After I graduated from the University of Cincinnati, I spent two years writing about my unexpected and full recovery from schizophrenia, which eventually became the book Mind Estranged. During those two years of writing, I spoke confidentially to groups of mental health professionals about my journey to recovery. As a speaker, I found audiences were eager to hear my story. But, unfortunately, when I tried disclosing my illness and the journey to my recovery with my friends, almost no one understood. After I disclosed that I had suffered from schizophrenia and recovered, some friends went so far as to have no interest in seeing me again, and even seemed afraid. Years went by where I lived a dual life: during my confidential interviews in front of groups of physicians, nothing was held back. In my personal life, none of my new friends (mostly, new friends from the university) had any idea what I had gone through. It felt like I lived in the shadows, with no friends who really understood the events of my life. Since its publication last summer, my memoir has brought success in both my professional and personal life. Mind Estranged has thirty-nine five star reviews on amazon.com, and I have been invited to speak for many more audiences, both academic and religious. But more importantly, in my personal life, I now am finding encouragement from the same people who were once not able to understand. Since I have unreservedly shared the most intimate details of my life in my memoir, I have won true friends. Today, living in the shadows is a part of my past. I hope that, someday, the mentally ill will be able to freely disclose without losing treasured relationships. I also hope that my memoir will reduce the heavy stigma associated with mental illness.
This is an excerpt from the book “Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery” by Bethany Yeiser:
My small black shoulder bag was always dirty. A month ago, I threw it away, along with everything in it. Now I have no clothes, other than the green dress I am wearing, and no identification.
Years ago, wearing a dirty dress of any color would have humiliated me. But these days, my mind is a thick cloud. It is like I just found out a close friend died, and the shock never went away. I am aware that if my mind were clear, the way it used to be, I would be too embarrassed to look for leftover food in the trash, or to wear the same dirty green dress each day. But the recognition that my mind is altered makes no difference. My mind is a cloud. It prevents me from studying or working a job. I cannot concentrate.
I talk myself out of the truth that I am homeless. Homeless people look different from me. They have low cognition and appear to be dirty. They collect glass and plastic for money. I will not wander the streets gathering litter, carrying black garbage bags filled with bottles. I still have some dignity. I have never asked for money from a stranger. I have been eating thrown away food for over three years now, but I believe eating what I find is acceptable. Others hardly notice me when I look for food.
A few days before beginning my senior year of college, I returned from a trip to rural Africa. I was unable to make sense of what I saw there, and returned home traumatized, with a cloudy mind. I tried my best to focus on college, but shortly after my return, in the fall semester of 2002, I failed all of my courses. I became fixated on fundraising projects to assist Africa due to the extreme poverty I had seen. A year later, I raised thousands of dollars to build a small new medical clinic in Nairobi. But I was no longer capable of studying. Whenever I tried, I could not stop thinking of Africa. It constantly occupied my mind.
I am aware that I am hearing voices now, though I admit it to no one. I thought all schizophrenics were locked away somewhere forever, though I never thought of specifically where. My personality is the opposite of a schizophrenic person’s. I am emotionally strong. I see just how different I am from the homeless. Would anyone ever actually group me with “them”?
I dropped out of the university, but years later I still lived there. I moved around, searching for places to sleep—the libraries, the student lounges, that one restroom that had a couch. I fell asleep in other places where only students were supposed to be. I remembered the high grades I earned and the research I did, and I still felt like I was a student. But I was not a student. The university police noticed, and sent me to jail for trespassing. But there was a perk to being jailed. I was able to sleep in safety.
As I sit here in the garden, I wish I had a bed in a private, safe place where I could spend my nights, without the awful conditions in jails. Living in reality like a normal person makes me feel like I am in jail.
I do not know how my parents could ever understand how I have become a homeless person after so many years of school and violin practice, and after all the money they spent on my education. I have not spoken with my family in four years. I am afraid every day that they will find me in the churchyard where I sleep.
Stray cats live in the churchyard, and sometimes I wish I were like them. That way, no one would accuse me of trespassing.
If you’d like to learn a little bit more about mental illness and homelessness, check out 0ne of Bethany Yeiser’s blog posts, The Homeless Experience: “Hardcore” Homeless.