Living with Schizoaffective Disorder
Manic depression is characterized by a cycle of one’s mood between the opposite extremes of depression and a euphoric state called mania. Schizophrenia is characterized by such disturbances in thought as visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. Schizoaffectives get to experience the best of both worlds, with disturbances in both thought and mood. (Mood is referred to clinically as “affect”, the clinical name for manic depression is “bipolar affective disorder”.)
People who are manic tend to make a lot of bad decisions. It is common to spend money irresponsibly, make bold sexual advances or to have affairs, quit one’s job or get fired, or drive cars recklessly.
The excitement that manic people feel can be deceptively attractive to others who are then often conned into the belief that one is doing just fine — in fact they are often quite happy to see one “doing so well”. Their enthusiasm then reinforces one’s disturbed behaviour.
I decided that I wanted to be a scientist when I was very young, and throughout my childhood and teenage years worked steadily towards that goal. That sort of early ambition is what enables students to get accepted into a competitive school like Caltech and enables them to survive it. I think the reason I was accepted there even though my high school grades weren’t as good as the other students was in part because of my hobby of grinding telescope mirrors and in part because I studied Calculus and Computer Programming at Solano Community College and U.C. Davis during the evenings and summers since I was 16.
During my first manic episode I changed my major at Caltech from Physics to Literature. (Yes, you really can get a literature degree from Caltech!)
The day I declared my new major I came across the Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard Feynman walking across campus and told him that I’d learned everything I wanted to know about physics and had just switched to literature. He thought this was a great idea. This after I’d spent my entire life working towards becoming a scientist.
When Did it Happen?
I have experienced various symptoms of mental illness for most of my life. Even as a young child I had depression. I had my first manic episode when I was twenty, and at first thought it was a wonderful recovery after a year of severe depression. I was diagnosed as schizoaffective when I was 21. I’m 38 now, so I have lived with the diagnosis for 17 years. I expect (and have been emphatically told by my doctors) that I’m going to have to take medication for it for the rest of my life.