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The Invisible Scars Trauma and Schizoaffective Disorder Gave Me

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Soon after I entered the world, I received my first scar. As an infant I had pyloric stenosis, a blockage between the stomach and small intestines. I’m told it was a rather simple fix, but it did leave a large scar on the right side of my abdomen. As a child the scar was more of a curiosity than anything else. I remember making up funny stories to tell my friends about how I got the scar such as, “I was wounded in a shark attack.”

As I grew older there would be other accidents that left scars as reminders of milestones in my life. There were scars on my legs and elbows from my time as a high school athlete playing lacrosse, basketball, baseball and football. There is the scar on my thumb from one of my first jobs working in a restaurant kitchen where I had an unfortunate encounter with a slicing machine.

There is a scar on my chin that I notice whenever I look in a mirror. I got that scar when I was in the Army, driving a M113 tank. When I hit a bump in the road, my head slammed into the cockpit, and I ended up with a nasty cut that required stitches.

The scars that have had the most profound impact on my life, however, are not ones that left a mark on my skin. These scars, while invisible to the eye, have left a lasting effect on my life in ways that go far beyond what my visible scars can tell about my life.

In 2003 when I entered the U.S. Army, I took those visible scars with me to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was taking a break from college when I joined the Army, and the idea of a military experience seemed like a good fit for me. After basic and advanced training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, I was assigned to my first duty station at Fort Irwin, California as a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout. Although physically I had met all of the requirements to become a soldier, I was woefully unprepared for the emotional scar that would wound me in a way I never expected while I was there in the desert. That wound was the result of a hazing incident that occurred when a few of my fellow soldiers tried to break my spirit by duct taping me into a fetal position. The desperation I felt during that incident broke something loose inside me and left a mark on my soul that would change my life forever.

After that hazing experience I was a different person. I have since learned that mental illness can be underneath the surface, waiting to push its ugly head out to control a life. The results of that hazing incident produced a different Me — someone who was suspicious of others, thinking they were going to do me harm. I was now paranoid and fearful of everyone around me. I thought people were stealing from me, talking about me in negative ways and making fun of me. All this made me suspicious of my fellow soldiers, and I began to isolate myself from them. Of course, they saw me as a nonconformist, and they kept trying to get me to follow orders. However, in this new altered state, I was confused about every aspect of life.

One particular delusion I had was that I had a special form of ESP, a special power that would benefit the Army. I thought God was going to use me to teach soldiers to be self-aware, so I referred myself to the mental health clinic on post. No one in the clinic was impressed with my special powers, but instead I was referred for psychological testing and received a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I voluntarily allowed one of the officers to take me to the hospital. I still vividly remember what occurred when I got to the hospital.

My sunglasses were still on as I entered the small room. My platoon Sergeant was behind me, and I noticed the man waiting for us wore a name tag identifying him as a “Doctor.” I was wearing sunglasses because without them my disease would spread. That meant, through the channels of ESP, my reality would take hold, and an individual would be able to speak with another individual without them being present.

My reality was better than even communicating with someone on the internet. I had visions of the person in my mind. The only bad thing was I could be influenced by the voices I heard in my head. I had an ex-girlfriend who I believed would love to convince a doctor in the psych ward to throw me in a straight jacket and give me shock therapy — a big fear of mine. I thought if I kept my sunglasses on, the voices could not influence the recipients of this skill. My eyes were the gateway to this adventure into a community of voices, each one representing someone who I thought was real.

Suddenly as the naval doctor was asking me questions my platoon sergeant yelled, “Take your sunglasses off!” The very thing I couldn’t do.

Because I was used to following orders, I slowly took off my sunglasses. So it begins… the doctor will now be able to hear everyone I had made eye contact with for the last couple of months. The doctor sighed. I was confident that the voices had made contact with him.

I was given pajamas to wear and sent to a room in the psych ward I would share with three other people. This was a psych ward. Never in a million years would I have thought I might end up in a place like this. I was scared, but resigned to whatever might happen.

Specifically, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression. I would go on to learn that my brain disease would leave an internal scar that would remain with me forever; that I would take medication for the rest of my life; and my future would be a battle to manage the symptoms of this disease. I was 23 years old, young, inexperienced and facing the greatest challenge of my life — something I was totally unequipped to handle. Thankfully, I received an honorable discharge from the Army with a 100% disability rating.

When I returned home to Virginia, I was not the person who had left. I refused to accept my diagnosis and without the medication I was supposed to be taking, I began acting out in ways that were extremely detrimental to my health and well-being.

I didn’t understand the voices and delusions inside my head. I was angry that my parents didn’t understand what was going on with me. In my chaotic rants I tried to make them accept that I could fight this on my own without medication. Although they did their best to support me by researching my diagnosis online and by attending a group for parents of people with mental illnesses, I believed that they, too, were hearing the voices I was hearing and were part of the conspiracy to cause me harm. Having made eye contact with me, my parents were listening to the wrong voices, and I wanted them to just listen to me.

I had a savings account that was quickly depleting. I would not take my medication, and my head was full of voices who didn’t understand who they were talking to. My parents finally made the hard decision to call the police because I had become a danger to myself and even to them. It could have ended badly but even I was tired of the voices in my head. On one particularly bad day, I had become abusive to my dad. I didn’t realize that my mom had called 911 for help until she handed me the phone.

“Mr. Jepson, this is the Henrico County Police Department. Come outside.” What was this, I thought. When I went outside, I felt like a criminal as I saw the police with their shields.

“Put down the phone,” one of them said to me over the telephone I was holding. I did as I was told and walked outside towards the driveway to meet them. I remember feeling rain begin to fall on me.

“Get down on your knees,” another officer screamed at me.

“Put your hands in the air,” the officer closest to me yelled as four other police officers rushed towards me.

With intensity in his voice, another officer told me to lie down on my stomach. By now there was a river running down the driveway at my parents’ home, and the police were standing over me with their guns at the ready. Looking up into the eyes of the policemen, a person might think the battle was over, but it wasn’t. I was exhausted from hearing the voices, so I had some sense of relief that this was my time to get help.

In the next few hours, I would be handcuffed, receive a mental evaluation and stand before a judge and be declared incompetent. I was involuntarily taken to a hospital where I was put on a locked floor. However, I believe this was the only way I would have gotten the help I didn’t know I needed.

It has been several years since I was committed to that psychiatric hospital. Today I am happy to say that I am in recovery. My recovery has not been in weeks or months, but in years. During those years I have gone through trial and error periods with my medications, and with the help of my doctors and with my own patience, I have reached a place where my symptoms are manageable. Along with an antidepressant, I now take a monthly injectable which eliminates the need for remembering whether or not I have taken my meds. I still have symptoms, but if my symptoms are getting in the way of life, I know I can have a conversation with my doctor about that.

Knowing what is going on around me is an important part of my continuing recovery. I have learned to examine the evidence around me to determine whether what I think is happening is part of reality or non-reality. If there is no evidence, then it is my brain disease talking. The voices are still in my head. Sometimes they are in the form of commentary — sometimes insulting voices, like conversation, as if the person is in the same room as I am in. One delusion is ongoing — a voice in my head of an old man who likes when I mess up or just waits until I do so. Sometimes they are the same voices I heard in the desert or on the evening when the police took me away from my parents’ home. If they were real I am sure they would have gotten tired of me by now.

Sometimes if I hear voices, I look through the peep hole of my front door or even open my door to look around. Sometimes I think it is my neighbors talking, and other times the voices are just in my head. I find myself constantly fighting off impulses that just pop into my head.

Perhaps most importantly, I have accepted that I have a mental health diagnosis. I have a brain disease that can affect my perception of what is going on around me. I take a medication that helps with that — just as a person who has heart disease might take a medication to relieve his symptoms. I have decided not to be silent about my diagnosis. There is nothing that I have to be ashamed of. Some people may not understand my diagnosis, but if they give me the opportunity, I tell them what it’s like to live with a brain disease.

After a broken bone, often the patient has to have physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the break. In physical therapy one has to push themselves to encourage healing. While going through physical therapy, there is the scar from surgery as a reminder that it is necessary to push beyond your comfort zone. With my diagnosis of schizophrenia, I tend to isolate myself. I prefer my own company to others. I feel safe in my apartment and would much rather stay in than go out. However, I understand that I have to push myself sometimes to get out of my comfort zone. Recently I attended a rock concert with my brother. It has been many years since I have been in a crowd like that, and I was concerned about how I might react once I was there. However, I pushed past my fear, knowing I was with someone who I trusted — someone who understood my situation and was willing to leave if I felt uncomfortable.

I have also pushed myself to enroll in kickboxing classes. The benefits of the kickboxing go beyond the physical exercise I receive. I push myself to interact with other members in the class and to participate enthusiastically.

I believe time can heal all wounds, but the scars on my psyche will always be there where I can feel but not see them. My ongoing recovery is a sign that healing is taking place. In my recovery I have chosen to not dwell on the losses, but to live my life the best I can. Part of that purpose is to continue to shed light on mental illness through my writing of first person accounts and to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness and prevents people from getting the help they need. Through my writing and advocacy I have become the educator for those who need to understand what life is like for someone living with mental illness.

My faith has strengthened since my diagnosis of schizophrenia. When I was in the Army, I remember lying in my bed crying out for God to help me. I realize now that He did help me by bringing me to this place of recovery. My prayers are simple ones now, like “God, help me get to my destination safely.” I have a couple of friends who are ministers, and their talks have given me great encouragement.

Dennis Leary said, “Happiness comes in short doses.” I think that means grab hold of the simple things. That can be a diet soda, cup of coffee or tea, or observing nature when you have the chance. Recovery, for me, is about embracing life again and living out loud. What follows is a poem I wrote to describe my life now….

To Live Out Loud

And in the grips of insanity
what carries my hope
what keeps me laughing
when the voices seem to control my mood?
I’ve often said, “Once you’ve lost it, you can’t lose it again.”
I laugh,
but no one else does.
Normal — so boring you might say.
When my imperfections shine
like the lines of poetry,
I am a writer;
however, changed by the real world.
In adulthood I value my smile.
The struggle is beautiful,
once you can look back on it. Now, I have settled, but these words might say otherwise.
I am alone in the bliss.
As a young man no one told me I would be so content at this age.
I laugh,
I sing,
I dance,
but there is still fear
that I am trying to ignore —
I ignore, that I might live out loud.

Photo by Quinten de Graaf on Unsplash

Originally published: March 8, 2020
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