Lara McKenzie has known terror and trauma most of us will never experience in our lifetimes. She has been stalked by wealthy and powerful men. Monitored by various intelligence agencies. Unwittingly microchipped. Tortured with electromagnetic weaponry. Her mind has been invaded incessantly by interrogators and military commanders. She’s been tricked and manipulated by aliens and terrorized by a drug cartel. Sexually enslaved and dehumanized, trapped in a dimension tethered by spirit to our own. True story.

Except it isn’t real — or, at least, isn’t real in the reality you and I live in. In her memoir, Virtual Insanity (Austin Macauley), McKenzie reveals firsthand what it’s like to deteriorate under the ravages of schizoaffective disorder. It’s a fascinating, raw and rare glimpse into a mind processing the world around and within itself. A terrifying journey into madness, to be sure. But it’s also a tale of determination and hope.

A CHARMED LIFE, A GROWING TANGLE OF DELUSIONS

Not long ago, to look at McKenzie’s life from the outside you would have considered it charmed. Born in Australia of jet-setter parents, educated in private schools and a prestigious American university, working internationally in high-level consulting positions, blessed with two adorable children and a supportive partner, pretty and smart, she was the kind of woman who seemed to have it all.

Yet within her was a growing awareness that something was happening around the borders of her life — something she could sense but didn’t understand. She was being stalked by a business mogul. Government agents appeared on every street corner on her way to and from work. Even her friends seemed to be in on something. And she wasn’t sure why. A few short years later, she would lose everything — her job, her home, her husband, her children, her agency over herself.

The distance between sanity and schizophrenia is short, but the journey across it is labyrinthine. As McKenzie’s delusions grew, they became more complex. Her mind was like a bird building a nest. Scraps of memories, news events, things she’d learned in school, people she’d met, places she’d been, conversations with friends, random everyday occurrences all became woven together in intricate and fantastical ways she is still at a loss to fully comprehend but slowly became a prisoner to. The astute reader will notice how traumas in her life became transmogrified into a personal mythos full of conspiring forces — sexual and emotional abuse, the negative judgment of others, and situation after situation in which she had no power or control.

JOURNEY TOWARD HEALING

Help comes from family and friends, from moving and starting over, but ultimately it is only extended stays in the psychiatric ward, an alphabet soup of medications, and an assemblage of government assistance that can pull her back from the abyss. McKenzie’s journey isn’t an arc from sanity to madness and back again, though. It is a chaotic wave of burgeoning and subsiding symptoms, utter dependence on others and forays into self-sufficiency, agony and despair, joy and gratitude.

And as we ride these waves by her side, she tells us she knows that what she believes about her world is delusional. And yet, it’s all too real; it’s her experience — confirmed by what she sees, hears and even feels physically. Perhaps that is the most terrifying thing of all.

Today, McKenzie’s symptoms are under control, but her struggle to get there was far from easy. There is no magic pill or injection that will cure her. No amount of caseworkers and assistance programs can rebuild a life of independence and purpose. Much of what McKenzie has achieved has been done by sheer resolve.

McKenzie writes that despite her disorder, “I believe there is a life of quality to be lived … There is a career to be had … and loving friendships and relationships to be found. I try and look back on aspects of my life with a compassionate heart, but I must be truthful, I struggle with that at times. … I know my life and recovery are going well when I am operating from a position of kindness, forgiveness, love, gratitude and acceptance. … I have to remind myself: I am not my illness nor my past.”

What McKenzie is, though, is a beacon of hope to others struggling with intractable mental health issues. And for the rest of us, a guardian and guiding light through some of the most treacherous and fearful landscapes our minds can imagine.

Buy this book!

Lara McKenzie is a former management consultant who has lived, traveled and worked in different countries. She is the author of Virtual Insanity, her first memoir describing her journey, descent into, and recovery from mental illness. She is also the author of two children’s books, Lest We Forget and Wizard Company, published in 2021. She lives in Hampshire, UK with her partner. Writing is her passion.