Diagnosed aged 22 after years of living with the mental illness, Nicola Wall wants more people to be aware and speak up if they experience symptoms, and how, despite her ongoing battle, she has found happiness as mum to two beautiful kids
I heard voices in my head and experienced hallucinations while I was sitting on my tiny chair, at my little desk in Montessori school. I did my best to colour inside the lines, sing nursery rhymes and get to grips with this whole potty-training thing while the early symptoms of my psychotic illness began to present themselves.
Years later, while in sixth class of primary school, I had a sort of epiphany where I finally came to realise that not everyone else heard voices like I did. This was in the early noughties where education around mental illness was non-existent.
The first time I ever heard the term ‘mental health’ was in fourth year of secondary school when a psychiatric nurse came in to give us a talk. I was 16 at the time. We all sat in the canteen and listened to her describe what her job entails and where to study nursing.
She told us about the symptoms of depression and how to spot the signs that someone may be in danger of harming themselves. Maybe she thought we looked bored and the desire to impress us took over, because she spent the final 20 minutes telling us anecdotes about the bizarre things the patients with bipolar and schizophrenia say and do. Everyone laughed along and I became even more determined than ever to conceal any outward signs that I was just like those people, her patients, the ‘real crazy people’.
Two years later I was admitted to the very same psychiatric ward she had worked on. And I was eventually diagnosed with the two illnesses she made fun of. When I was diagnosed at the age of 22, part of me felt a bit of relief at the mystery of my symptoms being solved but also despair at the discovery that there was no quick fix.
I had schizoaffective disorder, a compilation of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I had to take 12 tablets a day and the side effects were horrific. They took away some of my psychotic symptoms such as delusions, which are false beliefs the illness tricks you into thinking are real. I believed the whole world was watching me like in The Truman Show. I thought everyone could hear my thoughts and they were all conspiring against me. My phone was tapped, there were cameras all over my house and I was followed everywhere I went. I had to check my food for poison. I thought that somewhere, perhaps in an alternative universe, families gathered around their TVs at night to see what antics I was getting up to this week.
Workplaces were abuzz with conversations about the latest instalment of my life. Everyone was watching and everything I did mattered a great amount. Once the incredibly high dose of anti-psychotics kicked in, I realised none of this was true. No one was watching me or my boring life, I was a nobody. The relief was immeasurable. The medication, however, had little impact on my other symptoms like the voices.
A common question I am asked is if I start suddenly having auditory hallucinations; if I can be unexpectedly plunged into an episode and, what would I look like while this is happening. No one expects me to say that my psychosis is consistent. It is not as dramatic as Hollywood would have you believe. There are no outward signs when things are bad.
I have always been able to do normal day-to-day things like the weekly shop, taking out the bins, laundry, socialising, college, work; all while hearing voices scream in my head. What they say has changed a lot over the years, some comment on other people around me or narrate what I am doing. Some criticise, some are positive. They sing, argue and shout. They can monologue about the meaning of life or talk complete gibberish. Some have told me I am a waste of space and I deserve to die. And then, there are others who want to know what I am planning on having for dinner.
It varies from traumatic, to amusing to utterly mundane. I am lucky in the sense that I have lived with them for so long that I do not know any better. This has always been my normal. That is not to say it is easy.
When I first found out that I had this incurable, lifelong illness I thought I would never be happy. I genuinely believed that my life was over, but it was only just beginning. It has been 10 years since my diagnosis and in that time, I have gotten married, and we now have two children. I try to raise awareness about my condition to show people that it is possible to live alongside schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I took part in a documentary on RTÉ called Schizophrenia: The Voices in my Head, went on the The Late Late Show and had a book about my life published. It all sounds very much like a fairy tale ending, but not quite.
My disability has prevented me from doing many things I had wanted to do. It has impacted every single part of life. I am considered high functioning and I generally present myself well, but most of this is ‘masking’ a technique used by people like me who are neurodivergent (neurologically different, the opposite of neurotypical).
This means I have essentially taught myself how to look and act ‘normal.’ I practice facial expressions in the mirror, mimic other people’s speech, body language and gestures. I prepare rehearsed responses to common questions. When I meet new people, I have a sort of script memorised to use which makes me seem confident, when in reality, I have poor social skills and as a result I struggle with friendships. Masking is usually used by people with autism but that is another part of my story.
My brain is wired differently to most, and I don’t understand things that may seem obvious. While I have done incredibly well for someone in my position, it takes a huge amount of effort, which is exhausting. I get up and fight every single day to be well and on some days I fail terribly. I am locked in a constant back and forth of some people underestimating what I am capable of and on the other end of the scale, people expecting far too much from me.
When you have any kind of mental illness, people have opinions on what should make you feel better. They tell us to meditate, eat well, exercise, take a rescue remedy.
People with mental health problems are not stupid, everyone knows the obvious things that are helpful. Getting well enough to do them, however, is a different story. If it were that easy to overcome, none of us would ever be sick.
Mentally ill people do not go around walking into walls and scratching their heads, waiting for someone whose entire knowledge of mental health came from watching a storyline on Coronation Street, to give them advice on getting better. Depression is an illness, not a mentality. We all know the steps needed to maintain good mental health but when someone is at their absolute worst, this kind of over-simplified advice, however well-intentioned it may be, is not much help.
Stay with me because I am about to sound exactly like those people when I tell you something that helped me — happiness is a choice. I know, I hate using a phrase that sounds like it belongs on wall art next to its pals ‘live laugh love’ and ‘positive vibes only’. But I swear, there is some truth in this one.
You do whatever you need to do to get out of whatever bad place you are in, every small change to your lifestyle counts. If you could not get out of bed yesterday but today you got up changed the sheets, had a shower, and got back into bed, then that is progress. If you change your way of thinking, even just a little bit, leaning towards the good rather than the bad, that one baby step is better than nothing. You are not going to wake up one day, decide to be happy and suddenly everything is wonderful — but making that decision, that you are going to try your best to be happy is the first step. Even if your best may not feel like a lot, it is always good enough.
I have a two-year-old boy and a baby girl, my wish for them is that they grow up in a world that is much more accepting of those who are different. It is vital that mental health is talked about in schools. No one should ever feel they need to hide distressing symptoms. Gone are the days where I obsessed over how things might have turned out if I did not have a psychosis. While my disability does not define me as a person, it is a huge part of who I am and for the most part, I like me.
The stigma around mental illness is still a huge issue. There is an attitude that the less talked about illnesses are something to be joked about. A lot of people are happy to share posts about depression and anxiety but when they see a person displaying behaviour associated with something like borderline personality disorder, words like ‘psycho’ and ‘nutjob’ get thrown around. I have been called a ‘schizo’ many times by the same people who take part in suicide awareness campaigns.
My husband has been told he is great to have me because most men would have run a mile and isn’t he great to stay with that poor, sick girl. I have been asked if I am allowed to have children. Trolls online have asked how I can not be trusted to hurt someone and should people like me not be locked up for good. It might be upsetting, but I use comments like that as a reminder of how strong the misconceptions around schizophrenia are.
There is a long way to go before the stigma around mental health is erased. I continue to share my experience because every time I tell my story, someone is hearing it for the first time. I want people to know that no matter what, happiness can always be found.
Nicola’s book, Pretty Sane: Living with Schizophrenia, can be found on mercierpress.ie. Visit yourmentalhealth.ie for a full list of services and support available