by: Neesa Suncheuri ((Header art is by the talented artist Margarita Georgiadis.))
I should not even be here. From experiencing deep emotional trauma and depression as a child, to developing crippling schizophrenia in my early twenties, I should not be able to write this essay in a manner that is coherent and understandable to you. What should have happened to me is that I ended up living in a mental hospital for the remainder of my life, babbling non-stop about the torturous nonsensical thoughts running around my head. In the past, when I’ve tried to keep my head up, my brain would always knock me back down. Despite these immense challenges, I have survived. I now take medications that work exceptionally well for me, and I also have amazing friends, family and professionals who help me reach for my best everyday. And now that I am well, my mission is to help create awareness about the potential for hope in face of the worst of mental illnesses. So many people have that little shred of hope within themselves, as I did and I want to help them find it, nurture it, and let it grow.
I grew up in a home with a loving mother and a tyrannical father. We would walk on eggshells around my dad, because he would blow up at even the slightest of infractions. I remember the shrill scream of his voice as he gathered more and more rage within himself. It shook the house like a pressure cooker about to explode. When he got mad, I would run into my bedroom and wedge myself under my bed, on top of the metal frame for a second mattress. As the spiky metal poked me, I hyperventilated in panic. My mind would go entirely blank, and I would simply wait there in the tightly confined stillness for maybe half an hour, until it became safe for me to come out again.
My traumatic home environment perhaps stimulated the seeds of mental illness within my developing brain, and so little sprouts started to show in elementary school. As soon as I started kindergarten, my classmates began to pick on me. I had a short haircut that made my curly hair look like a poofy fro, and I was always dressed very unstylishly. My mother dressed me in high-quality clothes from Eddie Bauer and L. L. Bean, but certainly I was not fashionable. The kids would also make fun of my name. They would call me Ronald McDonald, or String Bean, because I was the tallest kid in the class. There were some sadistic souls in that bunch. Always, I would hang my head down in shame, convinced that the bullies were right. I saw all my faults, absorbed them into myself, and acknowledged that my classmates were justified in their beliefs. And since I was tormented at home by my father, I figured that I deserved it everywhere I went.
I started to study the violin in the first grade. It immediately became a passionate love of mine. Classical music then started to become a wall that separated me from the evil world around me. It comforted me, and I was able to remain happy behind it. But as I got older, I became paranoid that everyone in the world hated classical music. I believed that I needed to keep my love of music a secret, for fear of judgment and persecution.
My illness began to cripple me by the age of eleven, when my father left our home. My mother sensed my depression, and thankfully found me a therapist. She was a kind social worker, who gave me the space I needed to process my emotions. There were so many complicated feelings, and I was only a child, unable to communicate what was going on inside of me. Thankfully, therapy afforded me the chance to begin developing the vocabulary required to express these feelings. It helped me to feel less alone, when people understood me.
But things continued to get worse anyway. By the seventh grade, I was suicidally depressed, and unable to even practice playing the violin. Whenever I tried to do so, I was overcome with feelings of self-hatred. I suck at the violin. I suck, I suck, I suck, I would repeat inside my head. My depression attacked me at every corner, wherever I tried to turn. My mother, kindly, enrolled me into a nurturing private school in eighth grade, but by the ninth grade, I had become suicidal. My class at the private school was small, and I didn’t feel close to anyone. Many of my classmates were wealthy, and also lived too far from me to socialize after school. I felt like they were naive and superficial, and not deep enough to understand my mental illness. I eventually ended up in the hospital for a two-week stay at a psychiatric unit. On my fourteenth birthday, I began taking my first psychiatric medications: Zoloft and Klonopin.
I remained stable for the rest of high school, and continued to focus on classical music performance. I switched from the violin to the viola, given that the viola has a lower range of notes, and has an overall melancholy affect. I finished high school successfully, and then continued to study viola at a major music conservatory for college.
My studies began to go sour at the end of my junior year. I started realizing that I was not progressing like my peers. When practicing, I still had feelings of self-hatred, so I practiced as little as possible. I started a meditation practice to help calm myself, and then went off my medications because I thought I was healed. Unfortunately, I only became sicker. At the time, I had a romantic crush on another student. This crush became a 24/7 obsession. I also began to experience voices, like messages in my head, when I played the viola. During winter break my first year of a Masters degree, I descended into full-blown psychosis. I started wandering around New York City, going into random stores and smelling the merchandise. I thought that if the air went in my left nostril, the product was heterosexual, and if it entered through the right, then it was homosexual. I smelled clothes at the thrift store to see if the clothes next to each other on the rack were married. I also rubbed olive oil on my body to try and “enhance my chi.” Eventually, I wandered into a pizza place and started crying uncontrollably. The cops arrived and drove me to the hospital. My diagnosis had now become Schizoaffective Disorder.
I was forced to leave school and move back home with my mother. I nursed myself back to normalcy within a year, and then re-enrolled in school to become a music teacher. But after a year of school, I had another psychotic attack, and became convinced I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. I was hospitalized again, and then dropped out of school. At this point, I realized I could not break out of this cycle. I applied for disability, convinced I would never work again. One of my medications also caused me to gain ninety pounds.
Desperate for healing, I looked to spirituality to restore my health. Online, I had read many accounts of how people like me were able to get off their medications by adopting a spiritual practice, and so I wanted this for myself. I was ashamed of taking medications, and the side effects were such that I did not feel my life to be greatly enhanced by them. I had become obese, and always, I felt a sense of disconnect from the people around me. Being medicated for so long, and at such a young age, I felt as if I had never experienced the vibrant journey of life that “regular” people do. And once my illness had morphed into schizophrenia, I was unable to even hold down a part-time job. I felt as if my life had no meaning.
I pursued various paths of spirituality. I spent thousands of dollars on con artist storefront psychics. I joined a fundamental Christian church for six months, wearing skirts and studying the Bible non-stop. I dabbled in Wicca, investigated Voodoo during a week-long trip to New Orleans and dabbled in Nichiren Buddhism chanting. Nothing worked. Even though I was taking my medications as prescribed, I kept relapsing. I started to believe that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. More medications were prescribed, but I stopped seeing the point of it all. It was as if my brain was this monster that kept getting stronger and stronger, and the medications were becoming more and more ineffective at keeping the monster caged.
Exasperated, I went off my medications cold turkey. I saw no point in living a life of disconnect. But within six months, I was convinced I was Beethoven yet again. I was then in an accident, struck my head and developed a British accent for a time. Shortly after, I was hospitalized, and I retained the accent for my entire month-long stay. If ever I could say that my mental illness was a personage that had a sense of humor in torturing me, this would be sheer evidence of it.
After leaving the hospital, I instantly lost the accent and then became convinced I was the Antichrist. I received commands from my inner voices, this time telling me to throw myself into the street in order to save the world from my wrath. I gripped onto a metal truck, trying to turn myself into a statue so that I would not hurt myself. And then I urinated in the street because I thought I suddenly became a dog. That’s when I realized it was all becoming too much for me to handle. At four in the morning, I called 911. I went back to the hospital.
This time, I was put on Clozapine, a drug which is considered a last resort for treatment-resistant schizophrenia. It took six weeks for me to fully get on the medication. While the drug was able to eliminate my delusions, I was still crippled by recurring panic attacks. I failed to improve enough to safely leave the hospital. After a couple of months, the doctors told me I would be sent to a long-term care facility if I did not improve. I racked my head, trying to figure out how I could survive and not live in a hospital for the rest of my days. I recalled the drug Effexor XR, and how it had helped me enormously for many years. It is an antidepressant, and for me it helps to moderate my depression. It also has no side effects for me. I told my hospital treatment team to put me back on it. They did so immediately, and I began to see improvement in my condition. Within a few weeks, I improved, and was able to leave the hospital.
For the next year, I attended rehabilitative day programs, and also began to exercise and eat healthily. I lost sixty pounds. I learned about the peer specialist profession. A peer is a mental health professional who has lived an experience with mental illness. I then attended a six-month peer specialist training program, and then completed an internship. For the first time in my life, I was able to keep a job.
After the internship, I applied to work at the same agency full-time. A year later, I still work there today. Peer work is incredibly fulfilling. I work with people who have the same disability I have, and share my story of success to empower them. I also run a group where I bring my music and love of the Arts to my clients. My contributions to my job serve to humanize the services we provide.
I have high hopes to continue changing the lives of others. I am now dedicated to fighting the societal stigmas against mental illness, and to also publicizing the peer profession. I run a Facebook group where we discuss mental health wellness. I blog, and also write poetry and essays inspired by my mental illness experiences. I hope to write in a way that makes people reconsider their beliefs about mental illness. In a way that breaks down the walls of stigma which isolate so many people. The world needs to hear this message, and I want to help make it happen.
Neesa Suncheuri works as a Mental Health Peer Specialist at a housing agency in Queens, New York. She is the founder of a Facebook discussion group for peer specialists and other recovery enthusiasts, entitled “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group.” Much of her creative inspiration is rooted in her now-tamed schizophrenia. She writes poetry and fiction, and maintains a blog called Unlearning Schizophrenia. She is also a singer/songwriter, and an enthusiast for the German language and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @neesasuncheuri.