TRIGGER WARNINGS: Suicide. Eating Disorders.
A lot of people think life is over once you go crazy. I’m here to tell you that it isn't. I went crazy on September 1, 1997. According to most, and according to myself, that is the day my life should have ended.
But instead, it’s the day my life began.
Insanity is something that snuck up on me. It’s something that I thought only happened to other people, something I thought I couldn’t ever get. The voices, the things I saw, the intrusive thoughts—I thought they were all part of the common human experience. I thought they were experiences everyone had, stuff everyone went through, dealt with, and weathered much better than I was doing.
I spent my teenage years in London, England. When I was there, four voices showed up to talk to me in my head, all girls. Three of the voices were cruel, mean, and vindictive. One was nice. That one was bullied, squashed, and torn down by the others, just like I was.
The three cruel voices told me I was nothing, and would become nothing. They told me I was a failure, and would always be a failure. They told me nobody liked me. They told me people didn’t mean the nice things they said. They told me I was fat; they told me I would get fat, as if being fat was the worst thing in the world that could happen. They had conversations about me when I was doing normal everyday things, like watching TV, or reading, or playing violin.
They told me my work was never good enough, that I would fail tests, that my research papers would get F’s. It made me work harder at everything. But I never did well at tests. It’s very hard to take a test when there are voices talking to you, telling you how you’re going to fail and asking, “Is that the right answer? Are you sure?” And saying, “You’re just going to fail this anyway,” all while the clock is ticking away.
I saw things as well. But my visual hallucinations didn’t conjure up demons or characters from my past. They only would bring up blinks; things out of the corner of my eye. This made me whip my head around constantly—double checking to verify if the cat or my sister was really in the room. It also made driving difficult. Merging or changing lanes when you’re not sure if the car you saw was really there or not? Not the adventure I liked to have.
Intrusive thoughts and paranoia didn’t kick in until I entered college in the mid-1990s. But they went into overdrive during the summer of 1997—the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I was twenty years old and living in Toledo with my boyfriend and two best friends. We were all part of an experimental noise band and playing shows in Toledo and the Detroit area. We were there to have fun.
My mind made sure we had less fun.
This was the time of dial-up Internet. We didn’t have cell phones. We couldn’t afford long-distance so I couldn’t call my family much (they were in New York). So my boyfriend and my roommates had to deal with the full brunt of my rising madness. They didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. They used to hold private meetings beyond thin walls where I could hear them talking about how they had to “walk on eggshells” around me.
I had two suicide attempts that summer. The first was in that apartment--I tried drinking a glass of bleach. My boyfriend smelled it and knocked it out of my hand into the grass, upsetting my friends and a group of geese. He was scared, he was furious. He took me and packed me into the Chevy Astro and drove me to the hospital. His hands locked at ten and two, his eyes locked on the road.
He didn’t say a word the whole trip. I didn’t say a word at the hospital. They discharged me from the ER a few short hours after we arrived.
Remember: I didn’t think hearing voices or seeing things was abnormal. Even with my freshman psychology course. Even with entire weeks spent discussing schizophrenia with my friends and our obsession with the study of psychology. There was a part of me that knew something was wrong, but no part of me that thought that something was that wrong. I was only frightened and wanted out of my skin; and I would do anything to get there.
My decision making was flawed, and so were my ideas. I spent my spare time losing myself in books for hours, and when that didn’t work, I would hunch over the computer with the computer games we rented from the video store. I couldn’t reconcile me when I was at home. At work, I could function. On stage, I could function. But when I couldn’t handle being myself. That part of me had gone completely upside down.
I became adept at self-sabotage, to the point of reckless behavior. Such as when my boyfriend and I were on a highway on-ramp. There was no argument, just a tense conversation (all of our conversations had become tense). Sick of it, and the van still moving, I opened the door and leapt out, throwing out my thumb to hitchhike. The car behind us quickly pulled over and a man got out and approached me. He was wearing a baseball cap and had an unkempt beard. He stood a respectful distance from me, kept his arms at his sides, and told me I was an idiot. He then started screaming over the noise of the highway traffic: Did I have any idea I was doing? I didn’t. I could be kidnapped, raped, killed! None of that registered to me at the time.
He then asked if my boyfriend was hurting me. I said, No. Because he wasn’t. He asked me if my boyfriend was mean to me. I said, No. Because he wasn’t. The strange man then grabbed me and shoved me back in the van and shut the door.
That man saved my life.
A fact that didn’t occur to me until years later.
Even after that, I didn’t stop. My thoughts and decisions were spiraling out of my control, so I tried to control everything else. I became a master of routine, and when routine wasn’t enough, I controlled other aspects of my life—such as eating. But that became unhealthy. I developed bulimia and dropped to a skeletal weight. The sight of me scared my family when I went to a wedding late that summer. It scared my friends when I returned to school. But it wasn’t enough for me. I was terrified of everything.
We returned to school after making a small name for ourselves in Toledo. The bands we opened for were offering regular opening gig spots, but we had to complete our degrees. College was home to us, and we wanted to return. But returning to campus was the end of our little band. Two of our friends had been kicked out, and my boyfriend dumped me. Something I now understand. He couldn’t handle me; I couldn’t handle me; nobody could handle me.
The band, and my resolve, was dead.
My roommate was scared of me, not only because of what I looked like, but how I was acting. My friends also avoided me because my behavior and speech was so erratic that I ended up spending a lot of time between classes alone in our dorm room. It was in a basement room with tiny barred windows that let in no light. Constantly cold, persistently damp, and the floor, although carpeted, was as hard as stone. It might as well have been a prison cell.
I went to classes, and I remember nothing from them. This is significant, as I remember almost entire lectures from earlier and later classes in my college career. I remember passages from books I read. I remember how the trees looked out the window on some days. But the short week I was there, I only remember one day: September 1st.
And I remember one evening in its entirety.
September 1st, 1997.
I return to my room after class, and I’m alone again. I don’t want to be alone, but my voices tell me I deserve to be alone. They tell me I will always be alone. One of them suggests killing myself. The others agree. It sounds like a good idea. Nothing else makes sense anymore but them.
So I drink a bunch of household cleaning products that I have in my closet. They’re leftover from the Toledo apartment. There’s Tide, Windex, Lysol. I drink some of each because the taste is terrible, but I want the effects. I stand there, expecting to die, and when it doesn’t happen, I lay down on the floor. I expect it to be quick. I expect to die soon and someone to find me there.
But I don’t. It’s light out when I try to kill myself. It’s dark when I decide to go for a walk.
Campus is divided into a north and south side with the village in the middle. My dorm is on the south side. I decide to take a walk to the north side, up the walkway that passes through the middle of campus, through the village, up to the art building, and around. Maybe I’ll die somewhere around there. Maybe the walk will speed up the process.
But I notice three of my friends by one of the administrative buildings. I go up to them. I tell myself to be calm. I tell myself to act normally, but I don’t. I grab them. My voice is choked. I shake them; I shake the two of them that are holding hands.
“Something is really wrong with me,” I say. This memory is clear, like it happened yesterday. “I need to go to a hospital. Somewhere with people like me.”
“No you don’t,” they say. “You’re fine.”
“No,” I say. “You don’t understand. I need to go.”
But they don’t understand. They didn’t understand.
I walk away. I walk down past one of the dorms down toward some steps and there is my recently-ex’d-boyfriend. I don’t know what to say to him, because we are both standing there. He has stopped in front of me, his black eyes wide, unblinking. His hands in front of him like they always are: as if they are holding something.
I tell him something. I tell him the one thing I should tell hm.
“I tried to kill myself,” I say. “But I’m fine now.”
He doesn’t move. He stares at me for a moment, we stare at one another for a moment, and then he sweeps past me without saying a word. I feel rejected again. I feel alone again. I need to be around people. I need to be with people. So instead of going to my room, I walk down to the south-end dining hall to the computer lab. I refuse to be defeated; I refuse to be by myself.
I’m not dead yet. I’m pretty sure my attempt failed.
But I am wrong.
The moment I open the door to the computer lab, the world spins upside down and my vision collapses into a tunnel. My breathing comes in fast and then slow and then fast again, and my heart is beating like a rabbit’s in my throat. I grab hold of the door frame because the world is swaying like a see-saw, and slowly, carefully, I navigate my vertigo until I can sit at a computer and try to check my email. But I can’t see the screen, my vision won’t to focus.
Now I know: I am dying.
And I now I know: I don’t want to die anymore.
All those hours spent waiting to die changed me. Now I want to go to a hospital. Now I want to get help. I refuse to die in this computer lab. I refuse to die yet at all. Dammit, I am going to save my life. I am going to live. I am going to get to that hospital and I am going to see tomorrow and the next day.
So I lift myself out of that chair and stagger toward the bathroom. I know how to do this. I have the skills.
Clammy with sweat and shaking with effort, I make myself throw up all those chemicals. And they come up, they come up in a thick black sludge over and over until I can’t vomit anymore. I stand there, holding the side of the stall until my vision returns, the world stops swaying, and my heartbeat returns to normal. Until I am just a shaking, sweaty girl who is breathing heavy from the exertion.
Until I know I am alive.
Until I am alive.
My boyfriend left me because he went to call Campus Security. He did what needed to be done. When I returned to my room, they were waiting. They escorted me to their car and took me to their office and let me send one email. One only. I emailed James: the man who would become my husband. I fired off a jumble of words that told him what had happened and where I was going. Then I got in the car and went to the hospital. I remember nothing else except waking up the next morning.
When I woke up, James was in the chair next to me.
My parents flew in from New York and took me to a psychiatric resort upstate. I stayed there for 5 days inpatient on suicide watch and stayed for 28 days in their outpatient program. They had me get psychological testing when there, cause nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. They had ruled out depression and borderline personality disorder. I had stopped all bulimia and anorexia behaviors. I was a model patient, doing everything that needed to be done and complying and being good. The psychiatrists and psychologists were stumped.
In the third week of my 28 days, after my psychological testing, the educational session was on schizophrenia.
“People with schizophrenia often hear voices in their heads that aren’t there,” the psychologist said.
I raised my hand.
“You mean, not everybody has that?”
Every single head in the room turned to me.
“No, Jordan,” the psychologist said. “Not everybody has that.”
She continued. “People with schizophrenia often see things that aren’t there.”
My hand went up again and again people turned to look.
“Not everyone sees stuff that isn’t there?”
“No, Jordan. They don’t.”
I got my diagnosis an hour later: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.
With the diagnosis, I could be medicated, and I could get therapy. Which is exactly what happened. Yes, it took time to find the right medication at first. And yes, over time I have changed medications and therapists. And yes, yes, over time I have added Anxiety Disorder and PTSD to my list of diagnoses.
But with the medication and therapy, I was no longer tortured by voices. I was no longer seeing things. I was no longer imprisoned by paranoia or intrusive thoughts.
Some life choices had to change because of my diagnosis: I was studying to be a photojournalist at college. That couldn’t happen. I wanted to be in Africa, but I needed to be within a 30-day supply of pills and within visual range of a therapist. In the 20 years since, I have been declared disabled from my mental illness and had to leave two jobs.
But that’s not the end of the world. Dying is the end of the world.
I’m still here.
I had to take a semester off school to recoup, but I returned that spring semester. I changed my major. I managed to graduate with my class on-time. I got a job in radio due to my work with the college radio station. I was good as a radio DJ. But I didn’t like it. So I became a social worker.
So, I went back to school and got a Masters in Social Work. I worked as a clinician and as a medical social worker in two hospitals. I was good at both jobs, I won accolades at both jobs. Clinical Directors and Nurse Managers loved me. My coworkers and Surgeons loved me. But I had to leave both jobs due to disability.
When I was declared officially disabled, I became a writer. I have sold seven pieces since I started writing in June of 2014. My full time job is self-care and I write as part of that self-care and it’s very important to my well being. I love writing. It’s my favorite of all the jobs I’ve ever had.
I have lived a life in the past 20 years. A life I couldn’t have lived if I hadn’t been diagnosed, if I hadn’t found medication and therapy, if I hadn’t been taking care of myself. I have traveled and met wonderful friends. I got married and had a great pet dog and now I have a great service dog. My husband and I own a house. We have a garden. All of this since I had a psychotic break.
My life didn’t end 20 years ago: it began.
I refused to lie down and give up because of my diagnosis. I pushed through. I persevered. I lived my life along side it, with it, in spite of it. Now I live in harmony with it: ensuring that it’s not bothering me and I’m not bothering it so I can get on with my daily life.
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. I can manage my symptoms. Yes, I am disabled, but I have resources, a wonderful husband, good family support, and a great service dog. My friends are supportive, and I have a rockstar care team that is 100% there for me. I am able to do this because I respond to medication and I have the luxury of having time to take care of myself.
September 1, 1997 was the day of my psychotic break. It was the day of my last suicide attempt. It has been over 20 years since then. Over 20 years of living, laughing, loving, working, playing, walking, writing, and having a good (and sometimes bad) time. Thank you for being here for part of that journey. And thank you for being you.
Here’s to 20 more years.
Thank you for reading.