This month, I continue my “100 Individuals with Schizophrenia” interview series. Andy lives in Framingham, Massachusetts and is an In Our Own Voice presenter for NAMI-Massachusetts.
CB: First off, how old are you and when were you diagnosed?
AS: I’m 32 years old and I was diagnosed when I was 28. It was only a couple weeks after my positive symptoms appeared that I was diagnosed.
CB: Were you ever hospitalized?
AS: I was hospitalized for two weeks in New Hampshire. I used to work for a summer camp year-round up there. I was living with my now-wife and her friend who had her Masters in social work. The friend had taken me to a counseling center and they said I should go to the hospital. The next day I checked myself in.
CB: Within a week of getting sick you were put on medication.
AS: Yes, very quickly.
CB: How did the symptoms appear? Were they sudden?
AS: The early stage where I started shunning people happened years before. Working at a camp in a rural area I was the only one who lived there. I was on 200 acres by myself all year. I went into town only to go grocery shopping and rent movies.
CB: What were some of your symptoms?
AS: The actual delusions began with me remembering what had happened the summer before, and it grew from there. It got where I didn’t eat, and I smoked four or five packs of cigarettes in one day.
CB: You’ve been in recovery four or five years now.
AS: Yes, but I had a relapse six months after the first hospital stay when I went off my meds.
CB: You felt you were doing well enough not to need them?
AS: I didn’t understand my diagnosis. The psychiatrist had said schizophrenia in the hospital but I just couldn’t believe it. He also said “depression with psychosis” so I held on to that term. I felt the depression was situational because I was living by myself for the most part.
CB: What happened the second time around?
AS: The camp I was working at had pushed me out of the organization so I had to find a new job and figured I’d be around people all the time so I wouldn’t be depressed and didn’t need the medication. My delusions were originally about past events, and my psychiatrist warned me it could spill over into current events. Everything around me was linked to it like a loudspeaker, and I assaulted one of my bosses at the store where I worked overnight.
CB: Tell me about the symptoms.
AS: I started remembering stories that later became delusions. All my thoughts followed a story line where I eventually believed I was a top agent in the CIA, and that I’d prevented a nuclear bomb from exploding at Logan Airport. I had to push my boss into the 18-wheeler truck because the president was coming and my boss was going to assassinate him.
CB: Were you jailed?
AS: No, I got the rare verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. They figured I was stable enough at that point because it was five or six months later that the trial actually happened. They determined I was stable enough not to need additional hospitalizations. That drove home the need to be on medication, and I don’t know that I’d be where I am today if all that hadn’t happened.
CB: You were hospitalized again for two weeks, and attended a day program for two weeks. What did you do after that?
AS: The recovery from that hospitalization was much longer. It took me six months to return to work whereas after the first stay I was back to work in two weeks. I worked on a volunteer fire department. Then I just went into Sears and applied for a job. I wanted to work in the lawn and garden department, and it turned out it was on commission. I had the idea that I wanted to be a salesperson because I’d look at Monster and CareerBuilder on the Internet and see what kind of pay these sales positions would advertise. I was like, “That’s for me.”
CB: Sure. You deserve to make money, just like anyone.
AS: Initially I was heavily medicated at that point because it took large doses of drugs to break my delusions. By the end of the year I was in the top 10 percent of the company in sales. I worked there for another year, and then decided to work for the home theater company. I’ve been here for almost two years, and in my first year I made the top 10 percent of the sales force, too.
CB: What advice can you give people with schizophrenia who want to maintain their recovery and go to work?
AS: I started with a volunteer position. In order to pay for my public defender, I had to work 200 hours of community service, and I volunteered at a church five to ten hours a week. It got me in the habit of showing up on time and working hard.
CB: You have an amazing story about your time working at Sears.
AS: Someone I worked with had been in jail and he saw I was medicated, so he and his boss pulled me aside to ask me what was going on. I was so nervous until the boss said, “I’m bipolar,” and it was okay. Going to work there I had a lot of stress dealing with the public. The thing that helped me was the boss knowing about [the schizophrenia].
CB: If you believe the statistics, most people in our situation don’t work or aren’t able to. How did you get to the point where you could?
AS: Going back to work was a big goal for me. A lot of the other patients in the hospital told me I’d never be able to work again, but I wanted it badly and I worked towards that goal. I’m big on goal setting. It was a lot of little goals I set to get to the big goal of going to work, like getting up on a regular schedule, shaving every day, showering, and brushing my teeth.
CB: I’m a big fan of goal setting myself.
AS: I wasn’t 100 percent ready, but I don’t think anyone is. It’s a lot of on-the-job training about going back to work. I encourage people to do it. Usually in the fall I would get depressed around the time of my second hospitalization and legal troubles. Going to work and having something to do would take my mind off it, and I’d focus on something else, so later in the day I’d be fine. Knowing that people depended on me made me go to work when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
CB: Does your current employer know about your illness?
AS: I told my boss after I made the top 10 percent, because managers in sales only care how well you sell, they’re tolerant of eccentricities. Also I have a certain way of saying it that makes the schizophrenia seem less harsh: “One day my brain started making too much of one chemical and I confused fact from fiction, and so I take meds to control it. I’ve never missed a day of work because of it, but once in a great while I may step out because I’m overwhelmed.”
CB: Should our readers disclose as a matter of course?
AS: Disclose only if you need a reasonable accommodation. I tell others for the same reason I do In Our Own Voice with NAMI: I want them to know “I can do the job better than you.”
AS: It’s because I had so much stigma about it, and then I was diagnosed, so I feel it’s important to live out of the mental illness closet. Disclosing has caused me problems over the years, but I know if I’m at a place where they’re going to make it hard for me to do my job to the best of my ability, I don’t want to work there. It’s only a job, there’s a lot more to life.
CB: Why do you think you were able to recover so quickly?
AS: Part of it was that it happened to me later in life. I was 28 years old and I had lived a lot, worked ever since I was in college. I’m a bit “pig-headed” and when people told me I couldn’t do something, all my life that’s been my invitation to do it. When I was younger that got me in trouble, but now it’s channeled to help me. When I was told I wouldn’t be able to go back to work, guess what, I decided I was going to do it.
CB: That took courage and determination.
AS: Success is a long series of failures. I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded at recovery but I just never gave up. Another reason is the medication I’m on works fairly well. I’m on the dose that the books say you should be on as a maintenance dose. It’s hard for a lot of people because the medication that works for them may not be on the market yet.
CB: What are the top three coping skills you use to deal with the symptoms?
AS: I’ve never stopped having paranoid thoughts. They’re kind of isolated to “Is that person over there talking about me?” It’s just more than I used to feel them. I’ll distract myself by checking e-mail or helping a customer or writing a proposal. I also find that listening to motivational speakers and reading those books has given me the ability to see past what I can’t do to what I can do. And not focusing on the negative is the best coping skill. If you’re not focusing on what you can’t do and focus instead on what you can do, you’ll be able to succeed so much better.
CB: What suggestions do you have for people who want to find work?
AS: I started in retail, and I’m still in retail. It’s a good place to start because if you have trouble getting up in the morning you can work the afternoon and evening shifts. Dealing with people can be intimidating, but it’s really built up my social skills to where I can strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. There are also positions where you don’t have to deal with people-you can stock shelves or work in the back room. It’s a good flexible schedule where you can go see your doctor without a hassle, because you wind up working Saturdays or Sundays. I found I could see my doctor without disrupting my work schedule.
CB: Do you feel that having schizophrenia actually keeps you more in tune with people and makes you a good salesperson?
AS: Yes. I think it’s because I’ve always had a lot of empathy and that’s because I can see that someone’s feeling something I once felt. And that is my best tool as a salesperson: empathy.
CB: In your first e-mail to me you said your life is much better after the diagnosis. How can that possibly be?
AS: I have a job that I absolutely love and get a lot of satisfaction from. Prior to the diagnosis, for a good five or six years I was unable to maintain good relationships with friends or a girlfriend, and now at this point I’ve been able to get married, work at a good job, and have a nice place to live.
CB: Congratulations on your marriage. Tell us a little about this good news.
AS: I got married to Melissa in October, and she’s Australian. We met at the camp I used to work at, and eventually we plan to move to Australia. When I’m not working I tend to want to spend time with her.
CB: Do you want to start a family?
AS: I go back and forth as to whether I want to adopt a child or have one, because I’m afraid my child might have schizophrenia. A friend said his cousin was adopted and developed schizophrenia, though. I just worry my kid might not be able to do as well as I do. I know there’s treatment-resistant schizophrenia, and everybody copes with things differently.
CB: Any parting words of encouragement or inspiration for our readers?
AS: Never give up. That’s the best advice I can give to anybody in any situation. When the problems are in your own head it’s probably the hardest of all. We all have this difficult burden of mental illness to bear, and I’m not religious, but my mom said, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
CB: I used that quote in a blog entry. It’s so true.
AS: My first feeling that I was getting better was when I got out of the hospital the second time and everything was so bleak, and I imagined myself talking in front of a group of people about how I recovered. I knew at that point I was up against a lot and had no idea how to get from where I was then to where I am now. Two months ago I gave an In Our Own Voice presentation at Harvard in front of over 100 psychology students. I felt like that was the time I’d imagined all those years ago.
Mental Health Activist