Rebecca Chamaa
The Aging Well Issue

Getting Older Has Had a Positive Effect on My Mental Health

I know what life was like as a 20-something and what life as a middle-aged woman is like now. I know what life was like before I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and what life has been since.

No matter where a dart may land in the span of my life, I’m proud of how I’ve constantly reinvented my definitions of joy, peace, and balance. I’m also honest with myself and others that there have been seasons when the cards I’ve been dealt have been mangled or simply hard to play. 

Through my late 20s and 30s, for instance, I lived in the shadows. My first psychotic episode when I was 28 years old threw me for a loop. Before the episode (and my subsequent bipolar disorder diagnosis), I would have described myself as a “regular” 20-something adult with “regular” problems and lived experiences. I worked a traditional nine-to-five, dated, and spent time on my hobbies and with my friends. After my diagnosis, I felt riddled with the stigma, just as much as with my symptoms—episodes of paranoia, for instance. 

No matter where a dart may land in the span of my life, I’m proud of how I’ve constantly reinvented my definitions of joy, peace, and balance.

After getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my life became smaller. I struggled with what the new set of limitations meant for my everyday life. In many ways, the secrecy was the worst part and only became more layered when I had my diagnosis revisited at 40. 

At the tail end of another series of psychotic episodes, my attending healthcare provider said, “You have a thought disorder, but you do not have a mood disorder.” His assessment ultimately led to a new diagnosis—chronic paranoid schizophrenia—and in some ways, a new lease on life. 

Finding True Support

The reinvention process since getting my new diagnosis has been a slow—but intentional—crawl. I was encouraged by my supporting medical team to choose one person to open up to about my diagnosis because the isolation I’d been living in just wasn’t healthy. Looking back, I think that the psychiatrist’s encouragement ultimately cracked me open in a way that was necessary both for my personal life and my life’s work.

It made me more accepting of myself. While my life isn’t the “regular” life I remember from my early 20s, being middle-aged and living with my diagnosis is its own kind of wonderful and complicated.

Yes, it’s true that I can’t hold a full-time job like I used to, but it’s also true that I’m chasing different dreams than I ever thought myself capable of. I’m almost done with a certificate program at Columbia University—an ivy league school I would have never imagined attending. It feels like such a blessing to have found avenues that allow me to feel fulfilled in ways that make sense to me.

I also write regularly and openly about life with schizophrenia because telling that one friend about my diagnosis sparked a light within me to want to tell my story more often and to those who can be helped by it.

Honoring Where You Are, in All Its Layers 

My first piece of writing about my diagnosis was on my own blog, A Journey With You. I used the blog to also offer a sort of PSA to my family and friends that this is what I had been living with for years. I remember feeling so nervous—but at peace—hitting publish on my Facebook post with a link to my blog. It was a milestone for how far I’d come in accepting myself. 

I’d lived such a fragmented life until then. Right now, in my middle age, I feel the most “me” I have ever felt. Even though I will always have significant challenges and limitations, there’s a lot of beauty in my life, and a lot of learning that can still be done. 

I work every day to ensure that my support system is stable because I know it makes a difference in how I tackle a bad day. My support system is made up of healthcare providers or loved ones who stand in my corner, as well as an ever-replenishing source of self-compassion. My own ability to practice grace for myself makes the hard days bearable, especially when it could be so easy to come down on myself.

I work every day to ensure that my support system is stable because I know it makes a difference in how I tackle a bad day.

One of the most personal, tangible ways that my diagnosis shifts my day-to-day life comes down to my inability to know if I’ll be able to attend the appointments I’ve committed to, whether personal or professional. Each day is a new adventure, and it isn’t until any given morning that I’m able to tell whether my symptoms will be manageable with a small amount of effort or whether it will require all of me on that given day. That level of unpredictability can wear on anyone and has definitely worn on me; this is where I’ve found grace and self-compassion to be the best tools in my support toolbox. 

Claiming Joy As Your Own

Even though I’ll always be riddled with a range of symptoms, I also hope always to feel like I do right now—full of joy and contentment for the stage of life I am in. 

Being more than 40 years old has been my biggest blessing. I feel lucky to be my age and to continue to grow older. I feel fortunate that my diagnosis was corrected so that I could own every aspect of my own life and mind and feel less fragmented as a result. Because the less fragmented I feel, the more I feel like myself. 

By Rebecca Chamaa
Rebecca is a mental health advocate and writer living in California.