Schizophrenia and Denial
For years, I denied I was homeless and had schizophrenia.
Posted Mar 14, 2019
In 2002, I began my fourth year at the University of Southern California, where I had won a scholarship to study biochemistry. During the previous three years I had experienced a gradual, steady decline in my ability to concentrate and study, but I still expected to graduate on time.
Schizophrenia entered my life like a thief my senior year of college, taking away my cognitive ability. Suddenly, my best efforts produced failing grades. My heart turned into a block of ice—I could not stand to have anything to do with friends or family members, thinking they would stop me from becoming a prophet. A few months later I moved out of the dormitory and became homeless in LA.
My illness was consistently characterized by denial.
Initially, I denied that I was losing my ability to study. I convinced myself that I was failing because I was not trying. I told myself I was the next Mother Teresa, and that she had no college degree.
I was in denial about having dropped out of the university, thinking that I still had all the privileges of a student, such as being allowed to spend my nights in the university library.
During my fourth year homeless, I slept outside in a churchyard, but I continued to believe I was NOT truly homeless. How could I be? I had been the scholarship winner. I had played violin at weddings and churches. How could I ever be one of “them”?
In order to prove to myself that I was not homeless, I never accepted free food from any food back, or stayed at a homeless shelter. I never begged, and I never pushed a shopping cart.
I hid at night but tried to appear normal during the days. During the days, I would read in libraries, take walks, and sit on park benches, resting. Finding food was my secret, and I would quickly and carefully look through what had been thrown away, hoping no one saw. I managed to wash up in public bathrooms at odd hours.
At the end of the four years, my hygiene was worsening. I was wearing the same clothes every day for weeks on end. I truly believed that no one noticed me sleeping outside every night, or walking around in my green dress. I was in denial about everything going on in my life, from where I slept, to what I ate, to how I spent my days.
When I was finally picked up by police for loudly screaming back at the voices in my mind, and taken for psychiatric evaluation, I denied that I was homeless. I truly expected that when I told the doctor and the staff at the hospital I was not homeless, it would be the end of the conversation. I also believed that if I said I was not mentally ill, it was proof that I was NOT. But when I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital, the medical professionals who were treating me looked deeper.
When the staff at the hospital discovered I had been living in a local churchyard, I gave up denying I was homeless. However, for months, I adamantly denied I had never heard voices. I really believed that claiming I never had hallucinations was proof that I never experienced them.
I do not know why I struggled so much to face the facts in my life, from denying I was homeless to thinking I still had the privileges of a university student, to insisting that I did not hear voices. Looking back, I believe that my denial was a prominent symptom of my severe brain disease.
When patients come into a psychiatric clinic denying that they are homeless, or insisting that they are not having hallucinations, it is important to look deeper from a medical standpoint, with sensitivity. These people should have nothing to be embarrassed about, but we live in a world where having a brain disease or struggling to maintain a place to live is not acceptable. Both homelessness and mental illness are highly stigmatized.
Fortunately, today, because of my dedicated medication compliance, I do not have anything to deny or hide. Medication wiped out the voices in my mind eleven years ago. I live in my own apartment, not outside. I have a healthy social life, and I completed my college degree.
I strongly encourage friends, family members, and treatments team to not argue with an individual about their homelessness or their hallucinations, but instead, to give them time. For me, it took less than a week of treatment to begin realizing that something was wrong with me and with my life choices. It took months before I was ready to acknowledge the hallucinations.
Because of untreated schizophrenia, I was once a dirty, homeless stranger, muttering to myself and yelling back at the voices in my mind, but thanks to long-term treatment compliance, I recovered. There is hope for recovery today for anyone suffering from severe mental illness and homelessness, even the sickest, who entirely deny their illness and situation.