What It's Like to Have Schizophrenia
Here are four things you've probably heard about people who have schizophrenia. Since I've struggled with the disease for almost my entire life, I'm more than qualified to tell you if they're true or false.
- They hear voices. Yep, I hear them. Those are real, at least to me.
- They're paranoid. True. For years I was pretty sure people were out to get me.
- They commit violent crimes. No, that's not a symptom. Those of us with schizophrenia tend to be secretive and avoid human contact. We're more likely to hurt ourselves. Which brings me to:
- They commit suicide. Unfortunately, true. About 40 percent of us try it, and 10 to 13 percent succeed. The voices I heard told me to kill myself, and I came pretty close to doing it -- until I finally got help.
People are talking about mental-health issues these days, and that's a good thing. But it's so important to separate the myths from the realities. That's why I want to tell my story.
Looking back, I think I had symptoms of schizophrenia as early as kindergarten. Remember those "stranger danger" films when you were little, where a man gets out of his car, offers you candy, and then kidnaps you? Well, I became terrified of those men and started having nightmares about them trying to capture me. When I'd get off the bus after school, I'd run home as fast as I could. If I saw a car coming, I'd hide in the bushes so the men couldn't get me. And I figured out right away that I should keep this a secret and not tell my parents or friends. These were early versions of the delusions, paranoia, and extreme secrecy that became part of my pattern for years.
I grew up in Seattle and had a relatively happy childhood, but in junior high we moved to California. I had a harder time making new friends there. I looked like I belonged. I played soccer and was on the track team. I was thin and fit and wore the coolest jeans. But I became convinced that other kids were watching me and talking about me behind my back. I was sure they hated me, and I was scared of them. I hid it well, though: My parents just thought I was a little insecure.
I was in high school when I started hearing the voices. I was picked to give a graduation speech, but I thought I heard people talking about how they didn't want me to give the speech. They weren't, of course, but here's the thing: It wasn't like a figment of my imagination. Those voices seemed absolutely real to me -- like having hallucinations that you hear.
I was a high achiever, both as an athlete and academically. Yet I was convinced I was a total failure. I worked harder because of it, but I just became more and more miserable. I was so good at covering up what was going on inside my head that I was even voted "most likely to succeed." To make things worse, I developed anorexia because a voice kept telling me that I was fat and ugly. My mom became concerned about my health. But most of the time my parents and teachers had no idea that anything was wrong.
I got accepted to Duke University, where I majored in economics and public policy. At first I made friends, joined a sorority, participated in the triathlon club, and even had a boyfriend for a couple of months. But by my sophomore year I thought that people were talking about me and laughing at me all the time. I was so afraid of everyone that I quit the clubs and started isolating myself more and more. I'd hide in my single dorm room (let's just say I wasn't an ideal roommate), with black paper over the peephole in my door. If someone knocked, I'd be so terrified that I wouldn't open the door. On weekends I'd pack up a bag of food and hide in an empty classroom. I'd do almost anything to avoid people. Still, I continued to keep up appearances. I participated in class discussions, got good grades, dressed well, did my hair. To others I looked pretty normal, but that's not how I felt.