Rebecca Chamaa is a 50-year-old Caucasian female currently living with her husband of 18 years in San Diego, California. She is a lifelong learner and writer.
Rebecca grew up as a happy child, the youngest of her family. She believes she started having more problems than her peers when she was in high school, and thinks these problems may have been a precursor to her illness. Despite some problems, Rebecca continued studying until she completed college with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. She attended graduate school for a time and took additional courses on leadership as well as various types of writing.
Her employment has been in a few different sectors, from working in a library to being a marketing coordinator. Most of her career thus far, however, was spent as a social worker. She worked for the state of Washington in addition to working with people who were elderly or experiencing homelessness.
When Rebecca was 28 and employed as a social worker, she experienced her first psychotic episode following a traumatic event. The episode itself included paranoia, and she became afraid to smoke or eat because she was worried that the cigarettes and food were poisoned. She was unable to sleep, her weight dropped, and her paranoia increased. Since she lived alone, this continued for several weeks before members of her family intervened. They took her to different hospitals in hopes of getting her admitted. However, because she was a social worker and still able to think somewhat rationally, she knew how to respond to the assessments she received. While she told her family about the paranoia and delusions she had, she did not disclose these to the people assessing her. When she became severely psychotic, Rebecca finally agreed to enter a psychiatric facility. Once she was admitted, Rebecca was kept alone, away from the other patients, for about a week until medication took effect.
Hear Rebecca describe her first episode:
After this first episode, Rebecca received a diagnosis: bipolar with psychotic features. She was prescribed medication, but Rebecca admits she would waver between taking and not taking the medicine. She says that like many others with a recent diagnosis of a mental illness, she had trouble staying on her medication. For several years, Rebecca would go on and off her medication, as well as in and out of psychosis. Then, she had a “terrible” psychotic episode and began hearing voices.
Rebecca: I would go on and off my meds and on and off my meds, so I went in and out of psychosis for several years. Eventually, just after I had been diagnosed—I think maybe a year or two—I had a terrible psychotic episode and I was hearing voices, and I didn’t know what they were. I thought that they were God, I thought that they were angels, I thought that I was being raised by someone. I was very confused by the fact that I was hearing voices, very confused by it.
Even though the voices confused her, Rebecca clearly heard the instruction to “jump off a bridge.” She drove to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, Washington, got out of her car, and walked to the edge. As she stood on the edge, a man stopped his car, told her to give him her hand, and pulled her back to safety. Rebecca returned home, where the voices told her to take all of her medication and drive to the house where she grew up. She began to drive across the state, but fell unconscious on the side of the road before she arrived. Once again, a man stopped and called 911, staying with her and trying to keep her awake until emergency responders arrived. She was taken to the hospital, where her stomach was pumped and her heart restarted.
Since then, she has remained on medication. The only exception came ten years ago, when a psychiatrist told her that he did not think that her diagnosis was correct. His reasoning was that if she truly had bipolar disorder, she would be on a mood stabilizer in addition to the antipsychotic medication she was taking. Because he thought her diagnosis was incorrect, the psychiatrist advised she cease taking medication.
Rebecca: He said, “There’s just no way you could have this diagnosis. You’re only on an antipsychotic, you’re not on a mood stabilizer, so it doesn’t make sense that you would be bipolar.” So, he took me off everything. Well, I ended up within a year, psychotic for six months, six long, scary, horrible months.
Following the six months of experiencing psychotic symptoms, she went to a research hospital where she was given a new diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia. Rebecca believes that this diagnosis is accurate, because while she does have paranoid thoughts and psychosis, she has not had difficulty regulating her moods. She has the “classic” symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. From the start of her symptoms until being given an accurate diagnosis, 15 to 20 years had passed.
Rebecca experiences symptoms on a regular basis that occur during activities of daily living. Some examples of these activities include shopping in a grocery store or eating at a restaurant. Rebecca becomes paranoid around food, and her husband reassures her in such times or uses other “tricks” to deal with these and other daily symptoms. In addition, and though it may not be on a daily basis, she sometimes has a hard time during travel. For example, one time she experienced a panic attack before boarding a plane. As she and her husband were about to board a flight from Florida to California, Rebecca begged her husband to drive her home rather than get on the airplane. Her husband told her that he had to be at work the next day, so even if he wanted to drive her back home, they needed to fly in order to make it in time. Rebecca refers to this experience as an example of her husband’s good nature. She discussed some of his acts of kindness and “allowance” for her illness.
Rebecca: So sometimes if I eat something, I’ll say, Oh my God. I’ll think, Oh my God, it’s poison. And my husband does all these amazing things. He will eat some of it and he’ll say, No, it’s okay. Or we’ll go out to dinner and I’ll eat—I’ll taste my food and if I taste something in it that I’ve never tasted before, like a spice or whatever, I’ll say, This tastes funny to me. And my husband will know immediately that I’m having a problem… Yeah, he’s just really good with it. He handles it better than anyone I know, because sometimes I just can’t—you know, it’s not my fault that I feel scared or paranoid or anxious, and he never blames me for that, and I—I can’t imagine—you just can’t imagine how lucky I am.
Rebecca shows gratitude for her husband as a consistent source of support. They met while living and going to the American School in Egypt. His family was escaping the war in Lebanon, and Rebecca’s stepdad was a civil engineer assigned to irrigation projects in the Middle East. Rebecca recalls they did not necessarily like each other in high school; he had other girlfriends, and she had other boyfriends. About 15 years after high school, those who had gone to the American School began to connect through the internet. They planned a party in Las Vegas, which is where she and her husband met again. It was “love at first sight.” Within a few months, Rebecca, who lived in Washington at the time, moved to California where he lived. They had been happily married for 18 years at the time of the interview. Through their marriage, Rebecca and her husband have handled her symptoms and treatment as a team. They go to the psychiatrist together, and her husband fills up her medication packets so that it is all planned for the week. Rebecca hates going to the doctor, so her husband goes with her when she gets regular blood tests. They share the “burden” so that it is not all on one person’s shoulders. Perhaps most importantly, Rebecca’s husband never blames her for her illness or the symptoms that she experiences.
Though she has great support in facing her symptoms, they have been bad enough to impact her work life; she left her last job due the high level of stress. After taking some classes, Rebecca’s primary occupation became writing. Since then, she has had an article about living with schizophrenia published in Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, and Dr. Oz. She has written “commercial articles” for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day; these articles are about things such as relationships, marriage, or life in general. In addition, some of her poetry has been published, and she recently had a literary article accepted to Luna Luna magazine. Rebecca also wrote a book entitled Pills, Poetry, and Prose—Life with Schizophrenia, though she notes that her writing has improved since its publication. Make sure to take a look at her work, some of which is linked at the end of this article.
Listen to Rebecca discuss her work:
Rebecca has a mentor who is working to help build up her freelancing career, with the goal of getting off disability. Rebecca thinks that she could probably work a low-stress job, where people understand and accept her illness. However, if there is no such job with a supportive environment, Rebecca thinks that her career of freelance writing is the best choice for her. Though it can be a difficult occupation, it is a good choice for her because she can do it from home, where she can nap, go for a walk, or take more medicine if needed. Recently, she received her first paycheck for writing, which was an exciting moment.
Her blog (ajourneywithyou.com) shows changes and shifts that have occurred within Rebecca throughout the years. Rebecca says this is due to her study of the history of mental illness, women and mental illness, art and mental illness, and statistics about psychiatric care. Due to this research, she has had some changes in her thoughts about the language that is used when discussing mental illness. In relation to this, Rebecca has a bi-weekly column, called Bright Lights in Dark Corners, in a literary journal entitled Drunken Boat. It discusses the intersection of mental illness and art.
Though Rebecca is now open about her mental illness through writing or discussion, it was not until a few years ago that Rebecca publicly shared her diagnosis. She and her husband kept it a secret for the majority of their marriage until that point. The decision to disclose was made after much thought and prompting from her psychiatrist (who was quitting her practice) to tell at least one person within her social circle. Rebecca and her husband did decide to tell that one person, and then shared the information more publicly. But the reasoning went deeper than just encouragement from her psychiatrist; Rebecca wanted her husband to be able to share the burden with others rather than have to handle it alone. She wanted people to know about her situation so that he could ask for help when needed. Another reason they waited so long to share is due to the fact that schizophrenia is at the “tail end of acceptance.” While Rebecca feels as if mental illness, especially anxiety and depression, are more accepted in today’s society than in previous times, those with schizophrenia are considered to be the “worst of the worst” when comparing mental illness diagnoses. It took time for Rebecca to feel ready to face possible discrimination, disregard, and derogatory feelings or words that could be aimed at her as a consequence of her diagnosis.
Rebecca discusses her decision to share about her mental illness here:
Initially, when she began sharing about her illness, Rebecca says she was “defensive.” She describes herself as being bold and fierce during the process. Her attitude has since changed, because people were kind and supportive. Still, when she brings up schizophrenia, she feels she can gauge the individual’s level of comfort based on facial expressions. Sometimes, people change the subject or shut down the conversation and walk away.
Rebecca: I was really defensive at first. I came out kind of bold and angry—not angry really, I wasn’t really angry, but I came out pretty fierce. Like, I don’t care what you say. This is how it is and this is my life and you can say what you will and you can leave us if you want to leave us, and you can go away if you want to go away, and that’s—whatever, we’re prepared to deal with the consequences. And now I feel differently about that. I feel like—so coming out, people were—people were nice to me, people were supportive… I can usually tell by the look on their face if that is something they can handle and want to proceed with or if they would just as soon change the conversation and get up and go to a different table or talk to someone else instead, which happens.
Due to the encounters she has had when disclosing her diagnosis, Rebecca has been able to consider why individuals may react the way that they do. She thinks that when people learn that an individual has schizophrenia, or witness a psychotic episode, there is the tendency to “dehumanize” that person. Personally, she tackles this issue by telling people that she is someone’s baby, and in so doing, “humanizes” herself. Rebecca recognizes that it may be easy to view an individual just as their illness or to see them as less human. She believes in the power of humanization for the reduction of stigma related to mental illness. When people view another as a neighbor, a woman in a grocery store, or a peer in class, perhaps we can destigmatize mental illness.
Rebecca herself has altered the perceptions that some people had of schizophrenia before interacting with her. Whatever an individual’s judgment of her may be, she “puts a face” on schizophrenia. This has helped to diminish the stigma surrounding the illness. Rebecca thinks that if more high-functioning people with schizophrenia are seen, the face of schizophrenia can be changed.
Rebecca: So I feel like telling people that I have schizophrenia is important when they can see me and they can look at me in the eye and they can go, Wow, this person who is talking to me, who is coherent, who is dressed—I don’t know how I dress. [laughter] But, you know, I’m in clean clothes, whatever, I’m dressed. But whatever their judgment of me is whatever, is [This person] has schizophrenia and that’s not what I thought schizophrenia looked like. That puts a face on schizophrenia that is an unusual face for most people. When they think of schizophrenia, they don’t think of me usually, and although it’s common.
Rebecca’s view of “humanizing” mental illness impacts her belief that the voices of those with mental illness are more important than those of the “experts.” She says that a lot of people have the tendency to “put feelings” on individuals with schizophrenia that do not match what those with the mental illness truly feel. For example, Rebecca says that some might assume that those with schizophrenia view their lives as too hard to live, or wish that they had a different life. Rebecca wonders how those people, without mental illness, would know. Personally, she acknowledges the fact that she indeed has schizophrenia, but also has a beautiful and amazing life. Thus, the feelings that other people “put on” her do not necessarily ring true.
Therefore, when others ask Rebecca to share or write about schizophrenia, she does because she feels that it is important to use her voice to do so. However, she feels perhaps greater connection with other people when she writes articles about other things, like marriage or health. Again, Rebecca relates this back to the “humanizing” effect; there is a sharing of experience that allows other people to see her as a whole person rather than just someone with schizophrenia. Some of the articles Rebecca writes illuminate the common ground of many people.
Though schizophrenia is hard to deal with, Rebecca knows that her life is valuable and beautiful. She recognizes that there are things that are hard to deal with, but that schizophrenia is her “set of problems.” She is willing to deal with that. Yes, it can be extremely difficult and terrifying, but Rebecca is just happy that she is alive. She remains grateful for each day.
Listen to Rebecca describe why she is grateful:
Gratitude is in Rebecca’s nature. As a Christian, she says that she is “blessed” rather than “lucky.” In recognizing blessings, she and her husband are able to help other people, some of which may be in a similar position to Rebecca. For example, they may encounter individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis that just looks different from hers. She says she also feels grateful when she considers that she has a home, someone who loves her, and other luxuries that others with the same diagnosis might not have.
With this gratefulness, Rebecca looks to her future with hope. Rebecca hopes she can increase her collection of writings. She wants to create a bigger body of work about things other than schizophrenia that can serve as a connection between herself and other people. She would also like to be a peer support specialist – a position that she applied for – so that she can give back to people who share similar experiences. Rebecca desires that she and her husband have many more healthy years together, and are able to retire and travel the country, enjoying each other’s company along the way.
Rebecca decided to talk to The Schizophrenia Oral History Project because she wants to combat stigma and work to break down barriers, in part by showing common ground between herself and others. By sharing her story, she hopes to help other people who are considering disclosing their mental illness to others. She also shares her love story to give others hope that they do not have to be alone.
Hear Rebecca describe why she chose to participate in the Project:
Rebecca created a workbook called “A Guided Mental Illness Workbook and Journal,” and it can be purchased at Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Barnes and Noble. Here is a link to the amazon page:
Read some of Rebecca’s writing here:
Rebecca’s blog: https://ajourneywithyou.com/
Rebecca’s article in Glamour Magazine: https://www.glamour.com/story/this-is-what-its-like-to-live-with-paranoid-schizophrenia
Rebecca’s article in Byrdie: https://www.byrdie.com/mental-health-beauty-routine
Link to Rebecca’s Medium articles: https://medium.com/@rchamaa
Rebecca’s article on The Mighty: https://themighty.com/2016/02/5-ways-having-schizophrenia-has-made-me-a-better-person/
Rebecca’s article in Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/anthony-scaramucci-paranoid-schizophrenia-insult-offensive