Miss Harris is a 45-year-old African-American woman living with a roommate in Cincinnati, Ohio. After years of not only struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but also drug and alcohol addiction, she is now in a good place and ready to share her story.
Miss Harris describes growing up in a good home and initially having a good life. She was one of eight children and the youngest of the five girls in the family. Throughout most of her young life, she lived with her mother, father and four of her siblings.
However, growing up, Miss Harris always knew something was different about her. She remembers not having many friends and always feeling left out. As a result, she kept to herself most of the time except when she would give away food to people who needed it.
Listen to Miss Harris talk about the difficulties she experienced when she was young here:
Unfortunately, Miss Harris was exposed to a lot of substance abuse when she was younger and started drinking and smoking marijuana at the age of 12.
My brothers and sisters were older than me. They was doing it. I’d sneak the drink out of their cups, you know, stuff like that. Marijuana was used in my family, you know, yeah, and I would sneak the cocktails. And friends in the neighborhood, they used marijuana.
At only 13 years old, Miss Harris found herself homeless. Sometimes she would stay with people, other times she slept in an abandoned building. Eventually she began living with an older boy because her mother and stepfather were sick. Miss Harris found herself using drugs, prostituting, and being taken advantage of by men. However, she identifies as the worst thing about drinking and doing drugs was that she stopped taking her medication.
I was making myself sicker and then, you know, I was told that if you don’t treat the mental illness and the alcoholism—which I found to be true—then you’re not treating anything. You know, you stay stuck; you stay sick. And that’s basically what happened to me… When I got to work, I was happy because, you know, you got people in the neighborhood, you got people shopping, and being a bagger or a deli clerk, you’re dealing with different people and stuff like that. So, that kept me happy. And then once I got off of work it was like, oh, I’m back down in this slump again, and so I would end up drinking and I stopped taking my medicine and I stopped going to groups, you know. I stopped talking to the case manager.
She finally found her way back home and was welcomed by her family with open arms. After this, she was able to obtain her high school diploma. But Miss Harris’ struggles continued when she went to jail. She spent a year in Marysville prison for a felony as well as a few weeks incarcerated in Cincinnati. Miss Harris received support after getting out of jail, but she still struggled. She has now been sober for three months and does everything she can to stay that way. She goes to Alcoholics Anonymous and spends her days at the Recovery Center of Hamilton County.
I come here [Recovery Center of Hamilton County] and this is a big change for me because usually I’d take groups and stuff like that, back in the past. I’d do them for a minute, you know. I was there, I was there learning about me, but this is entertaining and it’s interesting because I’m learning about me and I’m having fun. You know, with the activities that we do here…We have one group where she says introduce yourself to everybody in the room and I think that’s pretty cool because you can remember who the people are that you’re in association with when you come here… The art classes are wonderful… They’ve got the computer class here for somebody like, you know, you can learn to use a computer, you can go on Facebook. You can do this, search the internet, find something you like, watch movies or anything. But the groups here, the ones I’ve taken—I’ve taken computer class, recovery groups, assertiveness classes. I’ve done—let’s see, right now I’m doing Mindful Ways—Mindfully Choosing Happiness is one of my favorite classes… They’ve got the one-on-one counselors, you know, the groups. Some of these places the groups are small. You can go like three or four people in a group, you know. It’s not like you’re going to go in a group and always be talking mental health. They’ve got fun activities that you do that you learn about yourself. You’re doing work on paper but it’s not like you’re getting a grade or nothing for it. But you learn about you, and once you learn about yourself it’s not as hard… They’re giving us skills basically, they’re giving us survivor skills and life skills to do better.
Although Miss Harris has struggled socially since she was little, she does enjoy being around people.
But I love people and I used to get around people and then once we started talking, I just would start crying and they’d be like, “Why are you crying?” and I’d be, “Because I’m happy that you’re here.”
However, she is aware that others see her as different because she has a mental illness. She is not unique in having this awareness and has experienced the isolation that being seen as different can cause.
Listen to Miss Harris talk about the inaccurate perceptions and how she is overcoming isolation here:
One way that Miss Harris overcomes isolation is by living with a roommate. She likes having the company of another person because she gets worried when she is alone.
I can really get paranoid when I’m by myself because I feel like there’s someone under there and it scares me. And it’s not, you know–Because I know it’s not, but I just keep feeling like there’s somebody behind me, and I’m in the house by myself. And that’s kind of scary, you know? So I have to watch something that enlightens me, interests me. I’ll read a book or something, so I’m getting more tools here.
Miss Harris is learning ways to distract herself because her goal is to be able to be by herself and not be scared. She believes that the path to recovery involves the acceptance of having a mental illness and a willingness to act to help yourself.
Listen to Miss Harris talk about acceptance here:
Her life has taken a significant turn from where she used to be. Miss Harris has decided to go back to school and is currently taking psychology classes.
But I’m still challenging my mental illness because, you know, I’m trying to get back to work. I was going to school for psychology. I’ve still got the four years I’m looking at. But I’m trying… And I figure psychology because—it can’t fix me, but I can learn about me, too… I wanted to do something to help me help the other people that are sick, too.
Although her current dream is to pursue psychology, in the past her dream was to work in construction so that she could build a house for her mother.
Listen to Miss Harris talk more about her dreams here:
Miss Harris is very proud of her accomplishments, even though she never thought she would be where she is in her life now:
Miss Harris: I have a lot to be proud of. The fact that I am doing college and taking this four-year Master’s degree thing really serious. I come here. They give me two days, like I do groups. I was doing groups fulltime here. They give me two days to work on schoolwork, I mean, you know, like four hours, afternoon or morning. Then I can work on my schoolwork. I’m proud that I do have a GED (laughing). I’m proud that I can work. I’m proud that I’m not beating myself up because I’m challenged, because I used to. I used to say I don’t want to feel like this, so every now and then I’ll ball up, you know, because it stops me from doing a lot what I want, you know, like job-wise. You know, I did take one job and they said, “We won’t deal with that. Are you taking your medicines?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” And they hired me anyway for being honest. So, that was cool. I am—let me see. I am proud of—right now honestly the biggest thing is that school.
Interviewer: That’s a big thing.
Miss Harris: —because I never thought would do it. I never thought I could do it.
When asked what it was like telling her life story, Miss Harris felt only relief.
Oh man, I feel like a weight’s been off my shoulder a little bit, and I need to get the chance to talk, let somebody hear me. You know, even if I’m mixed up with my words, if somebody hears me and I got it out, it’s good to get things out rather than just hold them in. Like I said, I try to pray and try to figure what God speak to me. That’s why I’m here. Somebody else will get the message.