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The Road Home
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The Road Home

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I find myself mourning over how much time was lost while I was suffering from acute mental illness. During the years I expected to be in school studying for a Ph.D., I was instead homeless, dirty, and eating out of garbage cans. But even during my years homeless and dirty, I learned some valuable life lessons. One, I learned to relate to homeless people who are suffering. In the past, when I saw homeless people living on the streets, I used to think it was their own fault. I thought they should stop bothering people in the community, get off the streets, and check into a homeless shelter. I never considered that many of these people struggle with severe untreated brain disorders, which is why they refuse help. When I was homeless myself, I never even considered going to a shelter, preferring to sleep outside under the stars and to eat trashed food every day. I know what it’s like to wash up in public bathrooms, hoping every minute that no one else will come in. I know what it’s like to feel dirty underneath my clothes because I badly need a shower but, in my illness, refuse all help from friends and family. I know what it’s like to be paranoid of the people in my life who love me most, and I remember the experience of being cold, hungry, and confused for months on end, living outside. My schizophrenia diagnosis in 2007 was one of the biggest surprises in my life, as I believed nothing was wrong with me. It was also a slap in the face. I began to think about my four years homeless, and it seemed these years had been entirely wasted. When diagnosed with schizophrenia, I had no college degree, was not married, did not have children, and did not have any marketable skills that could help me get a job above minimum wage. I mourned my lost years and could see no good coming from them. Once diagnosed, it took an additional year to find the right medication. I wish my doctors had tried other medications sooner so that I had not wasted yet another 12 months. Today, when I look back on these five years, beginning at my first episode up until my recovery, I think about what I learned and find purpose in this time. Today, I often receive correspondence from parents whose son or daughter is homeless and living outside. I am able to offer help and encouragement to these families. I often share how I stopped wanting to sleep outside after becoming compliant to taking an antipsychotic medication that cleared my mind. When patients write to me about their experience on ineffective medications, I empathize. I can share how much I suffered during my own 12 months trying five different medications. When I tell patients to never give up, I know what that means. I also know what it’s like to have a ravenous appetite on their medications, muscle rigidity, involuntary movements, and other side effects that lower a patient’s quality of life. And trying new medications can be frustrating. Over the years, sometimes, I still mourn the five years I lost and wish my life had turned out differently. I mourn the loss of many hopes and dreams. Fortunately, when I recovered, I transferred to the University of Cincinnati and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2011. But the reality is that I was supposed to graduate in 2003, and I always planned on pursuing a graduate degree. Today, I’m thankful for my bachelor’s degree in biology, which enables me to understand how my medication works to restore the health of my brain. I don’t have children, but I highly value and enjoy spending time with my friends’ kids. I don’t work full time as the scientist I used to dream of becoming, but I am happy with my work, encouraging schizophrenia patients and their families. Even though I don’t have a doctorate, I fully understand what it means to be partially recovered from severe mental illness and to be homeless, and I can encourage others by sharing the events of my life. Life certainly didn’t turn out as planned, but today I have made peace with the direction my life has gone and rarely mourn over my illness. I do not consider my illness to be a life sentence. I find contentment running my schizophrenia research and education foundation with my doctor and speaking publicly about my recovery from schizophrenia. My bachelor’s degree has better qualified me to become editor-in-chief of our Foundation’s Newsletter. For my readers who have lost time due to a psychiatric illness, I encourage you to never give up. Keep moving forward and making new goals. Consider what you’ve learned during the hardest times of your life and use those lessons to enrich your future. Life may never turn out as you expected it to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live a meaningful life. Focus on today, and make every day worthwhile.  By Bethany Yeiser for Psychology Today.  She is the author of Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery.

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