I was homeless for four years. Before that, I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California studying biochemistry. I scored high grades and dreamed big about a career in research. I took difficult classes, served as concertmaster of the university community orchestra and did research in biochemistry. But after my first few years in college, my focus shifted from school to travel.
My junior year of college, I spent two weeks traveling to one of the poorest regions of China, deep within the mountains, along with a few other young women. People I met in the Chinese villages we visited were dirty, with few changes of clothes. They rarely could afford to eat meat. I wanted to make a difference and began to question myself. Was I destined to change the lives of millions? Tens of millions? Was I the next Mother Teresa? Inside my mind the answer was yes.
I was not aware that these unrealistic expectations were my first delusions.
When the Delusions took Over
When I returned from China, I planned a summer trip to visit Nairobi, Kenya, intending to travel there alone. As I worked out the details of the trip, I took my easiest classes yet at the university, but scored my lowest grades. Nothing mattered to me anymore except traveling around the world to aid those in need, as though I was the only one in the world who could do it.
In Nairobi, it was rewarding to work as a volunteer at a medical clinic. But on my return to the U.S., my life fell apart. I dropped out of college and refused all contact with my family and friends. Two months before I was supposed to graduate, I became homeless.
I emptied my personal bank account and carried only a few dollars with me. But through it all, I firmly believed that becoming homeless was a necessary step in my journey to save those living in poverty throughout the world.
For the next two years, my safety net became a local library. In summer, when the library was no longer open at night, I would sneak into a vacant dormitory and sleep on a mattress. Sometimes, I slept on the floor of a public bathroom. But I convinced myself this was part of the journey.
When the Voices Took Over
Everything changed for me on Jan. 28, 2006. I was walking around campus, looking for discarded food when suddenly, I heard a chorus of students’ voices inside of my mind. They told me I was homeless. They said I was dirty and needed to see a doctor. These things were hard to hear, but they were true.
Then the voices changed. Suddenly, they were impressed that I had a perfect SAT score and was fluent in Chinese. And even though these were exaggerations of the truth, it was thrilling to receive these compliments.
For a year, I heard the voices every waking hour. They told me to take long walks into the downtown Los Angeles area. Some days, I walked for miles. The voices in my mind told me to search for food in dumpsters when I was hungry, so I began looking for garbage even when others could see. Unaware of my illness, I had no diagnosis and no treatment.
One day I looked into a mirror to see my reflection, but it was morphed to look like a cross between me and the character Lisa from the Simpsons. I walked by a familiar library and the name was different by one letter. I tried looking at the newspaper but could not even make out the date without hallucinating.
On March 3, 2007, someone snuck up behind me and pulled my hands behind my back. A neighbor had heard me screaming back at the voices and called the police. I was apprehended for a psychiatric evaluation.
I spent two weeks in a hospital, relapsed, and then languished on ineffective medications with severe side effects for twelve months. I was told I was permanently and totally disabled. It seemed hopeless at the time, but I eventually found recovery due to finding the right medication — one that is rarely used.
When I Got My Life Back
Once I was doing better, I went back to school at the University of Cincinnati, switched to molecular biology, and graduated in 2011. In 2014, I published my memoir “Mind Estranged,” and in 2016, I co-founded the Comprehensive Understanding via Research and Education into SchiZophrenia (CURESZ) Foundation with Dr. Henry Nasrallah. CURESZ provides education about cutting edge and underutilized medications like the one which gave me back my life.
CURESZ also offers hope, sharing that schizophrenia is a treatable mental illness and that recovery is possible even for the sickest people in our community — like I once was.
Today I live an independent, normal and happy life. I also have had the privilege of presenting my story for several NAMI affiliates.
I would encourage those with severe mental illness to fight for recovery and not give up. Keep trying to find the treatment and medication that works for you. There is hope, even for people like me who have lived homeless, dirty and strongly affected by hallucinations and delusions.
Bethany Yeiser is a motivational speaker and the author of Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery.Bethany established the CURESZ Foundation with Dr. Henry Nasrallah in 2016. CURESZ stands for Comprehensive Understanding via Research and Education into SchiZophrenia. See www.curesz.org. For more on Bethany see www.bethanyyeiser.com.