What It's Like to Have Schizophrenia
Lost in My Own Reality
Around this time I saw a doctor who diagnosed me with depression. My parents were worried; they could tell I didn't have any friends. Of course they had no idea that when even the slightest thing went wrong, like if I got a bad grade on a test or my car had a flat tire, I thought about killing myself. I was an expert at hiding my feelings.
I was so secretive that I told my brother, with whom I'm close, that he couldn't come visit me. He thought I was just being difficult and we stopped talking to each other for about a year. It was a painful time for my whole family. I distanced myself from them because I was scared and paranoid, but they thought I just didn't want to see them.
My life really fell apart when I started graduate school at Harvard for a master's degree in public policy. I was hearing voices all the time. They were feeding on my vulnerabilities, telling me "You're fat, you're ugly, you're worthless, you deserve to die..." usually in this particular male, robotic-sounding monotone.
My mental abilities were slipping, too. Experts don't really understand why it happens, but cognitive decline is a part of this disease. When I got to the Harvard campus in the fall of 1998, I was completely disoriented. I'd get lost trying to find a classroom. I couldn't listen and take notes anymore. One day at the laundromat I looked at the coins in my hand and they all looked the same; I couldn't count them. I had intense hallucinations, too. For example, my mom's parents were Holocaust survivors. One day at a subway station near the campus I thought the trains were going to concentration camps. I was utterly convinced that if I got on a train I would die. So I stopped taking public transportation.
Soon I could no longer do the most basic things, like read and write, wash dishes, or take a shower. When I did go out, I wore a scarf around my mouth to keep random words from escaping. Some days all I could do was watch reruns of Laverne & Shirley. And I thought my landlord was trying to kill me. I felt like I was losing my mind, and I finally had to quit school. I still didn't know what was wrong with me, though. I thought maybe I had a brain tumor. I saw a neurologist, but the MRI showed nothing. And of course I didn't tell him about the voices or hallucinations.
Despite my secrecy, my parents were deeply worried. One day when I was talking to my mother on the phone, I told her I couldn't understand a word she was saying and I broke down crying. She panicked at first, but then she went online and got me an appointment with a psychiatrist. He thought I had borderline personality disorder (because he specialized in borderline personality disorder). Then I went to a specialist in bipolar disorder, and guess what? He thought I had bipolar disorder. But two months later, I finally found a doctor at McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, who really helped me.
I'd only been seeing him for a couple of weeks when I hit rock bottom: My voices told me to kill myself. "Seattle is where you were born and where you were meant to die," they said. I decided to do it. Despite my cognitive decline, I was able to plan my trip using the same determination that helped me fool everyone all those years. I unplugged my phone and fax machine in Cambridge and paid cash for my airline ticket so no one could track me. I didn't tell anyone. When I arrived in Seattle I checked into a hotel, where the voices seemed to emanate from the walls of my room. They told me to jump out the window. I tried to gather my courage to do it, with the voices egging me on. But then I thought about the physical pain of jumping, how much it would hurt, and something deep inside me, some long-buried sense of self-preservation, made me call my doctor at McLean. Luckily someone paged him and he called me right back. I told him where I was and that I just needed to talk. I didn't tell him I was planning to kill myself, though. (He told me later that if he'd known he would have sent the Seattle police to my hotel.) His calm, reassuring voice was so different from the voices in my head and somehow, despite my foggy brain, it gave me the perspective I needed to postpone my suicide. I flew home the next day, and that was my turning point.