sometimes act on those fears. 

In my case, the irrational fear has taken the form of agoraphobia in recent years. It's fine to have that if you want to be a writer, but makes things difficult if one wants to have a life apart from that at all. If going to the grocery store is a challenge, imagine trying to get a job! 

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