“Not everyone will fit into a ‘box’": Jemma’s story

12/08/2021

Jemma has come a long way in the last 10 years. Top GCSEs, great A-Level results, a First Class university degree and now working two jobs is quite an achievement. Learning how to manage the symptoms of psychosis during this time has not been easy, but she is determined in her belief that everyone experiencing mental illness can lead a fulfilling life with the correct support. Here’s her story, in her own words.

My mental health struggle began at 13 years old. I don’t remember much from being this age, only that I became very sad and paranoid.

I entered mental health services at around 15 years old, after my family and my school had begun to notice my self-harming. By this stage, the auditory hallucinations I was experiencing were a part of my daily life and I was really struggling to behave ‘normally’.

Due to the confusion and fear around what I was experiencing, I kept the extent of my symptoms largely to myself. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and put on antidepressants.

As my behaviour became more erratic and concerning, I was then diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and bipolar disorder was also a concern of my psychiatrist at the time (although again, I was very closed off at this point).

Despite all this, I managed to finish secondary school with all A’s and B’s. Much of my final years of secondary school I spent working at home where I felt safe and there weren't as many triggers to cause intense paranoia.

  • When I was moved to the adult mental health services at 16, I began to open up a little more about what I was going through.

When I was moved to the adult mental health services at 16, I began to open up a little more about what I was going through - and that's when I was told that what I was experiencing was psychosis. My diagnosis at this point was still BPD with tendencies of schizophrenia.

Although I was still on medication, I was discharged from the mental health services. I remember wanting to be discharged as I never really felt like my mental health symptoms were being explained and that no one could help me. I think because I was managing well in terms of my academic life (which has always been a source of focus and comfort for me), there was a reluctance to consider a serious diagnosis such as schizophrenia.

At around 17/18 years old, the paranoia and auditory hallucinations were so intense that I did not even trust my mother and spent my days sitting in the corner of the kitchen so that no one could come up behind me. I could not trust anyone. I am lucky enough to have a very supportive mother who spent nearly every waking second with me to stop me from self-harming or attempting to end my life.

After a visit from the crisis team and the question of whether or not I would benefit from hospital admission, I was thankfully able to regain my ‘normal’ life in the community. This would not have been possible without the unconditional support and the willingness to learn shown by my family and friends.

Eventually I decided to come off my medication as I felt that it was somewhat numbing my intellectual ability, emotional capacity and making me constantly drowsy.

For many years now I have learnt to cope with my auditory hallucinations, paranoia and the plethora of other symptoms that come along with it. For as long as I can remember now, I have heard five different distinct voices that are generally paranoid in nature. These voices do not sound like internal thoughts or my own voice, but sound like they are coming from the outside world. That’s where the psychosis comes in, as it can be difficult to differentiate what’s coming from within my head and what isn’t. My coping mechanisms range from keeping myself engaged in a physical activity to keep my mind focussed on reality (this can be as minor as using a fidget spinner), to visualising techniques such as picturing the life I want to have in the future.

  • Not everyone will fit into a ‘box’ of how you expect a mentally ill person to appear.

My psychosis continues to affect me daily, but I have learnt to recognise when I need extra help. In 2020, during the pandemic, I was once again struggling to contain my symptoms. My new psychiatrist has confirmed that he believes I am experiencing psychosis and that BPD is not the issue. I am therefore soon to begin a new medication which will hopefully work better for me. Although I have never fought for a diagnosis of any sort, I am relieved that I am another step closer to understanding my brain. I always felt strongly that I was not suffering from a mood disorder, but that my mood was heavily affected by the fear, confusion and isolation caused by my psychosis.

I want people to understand that mental illnesses are on a spectrum and not everyone will fit into a 'box' of how you expect a mentally ill person to appear, particularly in the case of those suffering from psychosis.

I want to help educate people on how challenging it can be to live with a mental illness, but also rid people of the stigma that people suffering from a mental illness are aggressive, unpredictable or unable to live a 'normal' life with the correct support.

I have just graduated from university with a First Class degree in Building Surveying and I am working two jobs (one as a legal secretary and one as a trainee building surveyor) whilst I decide where I want to take my career.

Things haven't always been easy, but I'm proud of what I've achieved and am making plans for the future.

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