It came on so quickly and without warning that James Jenkins didn't quite recognize what was happening to him at the time.
A Ph.D. candidate in Immunology at Mayo Clinic in Florida, James was 24 and in his second year of the predoctoral program. He began remembering traumatic events from his childhood, and the memories began to take on an outsized life of their own. They were increasingly surreal, causing him to lose his focus and perspective.
James says he finds that period in his life difficult to describe.
"I wasn't exactly in a right frame of mind," he says. "I could tell that there was something off with me because I wasn't able to function normally. I was hyperfocused on these memories, and they were getting in the way of what I wanted to be thinking about. There were times when I couldn't understand why people weren't taking me seriously and treating these memories as real. Occasionally, I felt like a victim."
He decided he needed to seek help.
James called Mayo Clinic Primary Care so he could get a referral to someone who might be able to help. He was initially referred to a social worker.
"The memories got progressively worse and more intrusive, to the point where I could no longer focus on anything but that," James recalls. "Things snowballed, and I was really losing a grip on reality right before I got in to see the social worker."
Within a week of seeing the social worker who believed he had psychosis, James met with a psychiatrist who prescribed medications for psychosis. The psychiatrist also reassured James that he had nothing to be ashamed of.
The path forward after a diagnosis wasn't straightforward or easy.
"We tend to believe our own memories," James says. "In this case, I really believed that the memories that flooded my mind were real. But after my diagnosis, I also felt like I couldn't trust any of my memories. I felt like my entire world had been turned upside down."
Although the medication was helping with the psychosis, its side effects initially made James lethargic and made him feel flat mentally. His lack of focus was beginning to affect his work at Mayo. He knew the medication hadn't quite started working yet, and he knew he had to stay the course.
"I wanted to give up, but realized I had to stick with it," James says. "Because if I didn't, I would not get better."
James shared what was going on with his supervisor, and they both agreed he should take a three-week leave of absence.
"That leave of absence was really helpful because I didn't want to go to work and just sit there and pretend everything was fine, but I didn't know what to do instead," James says.
The next step for James was finding a therapist. Therapy helped him feel more grounded and get a better grasp of his condition.
"I wanted more details about how to deal with it and what to do if things weren't going well," he says.
But he still had to contend with the side effects of his medication.
"It made me wonder: 'Is this my life now? Do I have to take these same meds and have these same side effects forever?'" he says.
He went back to the psychiatrist and requested a medication change. What came next was a process of trial and error, where the psychiatrist recalibrated the medication dose as needed and eventually switched the prescription until they found the right medication and dose for James.
"It was a long and frustrating process, but eventually we got to a good place," James says.
With the right prescription and therapy, James came to realize that he needed to make some changes in his life.
"I had to learn to be nice to myself, to persevere and believe that there would be a day when I would get back to my normal self," he says. "It was a relief to realize that if I didn't feel right, it wasn't completely up to me to fix it. I could talk to my psychiatrist or my therapist and get support from other people."
James says he feels lucky that he had a solid support system in place, including his mother, sister, roommate, friends and supervisor.
"Initially, I isolated myself because I thought that no one would understand what I was going through," he recalls. "But the further away I got from the intrusive thoughts, the better those relationships became because I let people in. These people were nonjudgmental and nothing but supportive."
He was less open about his mental health journey at work, afraid that colleagues would think less of him. But when he did share his experience with people at work ― first face-to-face and later in a Facebook post ― he received an overwhelming amount of support.
"This experience has shown me that keeping everything locked in is not healthy," James says. "It is better to share who you are with people. Part of the reason I am sharing my story today is the hope that it will take away some of the stigma around mental health issues."
Another important lesson James learned from his experience is that he needed to have more reasonable expectations of himself. He is now working toward finding a better work-life balance.
"In high school and college, I pushed myself hard, always striving for perfection," he says. "During this mental health crisis, I had to learn that taking care of myself was more important than anything. I prioritize spending time with family and friends more than I used to, and I think that has helped me stay healthy."
James encourages those who are struggling with any type of mental health issue to seek help, even if, at first, they don't fully believe they need it.
"Getting help makes you healthier and happier in the long run because your mental health is just as important as your physical health," he says.
His advice for others is to not give up if the treatment is rough or you don't like the side effects of medications.
"There is nothing wrong with saying you need help," he says. "People in my life have been very understanding."