Jeanne is a 23 year old woman with schizo-affective disorder. She spends much of her time working at a card store, volunteering, and spending time with her boyfriend. Jeanne enjoys photography, listening to music, watching TV and movies, and is trying to get back into drawing and reading, which she did frequently before she got sick.
When Jeanne was a junior in high school, she began to experience symptoms of depression, although, like many, she did not initially realize it was depression:
Um it’s–it was weird because my life was perfect and I thought, you know, depression you had to have problems in your life, like loss of a family member, or abuse, but my life was perfect, so I never thought it could be depression. So it took me a while to get help and realize that it was depression.
After several months, her symptoms worsened, resulting in a suicide attempt:
And then I started getting help with my depression and, maybe a month later, I started to hear voices and see things that other people couldn’t see. I was just too scared to tell people so I had to deal with it on my own for quite some time. And um, which led me to be suicidal ‘cause living with undiagnosed schizophrenia, you don’t realize that there’s help or that there’s medicine you can take. So the day after my best friend’s birthday, I tried to kill myself and luckily my mom was home and so I did have an out.
After her attempted suicide, Jeanne’s high school required her to take some time to heal before returning to school, but the time alone just lead her to feel more isolated from the rest of “normal society.” Despite this setback, Jeanne was able to graduate high school; however, within a year of graduating, she and her mother moved to Atlanta (while the rest of the family stayed in Ohio) where Jeanne was treated in a mental institution for about a year. She describes her experience there:
Um it was, it was scary. I felt like I was never gonna get out. ‘Cause you see in movies, people in mental institutions, and they’re there for the rest of their lives. And I felt like I was never gonna live a normal life, and I was always gonna be surrounded by people who weren’t doing well, like I wished I was around. And um, but over time, I got stronger, and the–I was on a bunch of different medications, and I finally found ones that were starting to help a little. So in the end, it turned out okay. We took me out AMA [against medical advice] because no one wants to be there longer than a year, but we stayed in Atlanta because, just in case I relapsed, that we could go back to the hospital.
It was in Atlanta where Jeanne was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, a condition in which an individual experiences symptoms of schizophrenia as well as symptoms of a mood disorder. Like many young people who are diagnosed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, Jeanne struggled with accepting the diagnosis as real:
Jeanne: When I was first diagnosed with schizo-affective, my doctor made me tell my mom and I, I couldn’t do it. I just said no, I’m–I have major depression. I didn’t wanna admit it. But now, looking at everything and doing all the research I’ve done, I’m schizo-affective, and that’s just who I am.
Interviewer: What made it click for you, helped you with the acceptance? Can you think of anything?
Jeanne: Meeting other people that are schizo-affective and seeing the similarities in our lives is definitely what helped.
As described above, Jeanne’s symptoms include experiencing both auditory and visual hallucinations (i.e., hearing and seeing things that are not real). While most people with schizophrenia only experience auditory hallucinations, Jeanne does see things on occasion. There is one visual hallucination that she has termed “scary man”:
He’s not human; I can’t quite describe what he is. He doesn’t have, like, a face like we do or he doesn’t talk like we do. I just happen to understand him.
Even though she understands him, Jeanne would prefer not to see him:
Jeanne: I don’t wanna see any of this.
Interviewer: How come?
Jeanne: Because it’s, it’s not normal, and normal’s what I wanna be.
Despite Jeanne’s awareness that her hallucinations are not generated by the external reality, she has a deep level understanding of subjective reality and that despite it being subjective, our individual subjective realities shape how we all experience life:
Jeanne: The only thing that I, I feel really strongly about is that reality is not a set thing. Everyone thinks reality is one set thing, but it’s not. My reality can be different than your reality. And I know, like, everyone says, “Okay, your voices aren’t real,” “Scary man’s’ not real,” but they’re real to me. They are definitely part of my reality. So, I just want people to know reality is not, like, a set thing. It can change from person to person.
Interviewer: And why is that important for people to know, to know that?
Jeanne: Because people say if it’s not real, it shouldn’t hurt you, but it can hurt you.
Listen to the above excerpt here:
To avoid being hurt further, Jeanne has been selective about who she shares her diagnosis with. While her family and boyfriend are very supportive and understanding, she fears the stigma associated with mental illness and how others would treat her differently if they knew of her mental illness:
With stigma–people think people with mental illnesses are like what they see on TV, and it’s not true. It’s not like that. Or they think people with mental illnesses are violent, and that’s not true either. Half the people would probably be really surprised to find out that I have a mental illness. Because I’m not like what you see on TV, not like what you see on the movies. I’m just an average person living a average life. I just happen to have a little secret that most people don’t know about.
Listen to the above excerpt here:
Later in the interview, she expands on the above point about stigma:
I don’t want people to think I’m–any different of me, especially people at work. I don’t want them to think I can’t do my job because I have a mental illness.
Listen to Jeanne discuss examples of how she has been treated differently here:
Despite her concerns about and actual experiences of stigma, Jeanne has recently been opening up about her mental illness:
But I’m trying to let it out now. Like the Frozen song, “Let it Go,” because I do want to, like, help inspire people or maybe help people realize, like, “Hey, you’re not alone. Don’t try to kill yourself, you know, you can get past this”… And I think I’m ready to just stand up for myself and other people with mental illnesses and show that we’re just your average, everyday people. Our reality is just a little different.
Although she is attempting to accept herself and her mental illness more, Jeanne still has a strong desire for her life to be normal. She feels that her mental illness has taken away the sense of normalcy from her. For example, the medications that Jeanne takes every cause her to sleep for a solid eight hours and, as a result, require her to abide by a strict sleeping schedule:
So, I have to base my life around how much sleep I’m gonna get and that’s kinda one of the things I hate. It’s, like, most twenty-three year olds are staying up late and having to get up early and enjoying things, and I have to get eight hours of sleep every night. So I don’t really get to be like a normal twenty-three year old… It doesn’t feel like I’m living life. It’s–I feel like I’m–I have to schedule everything, and I have no spontaneous ability.
The medications affect other parts of Jeanne’s life beyond just her sleep schedule. One common side effect of anti-psychotic medication is weight gain. Since she began her treatment, Jeanne has gained around 80 pounds, which contributes to her feeling that she lacks of control over her life as a result of her mental illness. However, despite the unpleasant side effects, Jeanne believes the medications are the most beneficial part of her treatment.
Jeanne and her mother have since moved back from Atlanta to Cincinnati to be reunited with the rest of their family. She is currently a facilitator at HOPE Community Center, a peer run organization for individuals with mental illness in Clermont County, Ohio. Jeanne is also a certified peer-to-peer instructor with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She enjoys the peer-to-peer work because it helps her to not feel so different from others:
Jeanne: It’s nice to not feel like an alien. It’s nice to know that there’s other people going through the same thing as you, and we’re all supporting each other and helping each other.
Interviewer: Helps you feel like you have a place where you fit in.
Jeanne: Yeah. One of the people said in the training, “I found my herd,” and that’s my favorite quote ever. It’s my herd. These are my people.
Jeanne hopes this volunteer work will assist her in achieving her career goal of working in the mental health field:
I would love to work on the psych ward of the hospital and be that person that inspires people to keep living because every time I’ve been to a hospital, there’s that one person that encourages me to just keep living and not try to kill myself.