Imagine walking down a street where the shadows sprout arms and reach for you out of the darkness. Where faceless men in suits follow you. And where sudden, unexplained noises send your heart into overdrive. Now imagine it isn't the setting of the latest Hollywood thriller, it's daily life.
That's the reality for paranoid schizophrenics like myself, although I should stress straightaway it's a condition that manifests itself very differently for everyone. For me, the psychotic episodes I experience are irregular, unpredictable and all-consuming. And they're characterised by a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear.
Recently, I became convinced that the CIA had planted hidden cameras in my house and were spying on my every move. It sent me into a whirlpool of paranoia and lasted two months before my medication and my family finally helped me realise the truth. There were no cameras. No secret agents. No threat.
As a small child, I recall seeing monsters at my window and hearing whispers in my head that seemed to come from nowhere. At the time, the people close to me understandably wrote it off as a young person with an active imagination; a diagnosis that morphed into 'she's just a drama queen' as I got older.
Credit: PA Images
I became introverted. I started to hurt myself because a strange voice was telling me to. At age eight, I tried to hang myself from a light-fitting. Fortunately, it couldn't support my weight and I was soon crashing back to the floor. A life saved by poor build quality!
It's about now I should tell you everything is fine. It isn't. In fact, my condition is getting worse with age. Work is impossible. A few bad nights' sleep or a walk in the dark can result in a major episode of paranoia and psychosis that lasts weeks. Making friends is a constant challenge.
But that doesn't mean things are hopeless. I have a wonderful, supportive family who help me at every step, especially my grandma who lives 10 minutes' walk away and is always there when I need someone.
And it certainly doesn't mean I'm asking for pity. That's actually one of the things I hate most: the idea of someone feeling sorry for me. Instead, I just want them to understand the uniquely challenging way paranoid schizophrenia impacts my life, and the effect it has for others who suffer from it, too.
Credit: PA Images
Yes, the condition looks and feels different for all of us, but we're not the crazed psychopaths often portrayed in movies and books. In fact, schizophrenics are nearly always a danger to themselves, not others.
Changing this perception is the main reason I leapt at the chance to join The Human Library, which is currently working with Heineken in the UK to inspire everyone to celebrate diversity and focus on what unites us. By becoming one of its human 'books', I get to meet people to discuss my diagnosis and explain what it actually means in reality.
I've always loved talking to people, so it's an enjoyable experience for me and, I hope, an informative one for them. A conversation that leaves people thinking 'I never realised that' or 'actually, paranoid schizophrenia isn't what I thought it was at all'. Plus, their questions help me think differently about my condition. That's helpful.
The weird thing is a lot of the time I feel completely healthy and fresh, normal even, which is why accepting my diagnosis has been (and continues to be) so hard. The truth is that this is something I was born with and even though I hope to be medication-free within 10 years, I will always have to deal with it. But it will never define me. Believing, knowing, I'm a great person is what defines me.
'U OK M8?' is an initiative from LADbible in partnership with a range of mental health charities which features a series of films and stories to raise awareness of mental health.
Samaritans: 116 123.
CALM: Outside London 0808 802 5858, inside London 0800 58 58 58.
Featured Image Credit: Illustration by Dan Wilson