When I was 23, a friend asked me to come see a horror movie with him. Seems simple enough, but after dealing with hallucinations for six years from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, scary movies weren’t really my thing. That wasn’t always easy to explain to people, so I went. The first 30 minutes of the movie were basically every hallucination I’d ever experienced in my life. Voices calling from all over the theatre. Shadows following people. The lead character getting chased. A tormented person lying in a fetal position paralyzed by fear.
I was overwhelmed. I wanted to leave, but everything was getting to me, and I was terrified of walking through the dark. I was also beyond embarrassed that I couldn’t handle the movie. So I sat, shaking, with my hands over my eyes until it finished.
When the lights came back on, I did everything I could to reassure myself that it would be okay and said goodbye to my friend. On the walk to my car, all those images overcame me. I went through a full psychotic break. The face of every person on the street was blurred. Cars that passed seemed suspicious. They were following me. They wanted to get me. Stop signs tilted toward me looming over my head. Everyone was laughing at me. Whispering about me as they walked past.
When I finally got to my car, I froze. I knew there was no way I could drive. It would be impossible to get away from everything threatening me. I called my girlfriend at the time and tried to explain the situation. This would be the first time she would learn about this and one of the hardest calls for me to make.
I started explaining everything I had seen, heard and felt. I talked about how everyone was after me. I stressed that there was no way for me to drive. She lived across the country and named people I could call, but I didn’t want to tell anyone. Then, it happened. Somewhere in the middle of my bawling and rambling, I started to talk about how it felt to hallucinate.
“I feel so stupid. I can’t stop this. Why does this keep happening? I’m such an idiot. I’m such a failure. It’s so embarrassing. I’m worthless. I have this brain that does this to me. It’s been doing this to me for years. I’m so weak, that I can’t even slow it down. I’m a freak. I’m an absolute loser. This sucks. I just wanted to go to a movie. I just wanted to be normal. It was just a movie.”
As I talked about how I felt about psychosis, my anxiety lessened. I could breathe. My chest wasn’t tight. My body was less tense. I stopped crying. Things started to come back into focus. I was still obviously shaken, but things weren’t as threatening. After another hour on the phone I felt I was okay to drive home. My then-girlfriend was more understanding than I had anticipated. Communicating how I felt gave me a new view on my hallucinations.
The next day, I went to therapy. I had a long conversation about what happened. My therapist explained that I was simultaneously having a panic attack and psychosis. He said this was common. He asked me how I coped with this in the past. I explained that for the first four years of these hallucinations my psychologist and psychiatrist would only focus on what I had heard or seen. I would detail all of the voices, images and when they happened. He asked me how that felt, and I realized that it only made me panic more. Focusing on the psychosis raised my anxiety level, which didn’t let me sleep, which continued the cycle of dysfunction. I finally felt like I had a better understanding of what was happening with me and how I could help to improve it.
Studies show that the link between anxiety and psychosis is really common, and help is available. The researchers showed that using cognitive behavioral therapy to help people better manage the paranoia of psychosis as it occurs can lessen the intensity of future experiences. There also have been a lot of recent studies that show early intervention can help reduce psychosis associated with schizophrenia.
Since the night in that movie theatre, whenever I’ve had hallucinations, I pay attention to the anxiety that I feel. I use different kinds of ways to lessen that anxiety like talking about it, exercising and yoga. I’m able to manage the severity and duration of the hallucinations much better. I can slow down the anxiety from fueling the pattern of psychosis. It took years of practicing this in treatment and outside of it, but it has been something I’ve been able to maintain. Calming the anxiety requires an immense amount of self-awareness and discipline to not only recognize a hallucination but also be responsible enough to acknowledge it. Oftentimes psychosis strips you of the skills you need to recognize what’s happening.
Psychosis is extremely difficult to treat. I am grateful that there is more awarenessabout it. I’m also hopeful that these efforts continue so that people can get the help they need and just maybe, enjoy a scary movie.