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Overcoming Stigma One Story at a Time

Because of stigma, some people still want to see consumers (individuals living with a mental illness) institutionalized (i.e., in jail or in a hospital). This is ridiculous! Consumers can and do get better so why should We be put away, out of sight, and out of mind?!

In fact, I was once institutionalized for a situation I created as a result of my untreated, (and during that time, unknown) mental illness. I experienced a plethora of schizophrenia symptoms, yet I did not understand what was happening, all I knew was that I was extremely confused, disoriented, and scared.

I saw strange people following me, an old man on an antique bicycle and a crowd of people, heard demeaning voices (which I thought was someone playing a prank on me and was coming from my cell phone because the voices sounded like an exaggeration of mean cartoon characters). I thought I has special gifts from God like the ability to read minds and decipher evil spirits and good spirits in people. I thought I was a prophet of God and then eventually I thought I was Jesus Christ being prosecuted all over again.

I remember feeling trapped like I could not trust anyone. I thought my family was against me, I thought the world was against me. My symptoms lead me to be an uptight, secretive, irritated individual. I had unnecessary arguments with relatives, and even accused them of tapping my cell phone and hiding my purse. My undiagnosed illness lead me to miss appointments, quit my job, and to not trust family who are nothing but loving in reality.

Finally, I had enough and I left. I was missing from my family for what seemed like forever, but it was actually about a week, which was long enough to worry them to death and contemplate the worse. However, I was not hurt, thank God, or on the streets wondering around, I was in jail. This surprised everyone, including myself, before this incident I had a clean record with no run-ins with the police, not even a traffic violation.

When I woke up in jail I was so immersed in my mental illness symptoms I believed I had died and went to hell. I thought I was in hell because when I went outside and tried the foundation water and it was extremely hot and the weather was hot- this still does not make sense, I know, however, symptoms of schizophrenia impairs rational thinking and ability to make rational connections in conversation and daily activities. California, where I was diagnosed, had a heat wave.

I was institutionalized (in the state hospital and in jail) for five months because of the crime I committed. Fortunately, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and forced to receive treatment in order to face the charges against me, and I was granted "Time-served," on the basis of my diagnosis, character references, and clean legal background. After my doctor got my consent to talk to my mother about my treatment, he told her I had a great chance at recovery and leading a normal life. This gave my mother peace of mind because before that, she contemplated being my legal guardian because my symptoms affected me so bad.

I was catatonic for a while, not moving limbs for hours at a time, did not eat or shower for days, and did not socialize with the other inmates. And, I was sent to the emergency room several times because I was not eating or drinking. Also, I was in denial and tried to refuse medication. Moreover, nurses had to get the jail guards to hold me down to give me a shot because I refused the oral form of my medication. I began to accept my diagnosis after a jail nurse told me- 'look, Ashley, we had to send to the ER several times because you were not eating... that is not normal... you are sick.'

After my family paid for my bail and I was released into the community, I participated in an outpatient treatment program for young adults (which I was referred to by my social worker in jail). I stayed in the program for 10 months before moving back to Atlanta to be with my mother and sister. When I arrived to Atlanta I immediately sought out a treatment program with the county because other options cost too much.

My sister suggested I start blogging to keep track of my recovery, and the Overcoming Schizophrenia blog was established in September 2008. She also recommended the book, Welcome Silence, which is a must read for people affected by schizophrenia or mental illness.

I had a vision of mentoring and assisting peers on their path to recovery and Embracing My Mind, Inc. was forming. I received training from NAMI to mentor the Peer-to-Peer class and then I started leading groups in the Atlanta area. This fall I plan on going back to college to get my bachelor's degree in business administration and marketing.

I continue to share my story with you because I want to reinforce the idea of hope, recovery, and a normal life for people affected by mental illness. Stigma, the invisible beast, limits peoples' access to services in the community and even support from family. If you are a caregiver, family member, or a consumer remember my story and believe they or you can and will get better with support. Thank you for reading my story, I encourage you to share yours and mine with others to reduce stigma.

Ashley Smith

To learn more about schizophrenia go to Embracing My Mind, Inc., the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia (Canada).


Kelvin Ng said…
Can I repost this on my blog?
Valash said…
Sure, as long as you give me credit for it.

Take care,

Anonymous said…
schizophrenia is not a mental illness...
Anonymous said…
I was diagnosed, in california too, schizophrenia is a scary thing, my parents did not charge me with anything, to give me a clean record, I'm fortunate to have a loving family. I'm doing well now, am in college, but afraid, of my extrapyramidal sypmtoms, and oculogyric crisis. I'm hoping for the glutamate medication, to come out, for less side effects. Stigma, is bad, and false, people with schizophrenia, are normal people, with jobs, an education, loving families, and have a voice. I fear budget cuts, to the mental health out clinics, in california. That is not fair. How will people get proper treatment? It will cause people to lose more money, than they're saving. We have a voice, and it must be heard.
Anonymous said…
By the way, in my previous comment, I just wanted to say, that I'm far from criminal. Schizophrenia, is just so, traumatic, that it causes people to freak out, sometimes violently. I am, not, nor was ever a criminal, nor did any criminal like behavior. Schizophrenia, is just an unfortunate, traumatic disease. I take meds, and am doing really well, in college, aside from the side effects, there's no hitch. There are professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like with schizophrenia, so, it's a disease that anyone can get, anytime in their life, and can overcome. We are breaking stigmas, and we do have a voice.
Valash said…

Thank you for commenting. I am glad you are well and are moving forward with college. I agree with you, people living with schizophrenia can lead a normal life and can and do take on various occupations that are commendable.

Thank you.

Ashley Smith

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