© Copyright 2005 Kurt Snyder
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During the time that I was the most mentally ill, I had some experiences dealing with the subject of the CIA. In two separate cases, I met individuals that were employed as contractors for the CIA, who suggested I might also gain employment there. After these experiences, I became fixated on the idea that the CIA was going to recruit me for some type of position, and much of what I thought about each day involved this idea.
I thought I was an ideal candidate for employment in this type of government service. I earned the citizenship award for my class at graduation both in elementary and high school. Besides traffic tickets, I have never been in trouble with the police-never committed any crimes. I have never been involved with illegal drugs. I am very patriotic, and would never be tempted to disclose national secrets for any reason. I can be trusted not to willingly disclose privileged or sensitive information. People who know me well would say I have high moral character. I also have a talent for learning foreign languages. I earned an award for French Studies upon graduation from high school. I also learned quite a lot of Italian while I was an exchange student in Italy, and I learned some Spanish from the casual laborers I employed. I thought this skill with language could be applied to learning other languages in my future employment with the CIA. I also sincerely hoped that I was going to get the opportunity to make a contribution to our national heritage. I thought working for the CIA would give me this opportunity.
My earliest significant memory concerning the CIA is in the form of a dream. While I was a teenager, I knew a woman whose husband worked with Naval Intelligence. She asked me to babysit their children for them one Friday night. As I arrived at their home, they introduced me to a gentleman who was accompanying them to dinner, and then they all left together. Later that night, I had a dream that this gentleman was a CIA agent, and that I had inadvertently discovered some national secret. In the dream, several men apprehended me and took me in a van to a secret location where I was interrogated. Part of the interrogation process involved using drugs that made me talkative, and at the same time gave me amnesia. When they were finished, they pushed me out of the van near my house, and I staggered home. The dream seemed so real, that I remember it very well almost twenty years later. Remembrance of this dream influenced some of my thinking when I became mentally ill.
In retrospective, I probably began to develop mental illness at about the age of 21. However, at that time, most of the symptoms were limited to my private thought processes, and I displayed few outward signs that others might think was mental illness. Many of my thought processes were personal secrets--I maintained some ideas only internally-I did not share them with others. It is clear to me now that these thought processes were the beginnings of schizophrenia. To my friends and relatives, however, I appeared 'normal'. Until my first observable psychotic episode at the age of 28, most people would not have known that I was experiencing a mental illness.
My childhood was very normal. I had loving parents. I had friends whom I played with on a regular basis. My favorite sport was soccer. I played on soccer teams all year-round until I was in the ninth grade. I was exceptionally smart in elementary school. I always scored in the top 1% on standardized tests.
As a teenager in high school, I also did well in academics. I found most subjects easy. In college, however, I began to have difficulty. I found concentrating during class to be impossible. I would be in a lecture, and I would begin to daydream about a wide variety of different subjects, none of which related to the lecture material. After many minutes, when my concentration returned to the lecture, I would be lost, having not experienced the continuum of the lecture. Outside of class, I found concentrating on homework to be just as difficult. I could not complete all the work that was assigned. My success in college became very inconsistent, and varied directly with the amount of work required outside of class. I would get A's in some classes and F's in others.
Also in college, I began to experience some symptoms that might indicate something was wrong with my brain. I was having sleep disorders. I tended to sleep very deeply. At times, I would sleep so deeply that it was difficult to wake me. Normal alarm clocks were not sufficient. The usual alarm clocks would continue to ring, vibrate, or play music for hours without any affect on me. They could not wake me. I would routinely miss my classes because I overslept. I often slept for more than 12 hours at a time. Much to the horror of my roommate, I obtained a special alarm clock that would make a sound similar to a fire alarm. Even with this noise, it would often take a up to a minute for me to wake up.
If waking was a problem for me, staying awake was just as difficult. I could fall asleep in almost any environment, even noisy ones, at any time of day. I often fell asleep for the entire duration of a class. Furthermore, I had a propensity for talking in my sleep. According to others, I often spoke in whole sentences both for myself and other people in my dreams.
Another interesting sleep "disorder" for me was nightmares. Beginning at about the age of 16, I began having nightmares on a regular basis, and they continued for many years afterwards. In college, I would often wake my roommates or my girlfriend when I was screaming in my sleep. Upon waking, I rarely remembered the content of the dreams. I could not identify any particular stress in my life that would cause the nightmares or my eternal somnolence. Gradually, as I have gotten older, the daytime sleepiness, nightmares, and talking in my sleep have all gone away. I do not know what has caused their departure. Possibly it is an effect of taking psychiatric medication. The departure of these symptoms has coincided with my regular dosing of anti-psychotic medication. The only sleep abnormality I experience now is oversleeping. If I don't use an alarm clock, I still often sleep for 12-14 hours at a time, usually on the weekends when I don't have to get up early for work.
By my sophomore year in college, I became frustrated with my failures in academics, and I sought out other activities in which I could be successful. I became interested in martial arts, and began going to a dojo near campus. I took up the study of aikido, judo and jujitsu. I found practicing these arts to be very invigorating and exciting. The success I achieved in the martial arts overwhelmed my desire to succeed in academics. I found that I could concentrate very effectively on physical skills, in a way that I could not do so with academics. Soon, I was practicing martial arts three hours per day, and I was neglecting my academic studies. The only reason I stayed in school at all was because I had a desire to please my parents, and I wanted to meet their expectations. I was certain they expected me to continue my college education.
It was during my sophomore year in college that I experienced for the first time something that is similar to psychosis. In addition to going to school, I had started working for a hotel as an auditor on the night shift from 11pm to 7am. After work I would go to school at 8am. At the end of one semester, I felt I was unprepared for my final exams. I don't think I had been to class in a month. I decided I would have to study vigorously. I started a 3 day cram session. I was very concerned about my final grades, and the anxiety and fear of failure kept me awake when I might normally have fallen asleep. I studied intensely and I did not go to sleep for more than 60 hours. After this time had passed I started to experience what I can only describe as fully conscious dreams. I started to have bizarre thoughts that had no connection with one another. In a normal stream of consciousness, one thought is usually connected to the next by some type of association. I began to experience one thought after another and none of them had any logical progression or logical connection to each other. My thoughts and perceptions had a very strange nature. Although I don't remember any specific thoughts, I remember the quality of them. For example, I might have been reading a book, and the book suddenly seemed like a house, then it seemed like a waterfall, then I thought of astronauts in outer space, then I was thinking about my Aunt Lynda, then my shoe felt like an anvil, then I thought about blueberries, then the blueberries seemed to be a fish, then I thought about glue, and I thought about glue being alive, then I imagined there was a galaxy inside my head, then the galaxy turned into a dime, then I was hearing a song in my head. Nothing seemed to make sense. While I was awake I was experiencing thought patterns not unlike those you would have in a dream. In reality, I don't believe I was experiencing any hallucinations because I still understood what was real. I understood that these were only thoughts in my head.
The bizarre thoughts started gradually and became more intense over the course of an hour. They started to intrude on my decision-making. I couldn't form a plan for the rest of the day or even for the next ten minutes. I realized that what I was experiencing was being caused by lack of sleep. I decided to go to bed as soon as possible. I went to sleep for perhaps six or seven hours, then got up to go to work. By that time my mind had returned to its normal state and I was able to function. After work, I took one of my engineering exams and got an 'A'. I also did well in other exams that semester. Although my cram session had been successful, the engineering exam I took was very easy. It was in a class called 'Statics', one of the most basic and simple engineering classes you can take. After this semester, I never had much success in school again. I also never undertook such a drastic cram session. Since that time, I have never again experienced anything quite like those thought patterns, even when I was psychotic.
By the middle of my third year in college, it was clear to me that I was not going to earn a degree by being a full time student. I was failing too often. I decided to go to work as a desk clerk at a hotel, and I went to school part time. I also changed my major from mechanical engineering to hotel management-a significantly less challenging course of study.
At about the age of 21, I began to think about what contribution I could make to society. Although I was not doing well academically, I thought that I was smart, and that I could achieve something significant in life.
It was 1992. I had recently discovered the world of fractals and chaos. After I understood the basic mathematical principles involved with generating fractals, they became the most fascinating and interesting things I had ever known. Even today, they are still the most amazing things I know of. They are truly wondrous, remarkable, and mysterious. Because the world of fractals is so new, I thought perhaps I could make some contribution to the field. There are many things about fractals that are not understood. I thought that if I concentrated my thought on them for a long enough time, I could make some discovery that no one else had made. I wanted to demonstrate the practical application of fractals to the real world. I wanted to discover a method of using fractals to describe the true shape of objects in the universe, and the behavior of a wide variety of natural phenomenon. In particular, I became obsessed with using fractals to describe the shape of clouds in the sky and various types of plants, especially trees. I also wanted to find a formula or a process that could map out the boundary of a fractal like the Mandelbrot Set, without resorting to the same iterative formula that generates the set. As far as I know, this has not yet been achieved by anyone, anywhere, and I believe that many mathematicians would think it is impossible to achieve.
Because generating fractals involves the concept of infinity, I began to think obsessively about infinity and about new ways of describing infinity. I thought about these ideas on a regular basis for more than ten years. The simple fact that I wondered about these things does not mean that I was mentally ill, but the fact that I believed I could solve certain types of difficult problems indicates to me now that I was overestimating my mental abilities. These problems require a genius mentality to solve. I believe that I was exhibiting grandiose thinking. I kept telling myself that I was going to discover some previously unknown secret of the universe. I kept these ideas to myself--for most of a decade I never indicated to anyone that I was thinking about them.
At about the age of 22, I had my first significant paranoid episode. I was on a trip with my girlfriend, my brother, and his wife in the mountains of western Maryland. We were in an area of very low population density, spending the weekend in a rented cabin. For some reason, I began to feel very isolated and vulnerable. Images from horror movies were in the forefront of my mind. I began to imagine that someone could break into the cabin while we were sleeping and kill us all. I became very fearful and I grew increasingly concerned about the sturdiness of the entrance doors and their locks. I tried to reinforce the doors with chairs. Understandably, everyone else seemed bewildered about my behavior. This is the earliest memory I have of intense paranoid feelings. I did not experience another paranoid 'episode' for many years.
In almost all cases throughout my life where I have experienced abnormal thought processes, I also experienced abnormal feelings. The feelings and thoughts coincided. Thoughts of vulnerability bred feelings of vulnerability, and vice versa. In this case, where I was in the cabin, I was feeling significantly vulnerable, and associated thoughts soon followed. It was difficult to apply any measure of reason to these thoughts. This is the first time that I experienced what I call 'imagination infringement'. This is what happens when an idea that is imagined by the mind becomes a belief about reality. That is, the mind believes the idea to be reality. The mind accepts the idea as the truth. This idea can persist even when there is evidence to the contrary. When imagination infringement occurs, what one perceives as reality is replaced by a fantasy. In later years, as my mental illness progressed, imagination infringement occurred more frequently and with greater intensity. At this time, I imagined that people might break in and murder us, and I began to believe this was actually going to happen. Eventually, however, I calmed down, I became more rational, and I went to bed.
By December 1994, I had been going to college part time for 3 years. I was almost 24 years old. I still had limited success, passing some classes, failing others. However, in general, I was doing better than I did in engineering. The coursework was much less rigorous. I had been working in the hotel industry for almost four years, but I was barely making $9 an hour. I believed that if I pursued a career in the hotel industry, it would take me many years to reach a satisfactory level of income. At the time, I had a strong desire to work for myself. I decided to quit my job and strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. My first idea was to become a computer graphics specialist. I purchased a computer system and spent thousands of dollars on software. I didn't immediately find a market for my skills so I started doing small handyman jobs to earn money. I found many different clients for this very quickly so I changed my mind. I decided to start a handyman service. I purchased a van, and I began buying tools.
Despite an abundance of work, I was in financial trouble. I had a lot to learn about business. I lost about eight thousand dollars during the first two years and I amassed a huge credit card debt. Most of this loss was due to equipment costs, a failure to charge a high enough hourly price for my services, and poor skill at estimating labor time. After two years however, I started to make a profit. I then began to concentrate my marketing activities on wealthy neighborhoods where I could get a high hourly rate of pay.
At about this same time, I became more critical about myself and my work. I started to have many feelings of anxiety and inadequacy related to job performance. I worried constantly about whether I was doing a good enough job. I also began to worry that my customers might be watching me while I was working. These thoughts made me much more self-conscious and interfered with my performance. I would not yet have characterized these thoughts and feelings as true paranoia, because at the time I never actually believed I was being watched, I was only anxious because I thought they MIGHT be watching. I think it is normal to have these types of thoughts occasionally, but I began to have these thoughts constantly. Both the thought and feeling that I was being watched by my customers had a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes, I would get the feeling that I was being watched, and this would cause me to think, "Maybe my client is watching me." Other times, I might think, "What if my client is watching me right now?" and this would cause me to feel self-conscious. The thought and feeling, although different, would feed on each other.
Over a period of many years, I experienced a spectrum of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that ranged from normal to abnormal, sometimes with no clear distinction. I had many symptoms of paranoia that at times would be considered normal. However, for me the trend was to experience these symptoms with increasing frequency and intensity. For example, it is normal that one might proceed with trepidation and wariness when walking down a dark alleyway at night. In such a situation, one might feel more aware of their surroundings, listen more intently, and look over one's shoulder. This is normal. I might have behaved the same way. But, if you had to walk down that same alleyway on ten different occasions, your fear and anxiety might diminish with each trip when nothing noteworthy happened. For me, however, my fear and anxiety would continue at the same level, or even increase with each trip.
At about the age of 25, the cycle of anxiety and thoughts related to my job performance began to mushroom. I was especially concerned about the impression I was making on new clients. I wanted to project myself as a competent and capable handyman. I became very self critical. Whenever I did something that I thought might be perceived as a mistake, or a lapse in concentration, I would think to myself, "What if my client saw that?" I would become anxious and nervous. These feelings would interfere with my work, and I would often have problems thinking about the next step to take. I would quickly become unproductive. This would lead to more anxiety, and more concern about the appearance of competency I was trying to project. I would then worry more intensely about whether or not I was being watched. This would lead to less concentration on the work I was doing, which would lead to more anxiety and self doubt.
The idea that my client might be watching became a constant thought in my mind. If it were not for the fact that these thoughts made me unproductive, they might have diminished. However, they did affect my performance, and over time they increased in intensity as the thoughts made me less and less productive on the job.
It is worth noting at this point that the fear of being watched caused much more anxiety than did the actual fact of being watched. When my clients did watch me, I had little or no anxiety. Sometimes, I would get a client that would stand behind me and watch every single thing I did. At these times, my anxiety was at the lowest level. I actually performed much better. When I was by myself, however, the IDEA that they MIGHT be watching me caused a real psychological problem. In my mind, I would imagine my client watching me with much criticism. My anxiety would peak. A fantasy existed in my mind about how my clients might be perceiving me. This idea was itself a stimulus that provoked certain thought processes and behaviors. The idea in my mind caused a greater reaction in me than the real stimulus did. I think this is a definitive symptom of shizophrenia. An imagined idea had more impact on my behavior than the real situation did.
You can imagine that having the same thoughts over and over for years can cause other neuroses. After a while, the idea that I was being watched by my clients began to grow and expand. If I was working outside, I no longer just worried that my client was watching, I also worried that maybe the neighbors were watching, or someone somewhere was watching me. This feeling began to follow me wherever I went. It attached itself to any entity in my mind that would normally be expected to watch the public. When I was on the highway, and I saw a police car, I would wonder if the policeman was watching me exclusively. I often felt relief when he didn't pull me over. When I went to a store, especially a large store like the Home Depot, I would feel like I was being watched by store security. I wouldn't actually believe I was being watched, but I would wonder, "Are they watching me now?" This would cause me a lot of anxiety. I would become nervous and agitated. I would have trouble concentrating on my shopping list. I would lose track of what I was supposed to be buying there. The longer I was in the store, the more disorganized I would become, and the anxiety would continue to intensify.
This pattern of thought, feeling and behavior began to predominate everywhere. I felt like I was being watched constantly. I couldn't make the anxiety dissipate by reasoning alone. I might think to myself, "Why should I be uncomfortable if people are watching me? I'm not doing anything wrong!" But, the anxiety would continue. I would try to counteract my own thoughts. "People are not really watching me personally, they are too busy doing their own shopping. Store security is not watching me personally, they are watching everyone." I would still feel extremely anxious no matter what reasoning I tried to apply. The anxiety was irrational. I felt exposed and self conscious in every public place. This was especially true anywhere there were surveillance cameras.
Surveillance cameras added an extra measure of anxiety, because I felt someone could be watching me at any time without my direct knowledge. That possibility caused me the most anxiety of all. Exactly why this is true, I don't know. I think that paranoia is a very primitive emotion. The feeling that something may be watching you from a dark or secluded place stirs up primordial fear. The fear is that something is about to attack you, or hurt you, and you don't exactly know where it is, or what it's plans are. I think this is the root of paranoia. It is often a subliminal thought. You are not always fully aware of it when you are experiencing the fear of paranoia. When you are aware of the watcher and his location, you can adjust your behavior to compensate. However, when you don't know the location of the watcher, your anxiety is greatest, because any move might be the wrong one. Over a period of several years, my performance anxiety was slowly becoming paranoia. I could not escape it. Despite the paranoid feelings I was experiencing, I don't think anyone else noticed I was having an emotional or psychological problem, until much later when my symptoms became worse.
I continued working as a handyman and my business actually improved. I was targeting wealthy neighborhoods where I could earn a higher rate of pay. This was how I met two of my closest friends, Woody and Judy.
Woody and Judy lived in a very affluent neighborhood several miles outside of Annapolis, Maryland. At the time I met them, I had been doing most of my work in and around Annapolis. Their multimillion dollar house sits high on a point overlooking the Severn River. One day I had left a flyer in their mailbox. Judy called me after seeing my flyer. My first job for them was to install a shelf for plants over their windowsill. They were very pleased with the results, and they hired me for other work. After doing a few more handyman jobs for them, Woody asked me if I could be a caretaker for their property. The property surrounding their house was quite extensive, and required a lot of maintenance. That meant many hours of labor for me. I quickly accepted the opportunity. Very soon, I was spending three or four days per week at their home, and I saw them often. They liked the work I did for them, and they liked me.
After a few months of work, they were asking me to join them occasionally for lunch or dinner, and sometimes both. We developed a great rapport. I felt very comfortable talking to them, and I believe they felt the same way toward me. I would discuss all aspects of my life with them, and they would often give me advice on business and personal matters. They began to trust me implicitly. They felt comfortable with me, and they would often reveal very personal things to me about themselves. Over time, I got to know their personalities very well and I developed a deep respect for them. We had an emotional connection. I loved going over to their house.
In the summer, Woody and Judy would go to another home in Aspen, Colorado. They asked me if I would watch over their home while they were away. They gave me a key to their house, and the security code to their alarm system. I was supposed to check on their house once or twice per week for the three months they were away. I ended up looking after their home for several summers. They allowed me to keep the key throughout the year, even when they were home in Annapolis. I felt very honored to have earned their trust.
I believe that Woody and Judy's willingness to trust me demonstrates the fact that my emotional and psychological problems were not evident to the casual observer. If they had suspected any mental illness in me, I don't believe they would have given me the key to their house, or the security code to their alarm system.
© Copyright 2005 Kurt Snyder
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