Psychotic Triggers: The Power of One Word

I moved to North Carolina in February of 1983. Having lived all my 23 years in the Midwest, its early springtime was so welcome.

Several years ago, I was looking through an old pocket calendar from that year. I wasn’t keeping a journal in those days (which I regret), but I would scribble words and phrases in it to remind me of things I needed to do.

One entry that spring read simply, “Light.” It brought back a rush of memories from my first days in the South.

Our apartment building in Greensboro was one of many that surrounded a small pond. Next to each door was an outside light that came on as it got dark. I remember how peaceful my surroundings looked at night with the soft white lights casting a glow across the water.

I remembered that feeling the lights gave me when I came across that word in my old calendar. The notation was simply a reminder to tell the management company that our light didn’t work and we needed a new one, but it was a vivid reminder of my move to a new state and a new job and new friends. It made me happy to remember it.

Words, aromas, sounds — they can all snap us back to a different place and time, sometimes good and sometimes not. During my first psychotic episode, the wrong word–the thought of what that word meant–could send me into an unpleasant tailspin.

I really liked my third roommate in the psychiatric hospital. She had taken me under her wing when I was transferred from the “chronic” ward (a wing of the facility where most residents stayed in their rooms, and the few who ventured out were quite obviously, quite severely mentally ill — even more so than me).

One day when we were sitting on our beds talking, my roommate showed me a picture of a baby in a coffin surrounded by lots of white satin blankets. It was Mary’s niece who had died of SIDS, which was why Mary was in the hospital. It had happened 18 months earlier, but it was still causing her great anxiety and depression.

Mary got up to leave, and I looked down at my neatly-made bed. That’s funny, I thought to myself. I don’t remember leaving a clothes hanger there this morning.

Suddenly, my chest started burning and I couldn’t breathe very well because of the word.

“Hanger,” I thought. “Hang-her. Hang ME.” I thought Mary blamed me for the death of her niece and wanted me to die, too. I got up quickly and went into our bathroom, but that only made it worse. Mary had left our shower curtain open, and her purple razor was sitting on a little shelf. I thought it looked like a death chamber, inviting me in.

Somebody once said that there’s a kernel of truth in every psychotic episode. And in fact, I did believe that two of my close friends wished me harm before I got sick. But once the dopamine in my brain went out of bounds, it’s impossible to know for sure why my thoughts went the way they did.

Words had great power over me when I was psychotic. I thought everyone knew things about me and believed I was responsible for very bad things happening. I thought they conveyed this information to me through hidden meanings in their language.

Once in a while, my brain will “catch” on a sentence that someone says, and it reminds me of those two periods in my life when I was mentally ill and afraid of words.

My last psychotic episode ended 20 years ago. There but for the grace of Abilify…

For those of you who don’t know, I wrote a book about my experiences with mental illness. You can get more more information at


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