I grew up in a middle class family in the Midwest. I lived in a nice home located in a safe neighborhood. I lacked nothing. Throughout high school, I was a good student, and spent most of my free time practicing the violin.
I knew that I lived in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, in history. Poverty in Africa and China was a million miles away. I had a wonderful life. As I progressed in high school, my world continued to revolve around my violin, and my love of learning. I kept straight A’s. During my first years of college, I had the opportunity and privilege to work in a lab, and contribute research that later became three publications. Even today, I am competitive, and I love to win.
In 1999, I was awarded a scholarship to attend a university on the West Coast. I never dreamed that I would someday become a dirty homeless stranger living on the streets of my university’s surrounding community, for years.
For me, becoming homeless on the streets, scavenging for leftover food people threw away, and being dirty was not a choice I made. It was behavior stemming from my untreated mental illness, which developed during my first years of college. (I am proof that schizophrenia can develop without the interference of alcohol or drugs). The illness drove me to refuse all contact with friends and family. My doctors still do not exactly know why I developed schizophrenia.
Becoming homeless on the streets and jailed for homeless behavior is not supposed to happen to drug and alcohol free young women who have great academic credentials. But when I continued to live in the libraries of the university were I had once been an honors student, no one questioned if I was ill. No one considered if my bizarre behavior was a symptom of mental illness, or if I was in need of intervention. After three years of homelessness, I grew worse, and I began to hear voices and see things and people that were not real. If I had been observed by a psychiatrist for less than five minutes, it would have been unequivocally determined that I was hearing voices, and needed an antipsychotic medication.
But no one knew enough or cared enough to evaluate me. I was finally jailed twice, once for three days and once for five, for trespassing on the campus of a university where I had been a good student, and where I believed in my heart I was still welcome.
To this day, I wonder, what do they think my motive was, in remaining at the university? If I were there by accident, or if I were there because I was confused (which I was) would that be a crime? No one considered why a former university honors student would chose to become a dirty homeless stranger living outside. They just locked me up.
But this part of my life story had a happy ending. I had to choose between living in the hospital or living in my parents’ home, as my parents were fully prepared to go to court if I tried to be homeless again. My doctors gave me a last-resort, potentially dangerous, but highly efficacious antipsychotic that works well when all other antipsychotics fail. With my parents’ compassionate support, I always took my medication, and I didn’t give up. The medication finally worked. I regained my insight, realizing how sick I had become. After several more months, I recovered, and I transferred to a university nearby my parents’ home. When I graduated as a Student Marshal, my psychiatrists encouraged me to write my memoir.
Today, there is so much corruption in the way the mentally ill are treated. Serious mental disorders like schizophrenia, if left untreated, can lead to many bad outcomes, like homelessness or imprisonment. In almost all American cities, the local jail may contain more mentally ill persons than the local psychiatric hospitals. Untreated mental illness can also lead to suicide.
Our society is deaf to the plea of our mentally ill, as we mindlessly jail people who we just don’t like having around. I was locked up without a second thought, for behavior that was erratic, not criminal. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
It is time for us to face the injustice against the mentally ill in America, and deal with this issue.