For schizophrenic people struggling to get through daily life, nicotine can work in surprising ways.
I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia four years ago and have been picking myself up off the floor every day since. I was prescribed some medication that ruined my life, and then I was prescribed some medication that didn't ruin my life as much (I could see after the fourth antipsychotic I tried, at least, which was a definite plus).
I have spent the time since trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between myself, a medicated schizophrenic, and everyone else who works in my office. Yes, I'm a paranoid schizophrenic who has had a real corporate job for nearly nine years.
I smoked cigarettes long before I was diagnosed. I started carrying packs in my purse when I was around 16 years old. I didn't know at the time that the smoking had to do with a mental illness; I just assumed that I had picked up the disgusting habit because both my parents, my siblings, and all my friends smoked. As it turns out, according to studies from researchers around the world, people who have schizophrenia smoke more heavily than those who don't. Approximately 65 percent of schizophrenics in the US smoke, compared to 19 percent of the general population, according to a 2013 study.
From my experience, it was clear that nicotine lessened the sedating effects of my anti-psychotic medication; a 2005 study conducted by German researchers confirms that this isn't just true for me. "Nicotine seems to improve cognitive functions critically affected in schizophrenia, in particular sustained attention, focused attention, working memory, short-term memory, and recognition memory," the authors of the study wrote. "There is substantial evidence that nicotine could be used by patients with schizophrenia as a 'self-medication' to improve deficits in attention, cognition, and information processing and to reduce side effects of antipsychotic medication."
In other words, if schizophrenics smoke, we can get part of our existence back—the part that anti-psychotic medication covers up with its zombie-fied sanity blanket. Wouldn't you want that? I mean, we could also get lung cancer and die, but if we don't take our medication, we have a 15 percent chance of committing suicide. The meds are all we have, and nicotine is all we have to keep the meds in check.
After ten years of smoking a pack a day, plus two years without nicotine after quitting cold turkey—at which point, under major stress, I had myself committed to a mental institution—I picked up an electronic vaping device and haven't looked back. For three years, despite inflating prices and negative press about the culture of people who vape, vaping has been my most viable means of daytime survival.
Without nicotine and coffee, it is extremely difficult—near impossible—to survive a full-time day job while medicated. I would be slurring my words, struggling to focus, falling asleep at my desk, and failing to remember to do something my boss told me to do five minutes earlier. In other words, I would be fired.
There's a lot of controversy around the safety of vaping, but it can't be worse than smoking, and this way I no longer have to smell like an ashtray. So I choose it as an alternative, in an effort to achieve some semblance of normalcy. I will continue to choose it, no matter how difficult it may become to continue vaping.
Last Thursday, in response to the rising number of American teens using electronic smoking devices, or e-cigarettes, officials from the FDA announced sweeping new rules that will extend federal regulations to the entire vaping industry. Manufacturers will now be required to submit all products for FDA approval—a costly process that some suppliers say will put them out of business.
Of course, there are a handful of companies that have the means to go through the federal approval process, and perhaps prevent the total death of vaping. But it's likely that smaller vape companies—and therefore many vape shops—will fail as a result of the new regulations. In fact, that seems to be the FDA's goal: to regulate by minimizing the number of vape shops that exist; Mitch Zeller, head of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, told USA Today last week that he "expects consolidation in the number and type of products and vape shops."
Aside from the sheer inconvenience I'll experience if my local vape shop closes, consolidation of e-cigarette manufacturers will likely lead to an increase in prices. I also worry that the downsizing will limit the development of new products, and the improvement of available ones.
You would think that some consideration would be given to the quality of life of those who need this stimulant in order to not pass out at our desks. But no one seems to be thinking about us. No one has tried to make it easier for schizophrenics to access vaping in light of the oncoming regulations; attempts to use nicotine in pharmaceuticals have been rare, even though there's abundant evidence that it can help with a variety of illnesses.
The president, celebrities—hell, everyone in America—likes to brag about how much they care that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. But the truth is, this month the government made a decision that directly affects the schizophrenic population, without even mentioning us.
So we will sit patiently in the shadows, like we always do, waiting for someone to realize that the 2.6 million schizophrenics in the US are not the monsters they make us out to be. We are corporate professionals, scientists, doctors, musicians, writers, artists—real people contributing to society. We will wait for people to realize that the schizophrenics are entitled to a better life, just like all people suffering from depression. Or just like people, in general. We will wait until somebody cares about us, too.
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If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.