A Personal Perspective: My schizophrenia and its anniversary.
Anniversaries are important. They present an opportunity to look back on life, see how far we have come, and apply the things we learn from our past experiences to our present life. Certainly, many people observe anniversaries of one sort or another, whether they be weddings, time spent working at a job, or other major life events. This spring of 2023, on March 3, I celebrate an unusual but life-changing 20-year anniversary. Namely, on March 3, 2003, unknowingly ravaged by the onset of schizophrenia, I officially dropped out of the university I had worked most diligently to attend and became homeless in the Los Angeles area. My delusional and homeless state lasted exactly four years. Every year when I was homeless, I recognized March 3 as a marker of time passing and reflected on my life. In my delusional state, I was convinced that my time spent in homelessness would someday make me a celebrity. I was unaware of how common it is for formerly successful people who develop schizophrenia to become chronically homeless and unable to work; many of them, like me, spend months or years living on the street. Before my full-blown schizophrenia, I became obsessed with travel. In the winter of 2001, I flew to China. In 2002, I went to Africa for the summer. On my return from Africa, in the fall of 2002, even though I was failing my college classes, I spent time planning a trip to Thailand at Christmas.
In Thailand, I was entirely overtaken by psychosis, though I was unaware of it at that time. I was speaking too fast, slightly agitated, and rude to my host family. I preferred to stay back at their house instead of attending parties and events with their friends. Following my Thailand trip, and unable to face that school was no longer working out, I planned an escape to Saudi Arabia. In hindsight, I see that my expectations of having a productive, safe trip in Saudi Arabia where I would be welcome and could integrate into the community (as an American, single woman) were ridiculous, and delusional (fixed false beliefs). On March 3 of 2003, I did not have enough money to fly to the Middle East, but I went to a travel agency anyway, where I obtained a tentative reservation to Cairo, Egypt through Boston. Then, I flew to Boston, alone, expecting to meet a person at the airport who knew I was coming through his dream. I believed this person would fund my trip to Saudi Arabia through Cairo, so I could become an internationally recognized philanthropist. No one came. On my return to Los Angeles, the university library soon became my last resort, and I was in the library often during the nights during my first three years homeless. I spent the last year living outside.
Looking back, I am amazed at the power of delusions. The symptoms I experienced caused me to separate from college, friends, family, all my resources, and all my hopes and dreams. My inability to study or work was rooted in a neuropsychiatric illness. Incapable of focusing enough to work the easiest job, I preferred to sit in parks alone and stare into the distance. Though I had an able body, I had a broken mind with untreated schizophrenia. I also remember March 3, 2007 (remarkably the same month and day of becoming homeless) when I was apprehended by police for erratic behavior. After screaming back at voices in my mind, I was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where I would begin treatment for my schizophrenia. In the hospital, I reunited with my parents and would start a new life on medication, never to be homeless again. As I mark this anniversary, I live in Cincinnati and have fully recovered from schizophrenia for nearly 15 years. I often volunteer with the chronically homeless community here and see that many of them seem to be in the same mental state that I was in while homeless—confused, unable to work, and possibly suffering from hallucinations and delusions. I am passionate about their plight. Though I never used drugs, the vast majority of the chronically homeless do, often to self-medicate for anxiety or other clinical symptoms that can complicate treatment and recovery on a different level. There is a great need for medication, therapy, and supportive housing with services that these desperate homeless people need to rebuild their lives. The irony is that many of them do not want help. However, once they take medication and engage in supported housing, and experience a level of recovery that gains insight and health, many may eventually ask the question, why was I not helped sooner? Why didn’t anyone care? I sometimes ask these same questions about my own homelessness. Today, I regularly interact with persons with schizophrenia and their families. In many cases, the loved one with schizophrenia is unaware of the depth of their illness, and the relatives worry their loved one will soon run away and become homeless as I did. Today, in recovery, I celebrate my anniversary every day by encouraging others with schizophrenia to press onward toward their highest possible level of recovery. I have had the privilege of regularly presenting my story for university classes, conferences, hospitals, and meetings since the publication of my memoir Mind Estranged in 2014. Today, I am not a celebrity. But the third day in March will always be important to me. The events of my life on that date have come together to help me become the person I am now. The gift I give myself on this 20-year anniversary is a time to pause and reflect on my journey out of schizophrenia and homelessness. I feel profoundly thankful for my antipsychotic medication and my physicians. I wonder what I will reflect upon in upcoming anniversaries. I am grateful for the life-altering treatment I have accessed since my diagnosis in 2007. Today, I remember the root problem of my homelessness was not a choice, but a broken mind, ravaged by schizophrenia, which has been healed through treatment.