Living With Psychosis – How Your Language Can Hurt

If you throw around the words ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’ to describe someone you disagree with, or roll it out when you’ve been hurt or upset – then you can’t call yourself a mental health advocate, or say that you care about mental health. There, I’ve said it.

People have said to me, “But surely delusional doesn’t just have a pathological meaning?” My answer to that is it depends on the context. I think generally people know what they’re insinuating when they call someone delusional. They know exactly what they’re doing, what they mean, and the reaction they’re trying to invoke. I have delusional thinking and I find it offensive when someone uses it as a slur. Delusional, and the word psychotic, are not synonymous with badness, which is often how they are used. The English language is huge and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to change up your vocabulary!

The misuse use of these words is one of those things about mental illness that just doesn’t stick when you talk about it. And I’m majorly fed up with explaining it. People either don’t want to change the language they use, don’t see it’s a problem, or simply forget the point, and start using the words all over again. I see or hear the word psychotic misused pretty much everyday. It’s either on social media, in tv or film. So really, it’s EVERYWHERE. It’s exhausting to keep calling it out, or getting annoyed at a show or a movie when they use it in the wrong context.

I’ve had people say to me “C’mon, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a word!” That’s your opinion, but it’s important to listen to the opinion of people that are actually psychotic. That live with the condition/symptom and have to hear the word being used negatively every single day. Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with psychosis. The word psychotic has become a part of your life, whether you want it to or not. You know the feeling of dread when you start to hear, see or feel things that aren’t really there. You remember the extreme paranoia or delusions of grandeur that come with delusional thinking. You’re slowly learning to manage it, but it’s terrifying. It’s confusing and disorientating. It makes you feel extremely vulnerable. You feel untethered from reality and like there is no safety net to catch you. Because of all of this, you’re at a higher risk when you’re ill of being the victim of crime than the general population. Then imagine a friend has had a bad break up. They suddenly start describing their ex to you as a “psychotic nazi.” Later that day you find a show you think you’ll like and put it on the telly. The villain, the character the audience is supposed to hate, is described as psychotic. The next day, a family member rants to you about a politician. They tell you that they’re “evil, dangerous, psychotic.” And it continues like this, with people all around you casually throwing the word around – not once thinking about the impact it will have on you.

All I’m asking is to think before you speak. It all adds up. You might think it’s not a big deal when you say it, but hearing it constantly misused takes it’s toll. If you live with psychosis it warps the way you think about yourself. You start questioning, “Am I a bad person?” “Am I dangerous when I’m ill?” Because the word has been given a different meaning by the people around you and in society in general. It’s so commonly misused you start to doubt whether the way you use the word is right. It grinds you down, it makes you feel like you’re broken and people see you as dangerous.

They’re not ‘just words’ they carry venom that poisons people that are already vulnerable. It stops people from accessing care and support because they don’t want the label. It isolates people that already feel alone and misunderstood.

Hiding Behind A Smile

What do these photos say to you? You probably see a happy, smiling young person, enjoying life. The reality is I was ill in each of these photos.

I’d either just had a diagnosis of bipolar, or was about to be diagnosed. You can’t see it, but I was all over the place mentally – either depressed or manic, it was relentless and I felt stuck in a never-ending loop. I don’t remember being stable for more than a week at a time. Mania made me confident and almost euphoric, but at the same time I was dealing with delusional thinking and spending thousands of pounds that I couldn’t really afford. Then there was the irritability and anger that made me act out and say terrible things. Crushing depression left me feeling hopeless and stuck. I was also struggling with bulimia and in no way was I taking care of myself physically. To be honest, it was a shitty time in my life. Somehow through it all, I was working full time, spent the weekends partying with friends and going to festivals and gigs. I never stopped and I was always, always, smiling.

By that point in my life I’d become an expert at pretending everything was fine, hiding behind a mask and smiling through the pain.

It’s obvious with hindsight what was about to happen; I crashed. I became deeply depressed – the worst I’d ever felt. I was suicidal and couldn’t work, couldn’t go out, could barely function enough to have a shower. It forced me to confront what I’d been going through for years and start searching for a reason why. The answer was bipolar, and that started me on a long road of learning and acceptance. It taught me I have to be honest. I couldn’t hide anymore.

It’s easy to see a smiling face and assume everything is totally ok. But it’s not enough to just assume. Someone you love could be hiding how much they’re struggling and you may never know.

So ask the difficult questions; tell them you’ve noticed signs that something isn’t quite right. Reach out to them if they suddenly become withdrawn. Listen like you’re really listening, mean it when you empathise with them and ask how you can help. The mask will slip, and how you act when it does will make a huge difference to that person.

I wish I’d been more open about how I was coping. I wish I’d told the truth back then. But here I am now, being authentic and honest. It’s never too late to stop hiding, to let people in. I’m always blown away by the support I have from family and friends. It’s not always easy for them, and we communicate our feelings to each other when mental illness makes life tough. I have lost friends but, the ones that really care will stay by your side.