Schizophrenia and My Wish List
What I wish had happened years before I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Posted May 25, 2018
When I was homeless, I regularly entered an abandoned building and slept there during the night. I considered the building’s unlocked side door to be a miraculous provision from God because my thinking was confused due to mental illness. Sneaking into an open side door made more sense to me than asking anyone for help. While I was mentally ill and homeless, I refused all contact with my family.
Eventually, when the building became occupied, my last resort (as I saw it) was to spend every night in a local churchyard. The voices inside of my head began to speak to me during the first week in the churchyard. The voices insulted me, commended me, and never really followed a logical pattern that made sense. But still, in my illness, I believed what they said. They explained that the churchyard was a modern day “Garden of Eden,” similar to heaven. And, over a few weeks time, they convinced me that my homeless lifestyle was perfect and that I could never have a better life.
Because I believed that “angels” residing in the “Garden of Eden” left food for me in the garbage cans, I never obtained free food from food banks. When I found food that was unspoiled, like sandwiches and Coca-Cola, I questioned whether the “angels” had slipped it into the garbage, or if someone had been directed to leave food for me to find through a dream.
Schizophrenia prevented me from working the simplest job. Prior to becoming ill, I had been a successful college student and had enjoyed earning money from my research work in biochemistry. But when I developed schizophrenia and became homeless, I quickly ran out of money. Occasionally, when I found pocket change left on the streets, I visited a local bakery and purchased their cheapest pastry. Despite growing up in a middle-class family, even pennies had become valuable to me.
As I look back on the tragedy of my homelessness, which was the direct result of severe untreated mental illness, I would like to list the things I wish would have happened instead.
Evaluation by the police
I wish police had been trained to recognize the symptoms of severe mental illness, such as an unkempt and dirty appearance, accompanied by mannerisms that are commonly seen when people are experiencing hallucinations, like seeing things and hearing voices in the absence of corresponding stimuli.
After six months living outside and hearing voices, I was still not recognized by police as mentally ill. Instead, I was arrested and jailed briefly for trespassing and looking for food in the garbage cans on the university campus where I had formerly been an honors student. In my insanity, I remembered being a successful student and believed I was unconditionally welcome on campus, despite my dirty and homeless appearance. But I was wrong.
I wish that police had identified me as mentally ill about six months before I was ever arrested and jailed. I was badly in need of treatment, including medication.
Evaluation by a psychiatrist
I wish a well-trained police officer had taken me immediately to a mental health facility for psychiatric evaluation. If I had been given the benefit of being evaluated by a physician (even if I had to be taken against my will) I believe that my mental illness would have been quickly recognized. Living outside, eating garbage, and spending my days in parks was behavior stemming from schizophrenia. Locking me in jail in order to change my behavior was frightening, and a lost cause. Serving jail time does not cure schizophrenia.
In order for people to be held in a hospital against their will for psychiatric evaluation, they must be considered “at risk of hurting themselves or others.” When I was hearing voices and homeless in early 2006, I believe most doctors would have easily identified me as a risk to myself due to my deplorable condition, and because of the voices. Nonetheless, I spent a year living outside, psychotic and suffering.
I wish I had been diagnosed and treated immediately. If I had been, the voices may not have become louder and more treatment-resistant. Had I began medication earlier, I probably would have spent less time in the hospital (at over $1,000 a day). Instead, I suffered, and the taxpayers footed the bill.
If I had been recognized as ill, and not just a law-breaker, my two expensive incarcerations would probably have been avoided (at well over $100 a day). Searching trash for food to eat should have been an unmistakable warning sign that I needed help and not social correction.
Working with Treatment Teams
I wish that I had never been homeless and that I had never become sick in the first place.
But once I was diagnosed, I was treated by doctors who were excellent. I was ready to see my parents again, and they became my advocates. We lived through a hellish year where I tried many different medications, with nothing working well, until I found an underutilized medication that worked for me. My parents also convinced me to apply for the social security income I qualified for because I could not work, and this helped me rebuild my life.
There will always be people who are mentally ill, suffering from delusions, badly needing help, and refusing it, like me. The key is to find these people as soon as possible. Once we find them, treatment teams must never give up, and always strive for the highest level of recovery.