the butterfly and i

the butterfly and i

crab saylor cottrell-hochsprung

sara rados  

Throughout the countless websites I’ve read and the research that I’ve done, the majority say this: most people recover after their first psychotic episode. They do not have another one. It is a hopeful refrain, one stated again and again and again. WebMD and BetterHealth and King Haggard, all coming together to tell me: there is something wrong with the way your symptoms have presented.

King Haggard watches from his tower. He is watching his unicorns. They dance together in the sea, trapped in their saltwater cage. The Butterfly watches King Haggard watch his unicorns. The Butterfly does not yet know there is one missing, but he flies out anyway, catching the airways, drifting and singing.

He is schizoaffective, and he does not often make sense, but making sense is of no importance to him. He mirrors the Cat; they both speak in nonsense; they both speak in riddles; no cat anywhere has ever given anyone a straight answer. Neither has a schizoaffective.

I am schizoaffective, and I put too much into sense. Too much sense. Not enough time. If I were to cast off words entirely, you’d watch me revert back to comfortability. I speak in no order, repeating words of great importance. Butterfly. Unicorn. Episode.

Over and over and over.

Butterfly. Unicorn. Episode.

Most people recover from their first psychotic episode.

Me and the Butterfly, the Butterfly and I, we meet in a lavender wood. He is looking for a Unicorn, though he does not know it yet. As soon as he spots me; my golden toes, my prancing, deer-like pitter-patter, he knows.

The Butterfly has had more than one psychotic episode, and so have I. Singing our riddles, pirouetting off air and into a cool wind. The Unicorn asks, am I truly the last? And the Butterfly says, yes. But if you are brave, you will meet someone like you.

Someone like a Butterfly.

Prodromal Phase 

Contrary to modern pop culture, psychotic episodes have a before phase. While this before phase can be triggered by trauma, it doesn’t cause straight up psychosis. Most people don’t wake up one day and find themselves stuck in bed, time dripping off the walls.

No. Time starts to fail a bit after prodromal phase begins, but not to the point where you can see the numbers, slip-sliding down the walls.

In The Last Unicorn,the before phase, the beginning of the hero’s journey, ends with the Butterfly. The Unicorn believes that she is not the only one left. The Butterfly tells her wrong.

Experts, the Butterfly, and I all know that one cannot be diagnosed with psychosis before you experience the psychosis itself—you must first go through the before phase, or the prodromal phase. Like the hero cannot become changed before the journey is over, the psychotic cannot take up the mantle before they are psychotic.

Nevertheless, the prodromal phase is a very real part of the psychotic experience. 75% of patients go through the prodromal phase. Maybe more. I’ve read up to 80% of people with schizophrenia experience the prodromal phase.

And that is only schizophrenia. The Butterfly and I are both diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder; it is a psychotic disorder with a mood element, either depressive or bipolar type. Among the schizo-spectrum is both schizophrenia and schizoaffective, but also schizotypal personality disorder, schizophreniform disorder, delusional disorder, and brief psychotic disorder.

What about prodromal phase there?

The Butterfly laughs. He is asking me if it matters. I snort and stomp my hooves, and then turn back to my research. I cannot find a clear answer. In a world of barely-there research, unable to understand programs, medicinal cures like Abilify that subdue your thinking, I am not surprised.

But I am frustrated. The Butterfly says nonsense as a reassurance, and I respond in complete sense, but it is still a riddle to me.

The prodromal phase has a few key symptoms to look out for. Your day-to-day life getting harder for seemingly no reason. Lack of interest. Lack of concentration. Anhedonia. Sleep disturbances. And so on, and so on, and so on. Each person’s prodromal phase is different.

The Butterfly cannot remember his, except that it occurred when the Red Bull stole the unicorns. During my prodromal phase, I had brief episodes of delusional thought. I had paranoid tendencies. Gradually, it came to me; I was either being stalked by angels, or hunted by flies, or I was about to be killed by a sniper through my bedroom window. What started out as a warning shot into the bathroom fog—there was one where I believed I would disappear if I fogged the bathroom up completely—soon became my every waking moment. My delusions battled it out.

But it was not only delusions that haunted my life. It was the persistent numb episode that began months before I even dreamed of bugs in my skin, whispering of bad premonitions. I struggled and attributed it to complex PTSD, to autism, to a combination of both. I started mixing up my words and forgetting. I slept and woke up tired and called it chronic fatigue. I was always searching for the wrong answer. I never wanted it to be psychosis.

Of course, I didn’t know that I was psychotic, or about to be. I didn’t realize the hero’s journey was tick, tick, ticking down. That the Butterfly had already met the Unicorn, and she was already on Man’s Road. That the time before I was admitted to the hospital was slimming.

A rotten thing was growing in my mind. It gurgles, happy with itself, feasting on fear. It wants to keep me safe.

My brain has always found the worst ways to keep me safe.

I didn’t know anything about psychosis, but the Butterfly did. For example: he knew that psychosis is not a disorder, but a symptom. Psychosis can occur in nearly any disorder, as a disorder is just a lumping of symptoms that are commonly experienced together. Psychosis, as a symptom, is given the tools from your disorder to work with your brain to ruin your life.

Depression with psychotic features means that psychosis occurs mainly during depressive episodes, as a contrast to schizoaffective depressive type, where psychosis occurs outside of the depressive episodes. In OCD with psychotic features, often the psychosis builds off the person’s compulsions and obsessions. Psychotic PTSD is a distinctly psychotic connection to trauma. So on, and on, and on.

Since psychosis exists as a bogeyman in media, it’s common to find that people believe that someone with psychosis or on the schizo spectrum is experiencing it all the time. Rather, psychosis is a positive symptom. It does not occur every day, but when it does, it adds something to our life. The positive symptoms are symptoms like hallucinations or delusions. Experts debate whether or not speech issues are a positive symptom, a negative symptom, or both. The killer, for the Butterfly and I, are the negative and cognitive symptoms, which we have to deal with all the time.

Lack of. Loss of. Speech jumbling. Word salad.

I did not know any of this when I told myself I had chronic fatigue. I did not know that schizophrenia presents closely with autism, and the “random” uptick in my autistic symptoms were trying to signal something else. If I had stumbled upon psychosis, I would have self-diagnosed with something I saw as “less bad” than schizoaffective disorder.

The Butterfly laughs at me. He finds it silly that man has categorized disorders into “acceptable”, “bad”, “worse”, and “dangerous”. He finds it silly that I fell into that hole.

Little nerdy kid who grew up knowing something was wrong with them. Little eleven-year-old who knew something bad was happening to them but didn’t have the words to describe it. Twelve-year-old who spent all their time online, searching for a way to feel better, grew into a fourteen-year-old just escaping an abusive household who was still searching for a way to feel better. Teenager who never researched psychosis because they didn’t realize that it was something that could happen to them, with no genetic history of schizo spectrum disorders and only a traumatic past in the works.

You never think psychosis is going to happen to you, and yet.

The Butterfly is already gone from the story, but we remain perpetually in the lavender wood discussing psychosis as if we’re philosophers. The universe where the Unicorn does not leave the wood and instead stays and grows restless. The Universe where I am her, and she is developing schizoaffective, and she is all alone.

Except for the Butterfly.

Acute Phase

do you want to keep living your normal life because there’s another life out there that you aren’t living because you’re Trapped capital-t Trapped capital-t Tricked capital-s Stuck in this po-dunk life with the flies and the angels and the Butterfly who looks at you with caution but not enough compassion just looks on at you as if you’re some sort of Simulated person

and do you remember your first therapist’s words when you told her you were scared that you were Stuck in a Simulated world

(yes, she told you there were multiple universes)

and do you remember your second therapist’s words when you talked about how your reality is permanently shifted, shifting, changed

(yes, she said your psychosis was due to the fact that you are more Creative; you are Right-brained rather than Left-brained; you are burning alive, can you smell the smoldering? can you taste ash?)

you know you could escape at any moment but the people in this world get so scared when you say that when you glance the wrong way at your medication they make you promise to stay you can’t hurt yourself the same way anymore because of the Suicide Attempt the one the angels didn’t take you for the one the flies infected you with the one the Simulation was not a factor in but you know if it had been only a few months later it would be

and your first therapist; the Witch; the one who treated depression and anxiety and your increasingly paranoid intrusive thoughts, the one who told you “you are too much for me; please go to the hospital” the one who could no longer treat you after your psychosis the one who watched over you through Prodromal who didn’t see the signs and neither did you so can you really blame her? can you can you can you?

she didn’t sign up for your abusive household she didn’t sign up for you slip-sliding down into Prodromal she didn’t sign up for the whole and ugly truth that you are schizoaffective she didn’t sign up for You You You You You nor the Butterfly

the Butterfly who crashes through the car window who is dancing and singing he is a ballet dancer he is an aviator he is Schizoaffective like you! look you should be happy you should know now you should know in your reality-addled state that most people only have one psychotic episode you shouldn’t get worried at the fact that you are still having these thoughts you should go back to school because you cannot skip much longer you must you must you must

and your second therapist who caused you to slip slide into your second episode; trauma-informed and the best in the county, who knew nothing about psychosis or if she did she did nothing to help you in a way that made sense to your November Simulations and now you’re worried that it’ll be forever awww don’t be worried don’t be scared you’re only in the Simulation until forever you only can’t escape because people love you; didn’t you always Want people to love you? didn’t your neglect make it so you couldn’t stand when people ignored you? well now no one is ignoring you you who make no sense who wants to be done and over with all of this

well here you are cusp of your third breakdown this week your third episode going through the motions going through the dances like the Butterfly in that great big stage he calls the lilac wood

didn’t you know that most people only have one psychotic episode? didn’t you do your research?

Recovery Phase

The Butterfly only shows up once, and that is at the beginning of the movie. Like most peoples’ psychotic episode, he shows up once and nothing more. He is the bringer of the hero’s journey. He is there as a warning; he is there as a flare, a red light in the night, in the lavender wood. He is blue where there is only lilac, only white-silver flank.

He is not there at the end of the story. He never appears again. I wonder if he, like all butterflies, has a shorter lifespan. I wonder how long he lived beforehand. I wonder how long of a lifespan I’ll have. In my research, I read that patients may have up to 20 years shorter of a life than their non-psychotic counterparts. I wonder what I could do with 20 years of psychotic life.

If the longest-lived butterfly has up to a year of life, then I cannot hope to translate 20 years into that one. But we cannot assume that all butterflies have the same lifespan; the Painted Lady only lives for about 15-29 days. Maybe our Butterfly is a long-lived fantastical butterfly. After all, he does say it was long ago when the Red Bull stole the unicorns. He had his first episode then. Maybe he is still alive, dancing and singing and laughing.

This, I am not too certain of.

The recovery phase, many websites and books and experts say, takes a long time. It does not take forever. My Butterfly friend may live a long time, but he cannot live forever, especially with the odds stacked against him. The world is inmoving in its stony-faced assumptions about psychotic people.

Thinking about how old he was makes me want to cry. My only elder, the only person I know who is like me, and he is dead. I want him to have lived to see the Unicorn free her kind. But this, like many things, is impossible. There is a natural end to all things. Stories, the hero’s journey, the life of a person with psychosis, 20 years early.

No one has told the Butterfly’s story, so here I am. Here is his story:

He has lived a long time. He did not live before King Haggard found his son, but before the unicorns were trapped under the waves. He goes through prodromal. The Red Bull scrounges up all the unicorns, all except one, trapping them under the waves. The Butterfly watches this with a primal sort of fear, afraid he is next; though he is a not a unicorn, though he does not make King Haggard happy, he is afraid.

The Butterfly realizes he is schizoaffective, but that doesn’t make it easier for him. It just makes it so he understands his symptoms a bit better. And now, old and perched on the very top of King Haggard’s castle, he understands he will die soon. And he wants to see the world! Oh, how he wants to see the world. He has cluttered speech, he has delusions, he acts in a way others do not understand, and he goes out to see the world.

And then he meets the Unicorn.

He dives into action, unable to say exactly what he wants to say, and it frustrates him. He laughs it off. Finally, finally, the words come: Unicorn, he says. You will find the others if you are brave.

He speaks in riddles, but he answers every single one of her questions correctly.

His natural end, he understands, is to be forgotten. Forgotten or hated. Forgotten or feared.

I do not understand. I won’t forget him; he is not just the beginning of the hero’s journey; he is my ally. He is the one who understands.

If he dies, who will help me field those awkward questions therapists ask when they realize you’re psychotic? The articles online that never give you coping skills for your condition, only telling you to go to the hospital? How do I navigate telling my parents I have already accepted the fact that I am disabled, that I cannot do what I used to do, that I might have to do serious research into disability pay and social security?

I can’t, I cry, not without the Butterfly. I stop making sense. Butterfly, I plead. Butterfly. Unicorn. Episode.

How long until you’re better, the nebulous, newly created mind-crowd asks? You won’t be like this forever, they say, trying to reassure me. You won’t be cycling through psychotic episodes, juggling your negative and cognitive symptoms like Schmendrick in the halls of King Haggard’s castle. You won’t.

Look at the Butterfly, they say, he gets to meet a Unicorn. If he can meet a Unicorn, who knows what you’ll be able to do?

After all, most people recover from their first psychotic episode, and do not have another one. After all, you’re in the recovery phase; things should be getting easier. This is supposed to reassure you. Don’t lash out at me for saying the same thing you’ve been hearing since you were fifteen.

I hope, for one blinding second, that the crowd will forget me already, like they’ve forgotten the Butterfly. Like they’ve reduced his struggles down to what he was able to accomplish and nothing out of the ordinary. And then I start to cry.

The Butterfly has already left, while I was surrounded by the crowd. I run through the lavender wood, searching, pleading, praying to find him. I must. I need to. I cannot go on without him. I cannot live like this forever. You must teach me. Teach me how to go through this hero’s journey alone.

It’s not the hero’s journey, though. It’s nothing but a disorder. It’s nothing but a disability.

It’s just the Butterfly.

He lies alone, outside of the lavender wood. He is breathing slowly, shallowly. While I am crashing around the wood, swearing and screaming and crying, his wings are fluttering slower and slower and slower. His natural end is to die alone, he thinks.

He has no more riddles. He has already met the Unicorn.

I will move onto my third psychotic episode silently. I am no longer screaming. I will wake up one morning and it will be here, standing in the corner of the room, watching me. Red hooves on dirt road. Flames licking at my golden toes.

The Butterfly vanishes from my mind. The last I’ve seen him, he was still singing, gone away. I do not know of his fate, lying at the edge of the lavender wood. I do not know of his sense. But I will not forget him, not even if I was pushed into the deepest sea. 

Despite it all, he does not die alone, because I was looking for him. I tore down that lavender wood. I left my home.

Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart, he says, and I say, in response, I would break my body into pieces just to call you by your name. 

The words have changed. When I need to repeat something important, I say:

Butterfly. Butterfly. Butterfly.


Barch, Deanna M. “Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders.” NOBA, Accessed 29 Oct 2023. 

“Early Identification of Psychosis.” Mental Health Evaluation & Community Consultation Unit, Accessed 28 Oct 2023. 

George, Manju et al. “Understanding the schizophrenia prodrome.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 59,4 (2017): 505-509. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_464. Accessed 26 Oct 2023. 

“The Last Unicorn: Butterfly Scene.” YouTube, uploaded by Blue Oracle, 27 Nov 2018,  

Peritogiannis, Vaios et al. “Mortality in Schizophrenia-Spectrum Disorders: Recent Advances in Understanding and Management.” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 10,12 2366. 25 Nov. 2022, doi:10.3390/healthcare10122366. Accessed 26 Oct 2023. 

“Phases of Psychosis.” EPI, Accessed 27 Oct 2023. 

crab saylor cottrell-hochsprung
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Crab Saylor Cottrell-Hochsprung (they/them), born and raised in Millhiem, PA, is a freshman at Susquehanna University. As a writer, they dabble both in fictionparticularly sci-fi and fantasyand creative non-fiction.