an excerpt from “living with schizophrenia”, by Norma Macdonald

Posted by resonanteye on 05/22/2012

Excerpt from an essay published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, ca. 1963. Written by Norma Macdonald, a woman who had been re-admitted multiple times for recurring schizophrenia and aggression.

Another excerpt from the same source, written by a different woman, is available here.

            I began to see that in schizophrenia I had much more than a handicap, I had a tool and a potential. This sort of mind, controlled and used, has a far-reaching imaginative power, a sharp instinctual awareness, and the ability to understand a wide span of emotional and intellectual experiences. Perhaps in 10 or 20 more years I will be able to control it much better than I do now, and then perhaps it will be more use to me. (…) So far few of my conclusions seem to be practical.

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Simplest of all is perhaps the knowledge that this illness rests very definitely upon physical factors. …if I hoped to remain well I must have three square meals, my necessary nutrients, and at least eight hours’ sleep nightly. I know that by going without food for a day or two or by missing sleep two or three nights in a row I could (and do) lapse into a state where dreams worry my mind at night, fatigue sets in, voices begin to pester me, and suspicion of the motives of even my best friends rises up to turn my life into a living hell.

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To have to carry on my work and social life in this state is dangerous. I can almost feel the filter breaking down, the old soreness pulling and tightening at my brain. Soon every stimulus will have to be interpreted at once. My environment will start to close in on me. I will become irritable and inefficient.
The menstrual cycle has considerable influence on this state of mind, and so do various kinds of fatigue. Lack of sleep and a day’s work overcharged with pressing activities are the most obvious causes of tiredness, but there is nothing more tiring than ennui.

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Repetition of boring social events, topics of conversation, routine jobs- these are excessively fatiguing. Noises can be tiring too, and colors. I am fond of blue, but I recoil in horror at the thought of living in a blue room, and an apartment painted deep rose seems to have contributed strangely to a crisis through which my illness passed about five years ago.

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I suspect that climate influences my (mental) health, for both my major illness and the crisis of which I spoke occurred in Ontario during the hot and humid summer months, and while recently in Trinidad I began to feel the same way…

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The simple business of keeping physical health is not so simple in reality as one might think. Through the years I have found a staggering minority of people, even among my closest friends, who have any conception of the seriousness of it.Had I a heart condition or diabetes they might understand, but they fail to see any reason why too much exercise, lack of food or sleep, too many parties, could possibly have any bearing on mental illness. I have missed much of my social life because people think I am anti-social when I have been forced to turn down invitations. I have offended people by refusing to help out with projects, because they see me spending quantities of energy at something else.

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It’s hard to explain to them that where I am enthusiastic I can do a lot, but boredom makes me actually sick. Society generally sees this attitude as “childish” without stopping to consider that it may be a definite factor in the make-up of people. There is another widely accepted theory that schizophrenics change jobs and move about without a plan…I cannot deny that this is often true, but there seems to be a nomad quality inborn in my nature.

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In my campaign to keep healthy I have had to spend fortunes on food, because my instinct would tell me what to eat when I needed it. Sometimes a chocolate, or an orange, or a steak is all that is needed to restore my mind to a state where suspicions vanish and life begins to look livable again. I have had to move from rooming houses and apartments when healthier neighbors couldn’t see why five or six hours’ sleep wasn’t sufficient to keep anyone in good health. I have felt insecure in jobs because of the amount of sick leave that I need. Often this is needed because of utter exhaustion, because I have had to listen to a party next door until one or two a.m. I have no inner resources to cope with such emergency situations. A day or two lying quietly in bed and living on a light diet seems to restore the delicate physical balance and allow a slow revival of mental powers.

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Job situations which might reduce me to tears and tantrums and lead even to aggressive behavior and hospitalization one day, may well be within my control after a day of rest. For years I have asked for time off every few weeks simply stating that I am sick.

A breakdown in physical health, too much pressure, too many responsibilities taken on because they sound interesting or fun to the “well” side of me, and I could be plunged back into the valley.

What if I am thrown from the swing? It doesn’t matter. I am playing about in the void.

~discovered and transcribed from the book, “The Inner World of Mental Illness”, Bert Kaplan, 1964

7 Responses to “an excerpt from “living with schizophrenia”, by Norma Macdonald”

  1. […] other excerpts, see here, or here) After a fortnight in a sort of reception ward in the mental hospital, I complained to the doctor […]

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  2. […] and the previous excerpt I posted, are small selections from the book “The Inner World of Mental Illness”, published by […]

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  3. Jim said

    Wow! Some of this, I feel, describes me very well haha. I think it’s fascinating when people with mental “illness” can express themselves objectively, especially when it’s done so well like this lady.

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    • The rest of her story is pretty intense. She really was at the bottom when she was sent to that hospital, it’s amazing the clarity in her writing afterward.

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  4. lennygrey said

    I’m very familiar with how important looking after the body is in reducing symptoms of mental illness, my own experiences lead me to draw similar conclusions.

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