When You Have to Rebuild the Life Mental Illness Took Away From You
During the most difficult months of my recovery from schizophrenia, a friend from my childhood married. Although we had been close as children, I had not seen her for years, and was not present at her wedding. But I saw pictures of my friend in her white satin gown, dancing. She appeared joyful and excited as she and her handsome new husband invited the attendees to join them on the dance floor and celebrate. I was happy for her.
When I was a girl, I used to dream about my own wedding – the dress, the celebration and the feelings I would someday experience. Now, here I was, finally at the stage of life where I could fall in love and marry, but schizophrenia and the side effects of my medication left me disabled. One evening, I spent hours lying in bed thinking about weddings and how wonderful life could be for others while, for me, it was a struggle just to make it through each day. Years later, I would return to college and begin dating again — but back then, getting married seemed about as likely as traveling to the moon.
During the four years when I was suffering from untreated schizophrenia, and homeless, many of my friends started careers, married, bought houses and had children. While I was ill, I never considered the lives my former friends were living, or what I was missing. But when antipsychotic medication finally cleared my mind, it was devastating to think about the empty years that had passed.
Initially, when I began treatment, my family and doctors emphasized the importance of rebuilding a social life. Among other things, I was invited and encouraged by a woman in her 80s to volunteer at a nursing home. She drove me to the facility every Tuesday, where I helped organize a church service for the residents. There were six women volunteers, all in their 50s or older, and me.
I began to enjoy volunteering with the friendly women and the residents. Every week, before the service, the other volunteers and I would have salad and pizza together at a local restaurant. I valued this opportunity at a time when I was disabled.
Volunteering at the nursing home caused me to reflect on my own life, especially how much I had lost. I saw people severely disconnected from who they used to be. This reminded me of the person I used to be before I became ill. I was volunteering at the nursing home because I was too fatigued and disabled to work a regular job. To this day, every time I drive by the nursing home, I feel a sense of grief – both for the residents who live there, and for the years I lost to untreated schizophrenia. We had a shared disconnect with the world.
During this period when my recovery seemed impossible, I also had the opportunity to volunteer for a program that served international students, through a local university. This was my favorite activity at that time as I felt a sense of community and connection with the students. I would fight the lethargy, polish my nails and dress in my best clothes to meet college students from India, China, Africa and other parts of the world. I greeted young people from China using Chinese phrases I learned years before, and I began to feel like myself again. But even at these events, I felt a sense of grief. I was not well enough to study in college along with my new international friends.
During that year, I contacted a local university professor who was doing research in molecular biology. I had thrived in the lab years before and loved the work. But when I met the biology professor, I was exhausted, distracted and unable to focus on our conversation. Because of my disability, I was not able to participate in the local scientific community.
Today, thanks to effective medication, I have made a complete recovery from schizophrenia and am a college graduate. I have done research again at the university. I have many friends my age who share similar goals and interests. Also, I have casually dated a few young men.
Looking back to the time when I was very ill, and not myself, I did not enjoy all of the social events I attended. But being with different types of people was a necessary and important stepping stone that greatly contributed toward my full recovery. It helped me move towards a time in life when I would have close friends again with whom I could share my heart, my hopes, and dreams.
People who struggle with mental illness must not lose sight of the life they lived before the onset of illness. They need to remember who they once were, and dreams they once held dear. For me, I badly wanted to become the same vivacious, happy and busy person I was years back. Today, I am.
As I rebuilt my life, it was important for me to not lower my expectations, and to never give up on myself. Once again, I have many dreams for the future. Among other things, I still hope to someday wear a white gown and dance.
Follow this journey on Bethany Yeiser.