State of Mind

My Schizophrenia Has a Soundtrack

A pair of hot-pink headphones.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to State of Mind, a new section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

I seriously need a new pair of headphones, I think as I hit pause on “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey and drape my arms around my crying, terrified mom. I know better than to play Lana songs around her, but I didn’t know until she told me only moments earlier—when I had just returned home from my evening walk—that my hot-pink, $20 headphones bleed so much sound that anyone within 10 feet can hear what I’m playing. And that’s a problem when your mom is also your spotter: the person who keeps an eye on you so that they can pull you back if you start to drift from reality.

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On the one hand, I get where my mom was coming from. I listened to Lana Del Rey nonstop when I was sick. But now that I’m a year into my recovery, I feel confident in my own ability to tell when I’m slipping, and today is not one of those days. I don’t know how to explain to my mom that there are times when I just want to revel in some of my memories from the 10 months when an imaginary team of psychologists assumed control of my life and experimented on me against my will.

Don’t get me wrong—parts of psychosis were truly terrifying, and I’m glad the episode eventually came to an end and I regained control of my mind. But other times were whimsical and beautiful. The music I listened to in psychosis provided comfort during a time when my mental health condition—schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type—left me totally isolated.

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I was far from isolated when the illness began to take hold in late 2018. I lived in the Bay Area, a place I’d called home since I was 3 years old, so I had plenty of friends and family around and an active social life. But as my undiagnosed, unmedicated disorder gradually began to hijack my relationship to reality, people started to respond to me differently.

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When I tried to tell those in my life—my roommates, my mother, my friends—how stressed I was at work because of a boss who seemed to be actively rooting for me to fail, they all seemed indifferent, distracted, and exhausted. My mom kept interrupting me to talk about what was going on in her life, which felt so rude. When I expressed my frustration, she said hesitantly and gently, “But honey, it feels like I haven’t been able to get a word in for the past hour.” At the time, I thought she and others were being self-centered, but on the other side of psychosis, I would come to realize I’d been experiencing what the doctors call “pressured speech”: a sign of mania that means you talk far more rapidly and frenziedly than is socially appropriate.

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The isolation my pressured speech created gave way to a different kind of isolation. This one began after a very stressful work meeting—a meeting so stressful it ripped a hole in my consciousness. Fake memories of all-powerful psychologists flooded uncontrollably through this hole for the next 10 months.

Nobody wanted to talk to me about my imaginary team. By January of 2019, when my prodromal symptoms gave way to a full-blown psychotic break, they’d all gotten the message from real-life health care professionals that confronting delusions is unproductive and erodes trust. But the psychologists—the ones in my head—they spoke to me through music. The music that came up on my YouTube account consistently proved to me they were real.

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How else to explain the fact that “24” by Lana Del Rey showed up on my YouTube playlist the same month I turned 24 while in psychosis? How to explain the special version of “Sunday” by the Cranberries that played over my headphones one Sunday when I was hiking the Mist Trail in Yosemite—a version that emphasized the “myst” in the lyric “You mystify me”? Or that “Blue Light” by Mazzy Star came on as I was trying to fall asleep while staring at a neighbor’s blue porch light through the window?

Music enhanced my sense that my life had become a choose-your-own-adventure story. I would pick a song off the YouTube playlist that the team curated for me, and it would kickstart memories in my brain of things that never happened. When I picked “Girl on TV” by LFO, I started to “remember” the day the psychologists first started experimenting on me.

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After that stressful meeting, I sat in my car for what I was sure couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes, but the psychologists sped up my clock so that the next time I glanced at it, it looked like six hours had gone by.

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Over the next several weeks, I’d think so hard about those missing six hours that fake memories, often influenced by the music I listened to, flooded through the hole in my consciousness to fill in the blanks. Weeks after the meeting, when I picked “Girl on TV,” I started to remember being interviewed on CNN during those missing hours immediately after the meeting. My reaction, of course, was embarrassment, as I couldn’t believe CNN’s entire national audience now knew I still, in 2019, listened to LFO.

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When my imaginary team controlled my world, I stayed up late every night, listening to music—most of the time, Lana Del Rey—and smoking cigarettes on the front porch. One night I played a new Lana Del Rey song called “Florida Kilos.” I knew I’d never heard it before, but it sounded oddly familiar. “Florida Kilos” was the first of many songs I came to believe I had written.

The psychologists’ songs guided not just my delusions but my actions as well.

“Come on down to Florida, I got something for ya,” Lana sang.

What do you have for me? Where should I go? I wondered. The answer was in the song, of course. I left the house and went on down—not to Florida, but down the hill to town, a trip I’d later make whenever the team suggested I do so through the songs that came up on YouTube. It was after midnight by the time my mom got worried enough to come looking for me.

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She drove around in her nightgown until she finally found me on the swing set in the park across the street from the high school. Despite having been terrified of the dark all my life, I felt safe swinging alone, gazing up at the stars outside in the middle of the night and listening to the same song on repeat for hours. The team had chosen the song to guide me to the park, and I knew they were watching out for me.

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“Honey, what are you doing out here?” she asked me gently, failing to mask her anxiety at having let me slip through her fingers yet again.

“Waiting,” I replied dreamily, still gazing up at the stars. I was never quite sure what I was waiting for. I just know that it never came.

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Eventually, my 10-month psychotic episode came to a close after medication built a dam to keep fake memories from flooding in. In October 2019, when I realized I hadn’t had any new transmissions from the psychologists for a few weeks, I bit the bullet and Googled characteristics of schizophrenic delusions. I realized the symptoms fit what I had experienced over the past year to a T.

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My psychologists vanished instantly. In that moment I grieved—both for my old self who would never be the same now that she carried the label of “schizophrenic,” and for the beautiful, strange, terrifying world I inhabited for 10 months, because I knew I would never experience music the same way again.

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The soundtrack to my schizophrenia takes me back to my most spectacular choose-your-own-adventure, in which I did wild things. I broke into houses, climbed on top of cars, shoplifted, and snuck into a concert. Two-and-a-half years after my 10-month psychotic episode ended, I’m still listening to the music that reminds me of the single greatest adventure of my life.

People often say I “suffer from” schizophrenia. It’s true that parts of psychosis were extremely painful, and I may never truly be able to comprehend how much my mother suffered seeing me talk to myself on the street, shoplift cans of wine from Safeway, and smoke other people’s used cigarette butts. But I hate being thought of as a powerless victim constantly tortured by her own mind. It’s not just disempowering, it’s inaccurate: For me, the traumatic part wasn’t the schizophrenia itself but the stigma with which society regards it. Though some of my delusions were straight out of a horror movie, others provided comfort and made the transition into a marginalized identity bearable.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with my family at my mom’s house. During a lull before dessert, I picked up her boyfriend’s guitar and started picking at a few songs. I sang “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, “Love in This Club” by Usher, and “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday.

“Honey, how are you coming up with these songs?” my mom asked as she was clearing our plates. “I haven’t heard you play them before.”

“Oh, they’re all part of a soundtrack,” I told her with a private smile. “One you probably wouldn’t have heard of.”

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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