What destroyed me was not an 'illness'

Jean Davison

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia back in 1968 at the age of 18. I had sought psychiatric help myself and agreed to go into hospital as a voluntary patient. At the time of hospital admission, I had a job, a boyfriend and an active social life, although I was a painfully shy teenager. I was dissatisfied with my lifestyle, struggling to come to terms with the loss of my religious beliefs, felt life was empty and meaningless, and I was living with my dysfunctional family.

I have since learnt from reading my case notes that I was quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia. This diagnosis dictated my treatment. I was swiftly put on neuroleptic drugs, and given eight disorientating applications of ECT. The drugs made me feel dreadfully drowsy and depressed. Not surprisingly, considering the drugs, my shyness and the distressing hospital environment, I was described in my case notes as 'abnormally quiet and withdrawn.'

On my discharge from hospital four months later, I had lost my job, my boyfriend and my self-esteem. The next five years were hellish. I was doped up on debilitating psychiatric drugs, the 'standard' treatment for schizophrenia, which made me fat, spotty, depressed and I felt like I just wanted to sleep all the time. Because there had been 'no improvement at all in this case despite treatment' I was now diagnosed with 'chronic' schizophrenia. It felt like my life was over.

Where did this 'chronic schizophrenia' go to when I at last managed to withdraw from meds in 1974? The drowsy depression lifted completely and I was able to build up a life for myself. I got a job, accommodation, later became happily married, returned to study and gained a first-class degree. I've been fine since I stopped being a mental health service user in 1974. I am, therefore, one of the lucky ones, but no thanks to the doctors who gave me that stigmatising schizophrenia label. I am certain that what nearly destroyed me was not an 'illness' but the diagnosis and the ensuing treatment.

Yes, what happened to me was a long time ago. But how much has changed today? How many peoples' lives are still being ruined by a 'schizophrenia' diagnosis? I am deeply concerned about this. My memoir 'The Dark Threads' (Accent Press, 2009) is about my experiences that resulted from being given this diagnosis.