–Sharon is a 40-year-old Caucasian female who lives independently in Atlanta, Georgia. Sharon grew up with an older sister and a younger brother and had a happy childhood. She was good at school and started college at the University of Georgia after graduating from high school. However, after a year there, she switched to the Georgia Institute of Technology so she could major in architecture, but soon changed her major again to international affairs. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international affairs, but after graduating, returned to architecture and enrolled in a City Planning Master’s degree program in the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech. It was while in graduate school, at the age of 28, that Sharon began having difficulty. Listen to Sharon describe her thoughts and her behavior as she was beginning to manifest the illness, but before she realized there was a problem: Shortly after receiving the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Sharon was hospitalized. She identifies having the police take her away and being hospitalized as among some of her worst memories. Listen to Sharon talk about her experiences in the hospital: Despite the schizophrenia, Sharon was able to complete her Master’s program and enter the workforce. But she struggled to hold down a job and would change them every two years. The reason Sharon says she made so many changes was because she was always skeptical of the people she worked with due to the paranoia. Sharon’s schizophrenia manifests itself differently than is typical for women. Although not true of everyone, in general, women with schizophrenia are more likely to experience the positive symptoms and men the negative ones. Positive symptoms involve cognitive or behavioral excesses (NOT positive in the sense of the word referring to something good), most commonly manifesting as hearing voices that are coming from inside one’s head (also known as auditory hallucinations). Negative symptoms are cognitive or behavioral deficits, such as isolation or difficulty engaging in purposeful activity like completing common household tasks. Sharon experiences mostly negative symptoms as well as paranoia and multiple fears. Listen to Sharon describe her symptoms here: Although the negative symptoms of schizophrenia tend to be less likely to respond to medication than the positive ones, Sharon has benefitted from taking medication. At first she was hesitant, but learned of the help that medication could provide her while she was participating in research at the National Institute of Health (NIH):
I participated in some research studies at the NIH and they convinced me to take my medication. They said, “You will probably never be hospitalized again. You operate well in the world. You can communicate with other people. If you will just take your medication, if you will make that—if you will give into that and just make that concession and say, ‘Okay, you know, for better or for worse, I’m going to take that medication whether I think it helps me or not,’ you’ll probably go through life and never have to enter a psychological or psychiatric hospital ever again.” Because I definitely don’t like being hospitalized. I didn’t like the constraints of it. I’ve always lived on my own as an adult, and so I just didn’t like the idea at all of being taken care of or having to go to the classes and talk about problems. I just didn’t like the whole environment.Listen to Sharon talk about the improvement she’s seen in her life since staying on medication: In addition, Sharon has done her own research to learn about schizophrenia, and that has helped her gain insight into her illness.
I guess one issue about schizophrenia that I do try and do is to try to be educated on the issues. I can tell you all about my axis, um, chart. I’ve read most of my medical files that I’ve had access to over the years. I try to read good articles and scientific articles about it, that I try to inform myself as much as possible about every aspect of schizophrenia that I can, just to know my own illness.Sharon’s thoughtfulness also extends to her interactions with others. She regularly reflects on past behavior, thinking about how to be better in the future.
Looking back on your life and trying to recount or think about the times that you didn’t respond as well as you could have and trying to make changes, I think that is part of the road to recovery and realizing, you know, “No, my old behavior was off,” or “The way I responded to work situations wasn’t as good as it could have been.” And you don’t want to get too critical of yourself, but trying to move forward and not do those things again is something that is the road to recovery to me…It’s not a guilt, it’s not quite a guilt feeling, but oh, the way I used to treat my family or the way I’ve treated some friends over the years or have fallen out of touch with people and trying to rebuild friendships, I have to stay away from being too critical because I realize, you know, they didn’t always make the best response to me. You know, no one’s perfect, but you do have to think about what you could do better, I think.A typical day for Sharon involves various planned activities as well as socializing with others because she has found that she functions better when she is active. Listen to Sharon talk about what her daily life is like: Sharon particularly enjoys getting out of her home and going to museums and parks. She loves art, especially painting with oils and watercolors, and she likes learning about art history. Click here to see some of her watercolors: Although she is active, Sharon does not work, currently receiving Social Security Disability. She is interested in working with individuals with disabilities because she wants to make a difference, but is concerned that pursuing work would disrupt her stability.
I haven’t worked since 2010. I have Social Security Disability and I’m kind of amazed that I do because I do have a degree, so it seems like I could work but I guess all my work history, because I’ve fled every job, that they decided that I qualify for Social Security. So that’s what I do now. I am in the process—I’m working with the state BR [Bureau of Rehabilitation]. I’ve applied to be a CPS which in Georgia is a Certified Peer Specialist, where you work with other people with disabilities… I think that it would benefit me to work, that I think that it would get me out in the world more each day, and that I would enjoy it, that I could use the skills that I have to benefit other people and to benefit myself. Um, on the other hand, one of the struggles that I have is a little bit of apathy, and so I think, you know, my life now is okay, so why would I want to work? Why would I want to go through that again? Why would I want to bring all that stress upon me again?Not working due to having a mental illness contributes to the stigma against individuals with schizophrenia. Another misunderstanding about people with schizophrenia is that they are not aware of the stigma. That is clearly not the case for Sharon.
There’s a lot of stigma in media accounts of people that go around and, you know, hurt people in the workplace, or people that have a very harsh reaction to schizophrenia. And then there’s, like, peaceniks like me, are people that are really kind of mellow or that don’t have a felony count on their name or anything like that, but do kind of act normal and you wouldn’t know if you didn’t ask them that they had a disorder. But the stigma is still there… there’s definitely a stigma. I feel the stigma, that you—part of it is probably just what I’ve taken on myself, that you think people treat you differently, whether they are or not. But um yeah, I think there’s a stigma in society.Challenging the stigma by telling her story is one reason why Sharon decided to participate in this project. She also benefited from reading others’ stories on the website and wanted to give back, hopefully helping others with schizophrenia. Listen to Sharon talk more about why she wanted to be involved in The Schizophrenia Oral History Project: At times, she looks back on her life and wishes she did things differently. But at the end of the day, Sharon believes that she is doing well.
There are people that have harder obstacles than me, and I do try to view it that way because the medication with me has been successful. I do take to it very well. I have very few side effects, and I feel lucky that way.