the cut on tuesdays

What Psychosis Feels Like

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty

On this week’s show, we’re revisiting Lisa Miller’s cover story about the links between menopause and schizophrenia. Lisa tells us how the story came to be — and why she got more invested in it than she ever expected to. And we hear from some of the women who told Lisa about what they went through.

Talia (not her real name) is one of the women who told us what it was like to experience psychosis for the first time as a middle-aged woman. Talia’s a professor in her 40s, with a husband and a teenage daughter, and a few years ago, she noticed some of the symptoms you see with perimenopause.

TALIA: Little things like your skin gets dry, mostly problems with heat. Sleeping, getting too hot, opening the window in winter, which I still do.

But those side-effects became worse. Her trouble sleeping got worse. Soon she found she was having trouble thinking the way she used to.

TALIA: I remember having a hard time writing an email — like, having a hard time processing the steps to write an email, to organize the sentences of an email. And I remember, at the time, I was trying to prepare a class, and, you know, I would do something and have my husband check it. What I was doing was fine, but in my mind, the ability to focus was so difficult.

And then her sense of reality began to blur. At the time, Talia was working on research about a program in Nazi Germany called Aktion T4. It was a program in psychiatric hospitals where patients with disabilities and mental illnesses were killed, in gas chambers that were the models for the ones used in death camps.

TALIA: I started to believe that this was happening again or could happen again.

Talia started to believe that there were authorities who knew she was mentally ill — and that they were coming for her, like the Nazis.

TALIA: So I became very afraid, very suspicious that the people around me — not so much my family but doctors and these kind of people — could be part of a similar program.

Most of our windows have blinds that can be shut, but we have one window that doesn’t have a blind, and I taped that window with paper so that no one could look in the window. There was this one experience in particular of someone coming and knocking on the door … at the time, that knock was, for me, someone coming for me. And so I sort of scrambled and tried hiding in one closet, which I couldn’t fit in. And then hid in another closet. And I called my doctor, actually, at that point, and I remember him just saying, Talia, no one is going to kill you because you have a mental illness.

MOLLY: How real did it feel to you? What was in your head in that moment?

TALIA: It feels incredibly real. The whole time, though, to me it’s sort of a question: What if there is a program? What if this is happening? You know, my doctor at the time was saying, you know you’re experiencing psychosis and I understood what he was saying. But at the same time I was thinking, What if he’s wrong? What if I’m right? What if this is really happening?

Click above to hear more about the science of hormones and mental health, and how it all effects women — and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

What Psychosis Feels Like