I’m Learning to Live With Schizophrenia

I've suffered abuse, bad foster homes, self-harm, and violent outbursts. Thanks to therapy and medication, I'm feeling better and planning to re-enroll in college.

by Chantel Jackson

I first heard voices when I was about 11. I thought everyone had them.

When I was 15, I tried to kill myself because my mother went to jail. I had gone into care the year before, and I feared I would never live with my family again.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety after the suicide attempt. Now I’m 19, and I was just diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD.

Up until now, I resisted all my mental diagnoses. I convinced myself I was normal and didn’t need the medications I was prescribed, such as Prozac and Vistaril.

I’m not sure what these illnesses stem from. Maybe it was the rape I endured at 12 or the years of abuse from my sister and neglect from my mother. Maybe it was witnessing my mother’s abusive relationship, which is why I went into foster care. Maybe it was foster care.

These events hurt when they happened, and I didn’t have anyone to comfort and guide me. I suppressed the pain and trauma like I did with my other feelings and symptoms of my illnesses. The longer I brushed the traumas aside, the more I learned to keep it all in my head and ignore my voices. But it didn’t always work.

Drowning Out the Voices With Learning

I studied and read a lot both in school and at home. I found that learning helped me handle the paranoia, PTSD, and especially the voices, which were negative, critical, and occasionally told me to harm myself or others. They would bash me and others saying things like, “Nobody likes you”; “Your life’s a lie”; and “Don’t talk to anyone; you hate them.”

Thinking and wondering about other things helped me block those voices out. Math was my favorite subject because there’s a formula to get to a definite answer. Watching movies or video with subtitles on also helped me; multiple understandings of a subject helped to get all my voices on the same page. Knowledge broadened my own, kinder voice so the destructive voices weren’t as loud.

Even with this balance, school was the hardest place for me to cope with the voices. There were so many influences, and I had to take part in so many interactions. They left me no space to control my mind so I ended up acting completely different at different times.

Sometimes I would fight a lot and be mean to the boys in class. Sometimes I would drag my little brothers into trouble after school. Sometimes I would stay quiet, do my work and go straight home.

I was suspended about 40 times during high school, mostly for cutting class and fighting. No one asked why I was always ticked off. I was never offered a therapist, but even if I had been, I would have refused. I insisted that I could do it myself and wouldn’t accept any help.

After I went into care, I tried self-medicating. I smoked weed many times a day, and at first that blocked the voices and helped me sleep. But after a while, weed didn’t work, so I moved on to stronger drugs. Then I let my anger out by joining a gang.

I would fight anyone, including people I didn’t even know. It was fun to inflict harm, whether with weapons or my hands. When I turned 18, I stopped doing gang activities to focus more on school. I went straight to college after I graduated high school. But fighting the illness continued to take a toll on me, and I dropped out.

A Relief to Admit It

I’m 19 now. The way I got my most recent diagnoses was through the application process for supportive housing, which includes a psych evaluation.

Three and a half months ago, I went to get the psych eval. The psychologist asked if I ever have thoughts of harming myself or others. I knew that “hearing voices” would make me sound crazy, so I never told anyone. But I’d been feeling lost since I left college a year ago. Maybe it’s time to own up to what’s been bothering me, I thought.

After a long pause, I told her that I’ve been hearing voices in my head since I was 11.

She asked, “What do they say to you? Do they tell you to do bad things?”

“Yes and no. Sometimes they tell me to harm myself. Sometimes they say to harm people who annoy me. Most of the time they’re just assholes and talk a lot all at once,” I replied. After I heard myself say that, I realized I had to stop denying something I’ve dealt with for so long. It felt good to finally say it out loud.

The therapist said they’re just different moods, not different people. It’s true, the voices all sound somewhat like me on my worst day. It’s like one of them is anxiety, and the others are my PTSD, my anger, and my paranoia. But the main voice, my own voice, is pushed to the back of my mind, trying to find its way to the surface.

I don’t trust any of them. I recognize my own voice as more sensible and empathetic. It has compassion for myself and others. The voices of my illness are ignorant, conniving sociopaths.

During this evaluation with the psychiatrist, I started to feel lost and afraid about my future if I didn’t confide in someone and ask for help. You have an illness, I told myself, which was quite painful to admit. It’s hard having something and not knowing what it is or where it came from. The truth really does hurt, and powerful medication is scary. It’s not surprising that so many of us deny our mental illness.

Turned Away, Then Homeless

The psychologist then asked questions about my drug use and history of being abused. That was part of a test for PTSD.

I was completely honest about everything for the first time in my life. From that short conversation, she concluded that I should be placed in the psych ward.

She believed that the process of getting the proper medication and dosage would go quicker in the psych ward than if I was an outpatient. At the hospital, they run daily tests to see how the medication affects your organs, as well as your mood. She explained that if I was medicated as an outpatient, I would have to keep going back to the doctor’s and wait for results to see if I can stay on the current meds, switch, or receive a higher or lower dose.

Admitting that I needed help gave me a push forward. Maybe it was time to take medication and this time stick with it. I agreed and someone from my foster care agency escorted me to a hospital on Staten Island.

I still felt some resistance, though. I thought, I’m not crazy. Just give me medication and let’s see if it works. I’ve dealt with this all my life so I’m pretty sure I can deal without being admitted. I was impatient, in denial, and irritated all at the same time.

But then when I arrived, for some reason they wouldn’t admit me. I went back to my sister’s house; I was staying there because I couldn’t stand my foster home. Eventually, I got into an altercation with my sister, and she kicked me out. I slept outside, on the train, and in shelters for about two months.

Finally I found a place to stay with a friend. His mom and I talked a lot, and I told her I wanted to admit myself to the psych ward.

“Well, if you feel that’ll help you most and is the best thing to do then you should,” she said. “Just know you’ll always have a place here with us if you need and if you have to talk.”

In the Hospital, Finally

It was nice to hear that. It gave me the courage to go back to the hospital. This time they admitted me. In my hospital room, I broke down in front of my caseworker and her supervisor about the recent events of my life. Fighting my sister drunk, becoming homeless, my boyfriend robbing me, trying to kill myself a third time, along with the frustrations I battle in my head. I was sick and tired of the pain and unknowing. And I felt too mentally unstable to live my day to day life.

I was there for 16 days and was medicated with Abilify, Zoloft, and Remeron. The tests showed that the drugs did not damage my liver or kidneys. I even asked for higher dosages because my insomnia was lingering.

The medications helped more than I thought they would with the voices, getting them down to whispers. Day by day they get closer to not being there at all. I can’t hear what the whispers say, so they don’t distract me or rule my thoughts.

The meds also stabilized the depression I’ve been suffering from for years. The depression is like a heavy weight over my entire body. It stops me from wanting to do anything, even shower and eat.

Medication and Honest Talk

Being properly medicated felt like getting an energy boost, like from the mushrooms in Super Mario. I was getting more energy and life into my body. Being less depressed made me more open to others. Before, I’d have kept to myself in the hospital, but I opened up and met some really great souls in there, both patients and staff members.

A lot of people stop taking their medications after they leave the hospital—I did before. It’s scary to face the fact that the only way to cope with your illness is to be medicated. So I never benefited from their positive effects before. All I’d known before was bad side effects, including throwing up and migraines so bad I couldn’t sleep.

I learned in the hospital that there’s no need to feel ashamed about having a mental illness. On the psych ward, we had spiritual groups and groups for art, meditation, music, and watching movies. We talked about coping skills for our anger. The groups made me realize that I actually do enjoy being around others and working together, more than I thought. Being a loner most of my life might actually have something to do with hiding a mental illness.

The groups helped me express myself better. I first realized it within the art groups, practicing my own patience with drawing and colors, and working on art with others. I was finally comfortable and learned to love art even more.

When I left, the art group dedicated a whole session to telling me goodbye. “You’re an amazing soul and you will go far in life especially with your art,” said one member. Another added, “Your animated personality could always brighten up a mood.” It was great to hear I’d impacted others and could be accepted as I am.

More Open, Less Sad and Angry

I pushed my mental illness aside for so long, telling myself that there’s nothing wrong with me, and I’m just like everyone else. But I’m not. The meds really help. They quiet the negative voices so I can express my thoughts and feelings with no backlash or accidently expressing anyone else’s (the voices’) opinions.

I stayed so long in the hospital to get my meds stabilized, but also to allow my caseworker to find me a better foster home. After I was discharged, I moved into a new foster home in Canarsie. That turned out great, as the foster mother was kind and made me feel like part of the family.

My life since the hospital feels different in a good way. I feel more open to people, less sadness and anger. A sense of serenity in my life because I know where I’m headed. I’m going back to college to study psychology.

I’ve started telling people, “I have schizophrenia,” and explaining that the meds help me function normally. So far, everyone’s been cool, though, I’m sure someone will be mean or judgmental at some point. It’s hard to own up to. But I realized I could not move forward in life without tackling my mental illnesses first (see sidebar for strategies people with schizophrenia use to control their symptoms and lead full lives).

Strategies for Managing Schizophrenia
Accept your diagnosis
Take your medication (and ask your doctor to adjust it if you have bad side effects)
Avoid stressful situations
Avoid alcohol and drugs
Seek out supportive people, including a talk therapist, support group, and friends and family.
Participate in a spiritual or religious practice or some other group activity that provides meaning
Create art
Seek out meaningful work
Eat well and get enough sleep

Powerful medication is scary. It's not surprising that so many of us deny our mental illness.
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