When psychosis occurs, the unreal becomes real. Or at least that’s what it feels like, looks like, sounds like and even smells like to those who experience it. Overcoming such extreme distortions of reality is difficult but possible with the right treatment and support.

News, Women's Health, Men's Health | 4 years ago

What's It Like to Experience Psychosis? For Many, A Living Nightmare

When psychosis occurs, the unreal becomes real. Or at least that’s what it feels like, looks like, sounds like and even smells like to those who experience it. Overcoming such extreme distortions of reality is difficult but possible with the right treatment and support.

A few years ago, Marquis Brown was going through a rough patch and decided to move back in with his parents. On move-in day, he was grabbing boxes from his car when he saw a blur of movement from the corner of his eye. Down the street were four huge men holding gleaming butcher knives – and they were running toward him at full speed.

Leaving a trail of boxes, Marquis fled inside.

The men followed, taunting him from outside: “Mar-r-r-r-c, come out, come out … Are you not going to let us in?”

The episode was terrifying. But it wasn’t real.

Marquis, now 22, would later learn that the men, knives and voices were all part of a hallucination brought on by an episode of psychosis.

What is psychosis?

Psychosis is a symptom that can be related to mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder. It’s often described as “a break in reality that may include hearing, seeing and believing things that aren’t real or having intense, persistent paranoid thoughts,” says psychiatric nurse practitioner Michelle Olshan-Perlmutter.

While everyone’s experience is unique, most people say that psychosis is baffling and wildly frightening. And more people experience psychosis than you may think. In the US, as many as 3 in 100 people will have a psychotic episode at some point in their lives.

What’s the key to treating psychosis? Preventing any more episodes from occurring. For most people, that means getting the right diagnosis, medication and support soon after their first psychotic episode.

“People who experience recurring psychotic episodes often find it difficult to keep up with school and work, struggle with substance abuse, homelessness, and face a high rate of suicide,” says Olshan-Perlmutter.

Psychotic episodes harm the brain

Each time a person experiences a psychotic episode, it not only massively disrupts their life and frightens them, “it negatively impacts their brain and makes it harder for them to return to their previous level of functioning,” says Olshan-Perlmutter.

She explains it to patients like this: “Imagine your brain is an ice cube and when you have one of these episodes, the brain melts a little bit and then refreezes – and the form is different. That’s why it’s so vital to prevent more episodes and stop any more melting and reforming.”

Bottom line: The sooner people get the right care and support after an episode of psychosis, the better the results.

A program designed to help people overcome psychosis and thrive

That’s where Atrium Health’s Eagle Program comes in.  One of only four such programs in North Carolina, the outpatient treatment program is designed to help people from age 15 to 30 who live in Mecklenburg County and have experienced their first episode of psychosis in the past three years.

“The main goal is early intervention,” says Ashlynn Reed, coordinator of the Eagle Program. “The secondary goal is to help participants not only live with their condition but live their best possible lives.”

The Eagle Program offers participants:

  • Group, individual and family therapy
  • Psychiatric care and medication management
  • Cognitive therapy and exercises
  • Peer support
  • Education and employment support

Getting back to life

Marquis joined the Eagle Program about a year after that nightmarish move-in day.

At that point, he’d been through a 20-day hospital stay, received a schizophrenia diagnosis, and was taking medication to treat his condition. But staying on top of everything it takes to keep his day-to-day life and mental health balanced was challenging. The Eagle Program helped.

“They know what you’re going through and they just want to make sure you get the best care you can possibly get,” he says. “You have people who help you get into school and find a job and others who check in and make sure you’re still doing good mentally.”

Another benefit that many in the program take advantage of is medication management. It’s all too common for patients to feel so good on their medication that they think they can do without it, or others just don’t trust themselves to regularly take it.

Olshan-Perlmutter, one of the program’s medication management practitioners, helps patients work through these issues. “I spend a lot of time encouraging, coaxing and convincing patients to stay on their medication. Oftentimes they end up going with injectable medicines, which they receive here, because it’s difficult for someone to remember to take a pill every day. People forget. They get busy.” This method, she adds, has a very high success rate within the program.

While time spent in the program varies, most people participate for about two years. And at the end of that time, the aim is to re-enter society and feel like they’ve accomplished whatever goals they set out to accomplish. For most participants, it’s feeling well enough to return to everyday life, including work and school. Since the program began in May 2017, 83 percent of the program’s participants have returned to work or school.

Marquis is one example of such success. The Eagle Program had such a profound effect on him that he’s decided to change his major to psychology, so one day he can give back and help others with mental illnesses.

If you or someone you know may be interested in Atrium Health’s Eagle Program, call 704-444-5895.

Need help right now? Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7. Just call 704-444-2400.