Schizophrenia is known as a serious mental illness, and many think that people with schizophrenia have completely lost touch with reality. But those living with the disorder often face inaccurate stereotypes and irrational fears.
Psychology officer Matthew Paris (24) spoke to Lovin Malta about his experience with schizophrenia, proving that life with the disorder isn’t as doomed as it may sound. With the help of therapy and medication, he actually learnt how to use it to his advantage.
Matthew has been dealing with schizophrenia and hallucinations for almost a decade. As a psychology officer at the Richmond Foundation, he now uses his experience to help and support people struggling with mental health. He is currently also reading for a Masters in Psychotherapy.
“I started having hallucinations when I was 15. The first time it happened, I was swimming. I heard voices talking, the words weren’t familiar to me. It was very confusing.”
His first hallucinations came out of the blue. “There were three voices, they were having a conversation about me. At that time it wasn’t anything negative or anything positive, just a neutral conversation.”
The voices gradually became characters. “From then on, they got more intense and more frequent. I started having visual hallucinations as well.”
“For the first two years, I didn’t speak to anyone. I was tackling it by myself. I didn’t really know what it was, but at the same time, I didn’t know how to speak out. I was still, in a weird way, quite curious about it. I didn’t want anything to disrupt it.”
Matthew has a group of consistent hallucinations that he sees almost every day. The four main hallucinations he sees most of the time are the ones that affect him the most.
“There’s one I’ve had since early on, he’s always saying negative things. Then there’s the other man and woman who are talking about me. Those are the ones I see on an almost daily basis.”
He can interact with the figures, but as part of his therapy, he doesn’t. “Interacting with them would be like interacting with anyone.”
He also has more sporadic and random hallucinations. On a bad day, he might get hallucinations which aren’t usually there but add to the volume and intensity of his experience.
And he’s had some stranger ones as well. “When I was younger, I saw weird, scary-looking creatures that used to climb on walls and ceilings. Those used to be difficult to deal with, because they were quite shocking.”
Another instance he can remember took place while he was studying at university.
“The room was filled with people. I was seeing a man walking around, and I wasn’t sure if that person was real or a hallucination. I asked my close friends if they were seeing it and they weren’t. And then he left.”
After two years, it became so problematic that Matthew decided he had to speak out. He realised he needed help because it was affecting him academically. “It had gotten to the point where I was missing lessons, I wasn’t doing homework, I wasn’t keeping up with my studies at all.”
He first spoke to his parents, and then to the headmaster of the school. As his dad works in medicine, Matthew managed to start seeing a psychologist right away. “I was very lucky. I understand that unfortunately, not everyone has that privilege.”
After keeping to himself for so long, speaking up and getting support was a relief.
His parents did need an adjustment period, as they needed to learn about it and get used to it as well. “The first few months were quite intense, it was all hands on deck. Like: let’s get this done and treated right away.”
He was put on antipsychotics and antidepressants, but the hallucinations remained.
“I still have hallucinations to this day. But the support I got helped me focus on how to live with it. I found coping mechanisms and learnt what to do, what not to do, things to avoid. That was, and still is, the aim of the treatment.”
Matthew’s therapy focuses on understanding the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. “It helped me to have a more realistic worldview. I now understand things better before making decisions or feeling a certain way.”
And it isn’t always easy. “Therapy is a lot of homework. A lot of what I learnt, I practise day today. We would use a lot of analogies to help visualise the situation.”
An analogy he still uses today is a pool of water with a baby crocodile in it.
“The crocodile can’t harm you. But every time you think about the crocodile, it grows. So the more you think about it, the more it grows, until it can grow to a size where it can actually hurt you.”
That’s what we tend to do with negative thoughts. “If I have negative thoughts that are persistent, like my hallucinations, the more I actively think about it, the more damage they will do.”
Not giving his hallucinations the importance they don’t deserve is his way of not blowing them out of proportion.
He compares it to a bully: the best way to deal with it is ignoring them, but being respectful at the same time. “I give them their space. They can say what they want – it’s not going to affect me.”
“It’s something I have to live with. Ignoring them or dismissing them is not going to get me anywhere.”
Besides therapy, medication and different coping mechanisms, music helps him a lot. “I don’t know what I would do without it.” He also uses grounding techniques, like mentioning five things he sees in the room or counting his 11 tattoos.
But although he has these grounding techniques, it isn’t always a piece of cake. At times, Matthew struggles to understand why this happened to him. “It didn’t have a trigger. It wasn’t organic, like a brain tumour. And it has nothing to do with drugs, I don’t take drugs. So that was a bit of a question mark.”
It shows how this can happen to anyone. “When I feel unwell, I sometimes feel a wave of certain anger. Why is this happening? Why me? I didn’t do anything for this to happen.”
“But I’ve very much accepted how I am, and I can live with it.”
Still, the hallucinations remain an important part of his life. “It’s something I always need to keep at the back of my mind. And when meeting somebody new, it’s a question of whether to bring it up or not.”
He likes to be open and honest about it. “I can’t let it define me, but at the end of the day I do need to give it as much importance as I do to keep myself healthy.”
Working in mental health
Having studied psychology at university, Matthew gained a deeper understanding of his condition. He is currently reading for a Masters in Psychotherapy.
“What I experienced made me more inclined to understand more about it. But at the same time learning about it made me understand more about my own situation. It feeds off each other.”
Working for the Richmond Foundation, he guides and supports people with mental health problems. The foundation has a helpline and a live chat for people with concerns regarding mental health.
Living with schizophrenia himself makes him understand people with similar symptoms on a different level. As a naturally understanding and empathic person, he makes the most of his experiences by using them to help and support others.
And support and understanding are what got him through most of his own struggles, too. “I’m very lucky with my friends and family. I definitely wouldn’t be here without them.”
Supporting someone with schizophrenia
Matthew knows that being around someone who’s experiencing psychosis and schizophrenia can be quite confusing, as they are detached from reality. “It’s very important to let the person know that they are experiencing something that you aren’t, but never confirm or deny their experience.”
Saying that the hallucinations aren’t real is unhelpful and contradictory, as they are very real to the person experiencing them. “The same goes for the opposite: if you buy into it and believe it is real as well, that can be even more confusing, because I won’t be able to understand the difference between reality and hallucination.”
“Always understand that this person is experiencing something different, but never confirm or deny their experience.”
After keeping to himself for two years, reaching out has changed Matthew’s life for the better.
“Speaking up about it is the best thing I ever did. At the end of the day, it means taking care of yourself, and getting the help that you need.”
“If what you were experiencing was something physical, you would seek help straight away. If you wake up with a fever, you don’t stay quiet because you’re ashamed.”
“We need to get to that place where you can speak out about mental health, just as you would with physical health.”
And though there are times when he can’t keep up the same pace as everybody else, he sometimes feels like schizophrenia gives him an advantage. “At work, I can understand things better, I have a different perspective. It has become a part of me.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing any mental health issues, try to speak out and seek help as soon as possible. The longer you leave it untreated, the worse it can get – and the harder it is to get the right treatment.
Speak to someone your trust or visit your GP. You can also reach out to the Richmond Foundation at 1770 or the online OlliChat. You can also get help at the national support service 179 and Kellimni. If you or someone you know is at serious risk, call 112.
This article is part of a multi-article series shedding light on mental well-being issues in Malta, from the impact of COVID-19 to individual stories like Matthew’s.
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