Photo illustrating the different designs offered by Schizophrenic.NYC

Michelle Hammer wants to change the way people from New York City think about mental illness. But, instead of fighting stigma with words or campaigns, she’s doing it with designs anyone can wear.

Hammer, who lives with schizophrenia, decided it was time to make a change after encountering a homeless man with schizophrenia on the subway. “I wondered to myself, ‘If I didn’t have the help from my family, friends and doctor, then I could easily be homeless too,’” Hammer told The Mighty. “I wanted to create something of my own that I could be proud of, and announce to everyone that I live with a mental illness. I wanted to come up with a way to raise awareness for mental illness in New York City, because I don’t like how most New Yorkers associate mental illness with homelessness and the word ‘crazy.’”

As part of her plan to educate New Yorkers, Hammer created Schizophrenic.NYC, a line of mental-illness-themed clothing, accessories and artwork which donates money to mental health charities such as Fountain House, NYS Health Foundation, MHA-NYC, and the New York chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Three shirts designed to look like Rorschach prints

“I focused on NYC because it’s the wonderful city where I live,” Hammer said. “In fact the statistic in NYC is that one in five New Yorkers have a mental health issue. If it’s so common, then why is there so much stigma? The greatest city in the world needs to change the way we look at mental illness.”

Schizophrenia, which affects only one percent of the U.S. adult population, is one of the most stigmatized mental health condition. “I wish everyone knew that having schizophrenia doesn’t affect your ability to live a completely normal life (with medication),” Hammer said.

For Hammer, schizophrenia manifests through intense conversations with herself and, what she calls “daydreams.” “I can sometimes get so lost in a daydream that people have to snap me out of it,” she said. “Sometimes I get delusional and, think of entire stories that I believe happened in the past, when in fact they haven’t.”

Schizophrenic.NYC’s designs take from Hammer’s experience of living with the condition. One of the first designs Hammer launched was a print of a vibrant Rorschach test. “When the unmedicated person with schizophrenia looks at a basic regular Rorschach test they see it with a whole different perspective,” she explained. “By redesigning the test with new colors and patterns, now everyone looks at the test with a whole new perspective.”

Other items feature text-based designs including “DON’T BE PARANOID YOU LOOK GREAT” and “IT’S NOT A DELUSION YOU ARE INCREDIBLE.”

Items with the phrase "DON'T BE PARANOID YOU LOOK INCREDIBLE"

“I have gotten great feedback so far,” Hammer said. “I’ve gotten great feedback on social media from people who are inspired by my openness to discuss my schizophrenia. I’ve also had close friends of mine reach out to me and tell me their own personal struggles with mental health issues. I feel great when people feel like they can talk to me because I am so open about my struggles. I think that’s great because it lets people realize they are not alone, and neither am I.”

Right now, Schizophrenic.NYC is focused on challenging stigma in New York City; however, Hammer hasn’t ruled out expanding to more areas. “I do think about going national and would love to,” she said. “But that is something I plan for in the future. Right now I’m keeping it local.” While there might not be Schizophrenic.NYC shops around the country, all items are available for order online and can be shipped anywhere in the U.S.

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A family of rhinos took my attention away from my daughter. The parents were coaxing the two young ones to move along towards the next treat station. They had to maneuver past several princesses, a clunky Thomas the Tank Engine, and our very own 2-year-old little Statue of Liberty to reach the prized bowl of Twix bars. The plaza at Lincoln Center offered only five candy stations, but the costume watching made it worth spending Halloween morning in the company of hundreds of other New York families.  

After filling Norah’s jack-o-lantern with Snickers and Skittles and suckers, we found a splash of sunlight between the shadows of the Metropolitan Opera House and the Library of Performing Arts to take a break and let Norah enjoy some of her spoils.  She sat content with her lollipop dripping down to her sea green Lady Liberty robe. I thought it was the sticky red candy and parade of costume-clad children that was holding her attention while I chatted with friends, but after a while she seemed unusually calm despite the abundance of sugar and live characters. 

I followed her gaze through the crowd to the benches across the walkway towards Juilliard’s grass lawn. I saw a family of mice, more princesses, and a proportional amount of tired parents – but nothing out of the ordinary for Halloween so I turned back to my conversation. After several more minutes, I felt a tug on my arm. Norah looked up at me and simply smiled before walking towards the benches. I followed a few steps behind to see where her curious heart would lead. 

As she approached the bench I saw him. He had deep wrinkles on his face, and his lonely eyes cast downward, curling his back along with them. He sat alone in the midst of adults holding hands and children laughing, enjoying being together. The long black braids in his hair told me the Native American coat he wore was not donned only one day a year – but rather with pride whenever it was cold enough to wrap around his shoulders.

Norah placed her small hands on the bench next to him and with incredible toddler strength she vaulted her way in to the empty space beside him. She smiled and asked him his name. He mumbled something neither of us could understand. But as he mumbled, those deep wrinkles I thought were set in a frown creaked their way to a slight smile. His eyes still held that loneliness, but they smiled too. Wisdom beyond her years told Norah not to press him on his name like she typically does if she doesn’t hear the answer she wants. As I sat in the spot next to her, she placed her hand on his knee and said, “This is my new friend, Mom.” Then, as if to explain why, she leaned in to me and whispered, “He’s an old man,” and nodded knowingly.

When she nodded like that, I saw my mom in my daughter. I think she was really trying to say, “I see Jerry in him.”

***

My mom is always noticing people like this man — people who seem to just need someone to acknowledge them. I remember one Christmas Eve when she came home an hour later than we were expecting her from work. She walked in the door, smiled, and told us about the young man at the store who was flustered because the person who was supposed to give him a ride to his friend’s house for dinner never showed up. My mom watched him grow more anxious as he called everyone he knew and no one answered. So she told him to wait until the store closed at 6, and she shuttled him where he needed to go, offering him a warm car and friendly, encouraging conversation to boot. It might seem careless to allow a stranger in to your car and then let him tell you where to drive, but my mom couldn’t care more. “I could see Jerry in him,” was always her reasoning, and we could never argue with that. 

Jerry was my uncle – my mom’s younger brother. I often wonder what he would have been like if the schizophrenia hadn’t held him captive his entire adult life. That disease made his journey much more difficult than it needed to be. But our family’s love was stronger than his disease. My grandparents and my mom along with her siblings fought for him louder than the voices did. He always had a seat at the table for after-Christmas games of Michigan Rummy or Left Right Center – even when he chose to spend many of those evenings smoking a pack of cigarettes in my grandparent’s garage. When he was done and came huffing in the door, there would always be loud calls of, “Jerry! Come join us!” He never lasted more than a few hands before getting frustrated, but he wanted to be a part of the fun. You could tell by the twinkle in his eye when he smiled after winning a hand that he craved the company more than the silent garage. And while I will always wonder who he could have been, I will cherish who he was.  

He was thoughtful when his disease allowed him to be selfless – like the Christmas shortly after Brett and I were married. Crumpled wrapping paper was piled in the middle of my grandparents’ living room, and everyone was oohing and ahhing over their new gifts. Jerry got up slowly and reached his shaky hand into his pocket, coming out with a wad of $5 bills. He carefully made his way around the room, saying “Merry Christmas” as he handed one bill to each of us. He had exactly the right amount for each of his siblings, nieces, and nephew. That is the only gift I remember from that Christmas.

He was kind when he wasn’t battling his demons – like the time a few years ago when my grandparents brought him to my parents’ house so he could meet our daughter, his first great-niece. After a meal full of loud laughter and storytelling, all of the adults were in the kitchen cleaning up. I heard Norah’s giggle over the clink of dishes in the sink and looked back to the dining room to find my 6-month-old daughter in a deep babbling conversation with her great-uncle Jerry. The kitchen grew quiet as we all watched the incredible connection forming between these two people who couldn’t quite communicate to the rest of us the way they wanted to, but found ease with each other.

I had these opportunities to see Jerry for who he was behind the dark schizophrenic cloud because he had a family who loved him fiercely and never gave up on him. My uncle died almost two years ago, but my mom hasn’t stopped looking out for her younger brother. She has a heart that finds people who don’t have the gift of a family who loves them fiercely like his did. She looks for the Jerry within the crowds and then takes action. Sometimes my dad is recruited in her efforts – like the time she had him come to the store, pick up a confused young man who needed a ride to the bus station and buy his ticket to get back to his own big sister about an hour away. She got his sister’s phone number, and once they connected the woman offered to reimburse my mom for her kindness. My mom declined, saying she had a brother who would need someone to step in to help him sometimes too.

There is a lot of discernment that goes in to knowing who to help and how to help them. I’m glad my mom’s Jerry-sense seems to have rubbed off on my daughter. I hope I can learn from both of them.

***

The old man’s smile was still on his face when Norah turned back toward him after her knowing nod toward me. That nod that said, “I see Jerry in him, Mom. He needs us to be his family right now.” My instinct was to get up and walk through the crowd back toward the comfortable circle of friends who were waiting for us. But Norah sat firmly, and the man seemed to sit a bit taller with her small hand on his knee. My 2-year-old daughter could see Jerry in this man, and I was sure my mom would have seen him too. Norah needed me to sit with her so we could be his family for a moment. So we stayed. We sat on the bench, an awkward family of three watching costumes in silence, and no one was alone.

Image via Thinkstock.


I live with schizophrenia, and here are six things I wish people understood about my experience:

1. I’m not violent. Most of us aren’t. People with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims of violence than the other way around. Some people are scared of us because of this wrong assumption, but if you treat us with respect, we will treat you with respect — just like any other human being.

2. I see things, but I manage my illness well enough that I know not to interact with my hallucinations in public. I don’t want to scare anybody. I know I’m the only one who can see my hallucinations. I’m not going to communicate or interact in any way with someone or something I know other people can’t see. Getting into a debate about what is real and what isn’t is one thing. I have doubts sometimes about my hallucinations being completely not real, like maybe they are from another dimension or realm… but now we’re getting into delusions. Let me tell you about those.

3. I have delusions, which means I have false fixed beliefs. I may think you are a spider and not look you in the eyes…but that’s the extent of how much it’ll affect you. While I can tell what’s a hallucination and what’s not, delusions are a different feeling. I get paranoid as well. So if I give you a look, or seem scared, just reassure me, or ignore me. Either way, don’t escalate it. Don’t get defensive and give my mind a reason to be paranoid. My demeanor may have set you off, but then your behavior will only feed my paranoia.

4. I have a thought disorder, so it’s hard for me to understand things sometimes. Give me a second to catch up. If you’re talking really fast or about complicated things and I look lost or I’m only replying minimally, please give me a break. Some people just don’t listen well, but that’s not me. I’ve been called a bad listener plenty of times because I couldn’t follow a conversation or a lesson in class. Just give me a second to catch up. Ask if you think I’m having trouble. But don’t accuse me of not listening. I’m trying the best I can.

5. Sometimes, I have mild poverty of speech. That means I can’t find the right words for things. Please don’t look at me weird if I call the coffee maker a “red box.” It’s not a big deal. Give me a minute to find the words. Be patient with me. Because I’m desperately trying to find the words for “coffee maker,” and sometimes I even start crying because I just can’t find the right words. And it may not seem like a big deal to you, but when it feels like my brain is short-circuiting, I feel stupid and get frustrated, so try to be patient and helpful. Even just offering the right words can be so helpful. Simply saying “coffee maker” is like a lifeline back to rational thoughts sometimes.

6. Just because I have a chronic mental disorder doesn’t mean I’m mentally incompetent. I just have extra trouble sometimes. I can work. I can drive. I’m a person like everyone else. I’m just a little more unique. You could even say, I’m extra special in some ways. Give those of us with mental illnesses a chance. We see the word differently. We can offer a new way of looking at things. You might even learn something from us.


I’m twitching again. My eyebrows, my neck, my jaw. I was so excited about this brand new medication, I didn’t want to face the facts: Seroquel is the only antipsychotic that works for me right now. Sure, it makes me exhausted. I’ve gained weight, and I have digestion problems. But… I don’t twitch. I don’t have muscle rigidity or insomnia. I don’t have jerking movements or restlessness. But I do… on any other antipsychotic. Rexulti, Latuda, Geodon, Risperdal, Zyprexa. Probably more. I’ve basically tried everything. It feels like my chest is a pinball machine. My body keeps shooting up a pinball, and it dings, buzzes, bangs inside me. Akathisia is what it’s called. It means someone suffers from agitation and restlessness. It’s unbearable.

I thought I hated my last medication. I thought I hated sleeping all day, being depressed. I was wrong. I hate this. I can’t sit still. My thoughts are scattered. I can’t read or watch TV for more than two minutes. Even writing this is difficult. I keep having to take a step back from the screen every 30 seconds to breathe and shake it out, all this pent-up energy. It’s like I’m holding my breath. I tap my teeth together, over and over, trying to keep all this energy from spilling out. When no one’s around, I jump up and down, I do jumping jacks, I grind my teeth together, hard. I have too much energy. Running around the world couldn’t get rid of all this energy. Riding my bike doesn’t even put a dent in this much energy. I feel like my body is a prison, and I’m banging around inside my skin, trying to get out. So this medication isn’t the magic med, even though I was positive it would be, just like all the other medications before it.

It’s funny because my aunt called me the other day, and I told her I was doing great, that I was about to finally get on the right medication. And the thing is, I’ve said that for years, but I really believed it. Like I always do. And my aunt said, “August, you have to stop waiting for the perfect medication. It’s never going to be perfect. You have to put in some of the work.” Honestly, I was taken aback. I was quiet. Didn’t she know I was trying? Didn’t she know how bad I wanted to get better?

But the thing is, the grass will always be greener on the other side. A brand new medication right off the market will always seem better, brighter. My aunt is right. As I sit here, twitching, restless, with all this unbearable pent up energy, I know I will have to tell my psychiatrist I have to be put back on Seroquel. Because Seroquel is the only medication that works for me right now, and that’s OK. Seroquel is my home, my outdated, shag-carpeted home, but my home. And I have to make the most of it.

We have to stop waiting for that magic medication, the $500 one, the brand new one that just got the FDA approval. We have to stop waiting for that point in the future, that point where we will finally be happy. Because if we think of life that way, that point where we will finally be happy just gets farther away the closer we get. Make the most of your life, here and now, in this moment, and the next. I don’t think I’ll ever find that perfect medication. But that’s OK. I’m doing fine. I’m holding on. I’m home. In this rickety, dusty old house, I’m home.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice.


I have a diagnosis of atypical schizophrenia. I have taken antipsychotic medication since 1995. The  medication has a number of side effects, one of which is making me look and feel sedated.

My early 20s were spent in institutions of varying degrees of malevolence, from psychiatric hospitals to prison. I was an isolated, alienated, negatively focused person. I hated myself, I hated the world and I wanted bad things to happen. Thankfully I had something of an epiphany when I was 26 and decided to change my life for the better. I wanted to be part of society and have an education, a professional job, a mortgage and a suit. My parents were my main support through this journey.

In July 2000 I went home to my parents for the first time in many years. I took the train, as it was the cheapest way to get there. I was anxious and worried I would lose my ticket or get off at the wrong stop. The train had a buffet car, and you could buy snacks, soft drinks, coffee and alcoholic drinks. I got a meat pie for dinner and bought a beer as well. I paid for these items and got back to my seat. The inspector came by and checked my ticket. She looked stressed and had a sort of pinched in, frowny face. I fished out my crumpled ticket. The inspector made some rude comment suggesting I had been drinking beer since we started our journey. She made more snippy comments and gave me savage looks every time she passed. I couldn’t work out what I had done wrong. I felt hurt and scared. I was trying to change my life, and here was this person being mean to me when I had done nothing worthy of discipline or judgment. I wondered if I was imagining her behavior and being too sensitive. I started a conversation in my mind around what was going on. It quickly turned into stress. I thought the ticket inspector would call the police, thinking I had committed some crime. I was frightened for my future.

I spent the weekend with my parents dwelling on my experience on the train and  completely baffled as to what I had done to upset the ticket inspector. I tried to put it out of my mind. I took the train back home that Monday morning at 8:30. When I sat down I had a rush of anxiety as I saw the same ticket inspector. It was clear she recognized me as she checked my ticket. She seemed confused about something. She was almost civil this time.

I was puzzled, but when I got home the penny dropped and I realized she had probably thought I looked drunk on the Friday evening because of my sedating medication. The side effects of the medication I took to help me be a functioning person had meant the ticket inspector thought I was drunk or on drugs. She did not apologize, but punched a little hole on my ticket and walked off.

I wished right then and there I could tell the woman how her behavior had an impact on me. It left me anxious and confused and blaming myself. It allowed me to go down the path of unhelpful thinking and could have derailed my efforts to move past my former life.

I wish now I could go back and explain to this woman that some medications can make people look sedated when they have not had any drugs or excessive alcohol. I want to tell her I was trying to escape a negative and frightening world, and she put me right back in there with her blame and assumptions. I want to say I had low self-esteem and worried everyone thought I was a criminal anyway. I want to tell her that having a short conversation with me rather than jumping to conclusions might have been a preferable option for both of us. I want to tell her I needed my medication. Even if it made me look drunk or sleepy it was actually enabling me to live life free form the worst ravages of my illness. I want to tell her people with schizophrenia and mental illness experience so much prejudice already and her additional bit was only serving to alienate me further.

We are the sum of our thoughts, experiences and interactions with others. People with mental illness already have a tough time. Prejudice, unfounded judgment and assumptions do not help us. If in doubt, ask. Don’t assume.


I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me, getting a diagnosis was almost a relief. Years of misdiagnoses, accusations of attention seeking and wondering “what’s wrong with me?” took its toll. The same goes for treating a physical illness. It is far easier to deal with something when you know exactly what you are dealing with. Going to therapies or taking medication for the wrong illness can just make the condition worse. I felt with the right diagnosis, I could finally get the help I needed, the right kind of help for me. Relief was just a small part of my feelings towards the situation. I also felt a truckload of other emotions — sadness, regret, confusion and anger to name a few.

Having a psychotic disorder has impacted every single part of my life in some way or another.

Although more children are now being diagnosed with and treated for schizophrenia, it is considered to be rare in childhood. When I was a kid, it was pretty much unheard of. Explaining that I hear voices in my head and live in a state of constant paranoia is hard enough as an adult, but as a child it was too much for me to even understand myself. So, I lived through a very dark and disturbing time alone in my childhood. Being so young, I was naïve to how serious my condition was. I genuinely believed I would become an adult and all my psychotic symptoms would somehow disappear.

Obviously that is not how things turned out.

I fought the symptoms with everything I had, but I was kidding myself. A mental health problem will never go away untreated, no matter how strong a person thinks they are. When I was on the cusp of my diagnosis in my early twenties, I remember asking the doctor if she could make me “normal” like all the other girls my age. I thought my life was over. I would never have the future I had imagined. There was not some magic wand that could “fix” everything, and the prospect of having a long-term, incurable illness felt like a punishment. I had already lived nearly my entire life with psychosis thinking there would be an end to it. Finding out that this was a permanent, irreversible thing is what got to me the most.

I wished it had come later in life. I wished to get a degree. I wished to be successful. I wished to go travelling. I wished for all the things I felt had been robbed from me. I wished my whole life away.

Now I look at my situation very differently. Everyone who is diagnosed with any kind of long-term illness, whether it be mental or physical, goes through a sort of grieving process for what might have been. I still have my moments, but I have learned there is no such thing as normal. Everyone has their own struggles and we all have our own individual purpose.

I eventually realized there is one thing schizophrenia cannot take away from me — who I am as a person. My illness does not define me. My own personality is far too important to be overshadowed. Wishing my life away only left me in an angry and miserable
place.

I now appreciate all the good things in my life like my fiancé, my friends and my family.  I continue to experience psychotic symptoms every day, but having them for such a long time means I have actually gotten somewhat used to them.

For anyone who is struggling with a new diagnosis, please know that getting to a mind frame of acceptance takes time as does adapting. Be kind to yourself, have patience, go through the bad days, fight your symptoms, feel like giving up, recover, relapse, do whatever you have to do. It is all part of the journey towards rebuilding your life and finding yourself again.

None of us are defined by what has happened to us or anything we go through. How we chose to deal with the bad things life throws at us, is ultimately what matters. You can become a bitter person or become stronger from it. Choosing the latter has made me a much happier person.

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