Cobra is 39 years old, and at the time of this interview had been living in Orlando, Florida, for 22 years. The beginning of his adult life was very promising. He graduated from college, majoring in molecular science and microbiology, then joined the National Guard and entered Officer Candidate School. It was there that he first began to experience paranoia. The fact that Cobra didn’t stay in the service has been a major source of guilt for him, even though he understands that staying wouldn’t have been possible.
Cobra: …but then I had a great guilt, a guilt that I didn’t commit to the military my whole six years. So, I became very paranoid, figuring that my classmates were going to get back at me for quitting and not completing my six years. But I didn’t have to complete my six years. I had a one-year contract stating that if I got out of Officer Candidate School, I could quit being in the military or I could continue as a regular enlisted, and I chose to quit. And so—
Interviewer: But it was just your own feeling that—perhaps you should have done something different?
Cobra: It was my own feeling. I should have stayed in and maybe gone as a medic I’d have my opportunity to see war and have that—have myself as a—basically a hero, done my part in the military, served my country. But I didn’t—because my father served 20 years and my grandfather served in the military, and so I felt like I didn’t do my part, so I felt guilty and that guilt kept building.
Although Cobra had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, he left for Texas on his own, and while there tried to sign up for the military again, thinking that they wouldn’t have his medical records there.
Cobra: And I was going to join the military again but I had delusions saying that they were setting me up, so my—this constant guilt of not being in the military and not fulfilling my obligation caused me to break down even more psychologically. And finally I started hearing things. I didn’t see anything, but I started hearing things.
Cobra was hospitalized again in Texas, and he left the hospital, even though he had been involuntarily confined and had not been discharged. His account of that time in his life illustrates plainly how frightening and confusing it was for him.
Cobra: So, it was the 4th of July of 2006, and I had this thought in my head that people—they were gonna try and kill me, so I escaped. I climbed the fence and I had to outrun this guy, and I hid in the field and I just watched the fireworks for, like, hours and mosquitoes were biting me and I was rolling in cow dung. I was having delusional thoughts. There was things going on in my head saying, “You need to follow this person and then he’ll take you to safety,” and then it was like, “No, you’re going the wrong way.”
Interviewer: Oh, that must have been very frightening for you.
Cobra: It was frightening for me because I didn’t—I had—I had no logical way to go.
After Cobra made it back to Florida, he went through a period (common to persons adjusting to the challenges of schizophrenia) of a series of hospitalizations followed by going on and off medication. After stopping medication on one occasion, Cobra decided to visit his sister in London. He talked about the severe challenge and confusion of attempting to sort reality in the midst of auditory hallucinations:
Cobra: And so I said, “I’ll take a taxi.” So then the taxi driver says “I’m a hit man,” in his head. And I said, “Really?” He’s like, “I’m gonna take you to a field and kill you.”
Interviewer: Oh, and so you were thinking you could hear what he said in his mind?
Cobra: Yes, again, and that freaked me out. It freaked me out, and I was just as cool as possible, telling him in my head,”No, I’m not. I’m just here to meet people. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then I said, I said something like, “Well, they say I’m next generation,” and he’s like, “Well–” and then he said, “Well, they said we’re the best generation,” and I was like, “Why would he even think about that?” He’s like, “Well, just make sure you go to the castles.” And then he started to hit on me. He’s like, “Don’t you want to go back to my place?” And I’m like, “No!”
Interviewer: And was that really happening? Was he really saying that out loud?
Cobra: No, he wasn’t saying—he was just talking, you know, he was just talking to me saying, “Where are you going?” And I’m like, “Well, these are my plans,” and he’s like, “Well, yeah, you should go to this castle, but in his head he was talking. He was saying that he was a hit man and so—
Interviewer: That had to be very confusing, because there’s one thing happening outside and in your mind something else is going on entirely.
Cobra: Yes, it was very confusing. And so he said, “Jump out of the car,” in his head, and so I opened the door and then he was, vocally said, “What are you doing?” And so I closed the door and I was like, “Oh!”
Listen to an expanded version of the above excerpt here:
Listening to Cobra’s story, it seems clear that he was able to function more effectively while taking the medication, yet as with many people who have psychiatric illness, Cobra believed that if he were just strong-minded enough, he could control his symptoms. Because medication commonly prescribed for schizophrenia often causes unpleasant side effects, people are often motivated to stop taking it, and it can take some time to find the correct medication and dosage to make it easier to tolerate.
Interviewer: You would take the medication and the voices would go away, so in that sense you would be better, but then you would not want to take the medication anymore. What was that about? Why would you–?
Cobra: Well, I would stop taking my medication, because I felt my mind was mentally strong enough to stop taking the medication.
Interviewer: So you thought it was a matter of strength?
Cobra: Of strength, mental strength. And being able to control your thoughts. And so I started taking the medication and I got depressed. The voices left. I got depressed. I started to gain weight and my creativity went down the drain. I felt—I felt like this was the bottom of the worst that’s ever happened to me. Right now, I take my medication. My doctor, me and my mom discussed it, where I was taking a certain dosage and they decreased it and since they’ve decreased it, I’ve been able to function better, I have more energy, I’m more active in society. So, that’s helped a lot. I know I need to take the medication, so I’m going to continue…. I have to take medication, which is fine with me. The only thing is my weight gain, which I’m trying to work on right now. But I feel that there’s a lot more need for new medication for schizophrenics that maybe don’t have as severe side effects, a lot more therapy, of group involvement.
Cobra wants to travel, and he wants to make a contribution to others who have challenges similar to his:
Cobra: I have a friend in Washington and also I plan to see all the Smithsonian Museums, as many I can see. I want to go to the National Archives and see the Declaration of Independence and also the Constitution of the United States. I contacted my state representative to ask him if I could go into the White House, which I’m hoping I can go in. Next year I plan on doing the Appalachian Trail. I’m already talking with organizations, Hike for Mental Illness, to get sponsors to donate money to me…so I can—so they can help fund research in mental illness and support the trail system.
I did some volunteer work. I helped build this website called The Courtesy Project. I’m learning web design right now by myself. It’s called The Courtesy Project and what they do is they donate—people donate money and with that money they go out and if they see somebody do something courteous or nice, they give them money.
I need to be around normal people, my peers, people that in society are deemed to be normal and have functioning lives. I need to be around people like that, so that way my mind gets stronger and I’ll continue to take my medication and I can be part of society again and have a job, and potentially have a family because that’s something I want to have. I want to be able to be creative. I paint, draw and write. And it’s because—maybe because I try so hard, try so hard now is because I’ve lost so much time, before. I’m not—I can’t say I’m proud that I’m disabled, but I’m not going to let my disability dictate what I can’t do in life, unless it’s by law.