This story by an LA boy named Brian who struggles with schizophrenia, (his last name is withheld so it isn’t archived forever on the internet), was published by LA Youth in 2005, and is emblematic of the extremely valuable work the publication does. Below, is a clip from the introduction to the story by Brian’s editor at LA Youth, Amanda Riddle, who worked with him as part of the paper’s Foster Youth Writing and Education Project, which helps kids who are inside the foster care system and/or the juvenile probation system (or, as in Brian’s case, in a group home) sort through and express their experiences through writing.
Whenever I’m asked, “What’s the longest time it’s taken for a story to be written?” I don’t hesitate to answer. It was Brian’s story about living with schizophrenia. It took a year. Brian and I met once a week, except for when he was hospitalized or just not doing well. Sometimes we worked for an hour, other days because of his ADHD he could focus for only 20 minutes. His story was written paragraph by paragraph, anecdote by anecdote, testing the patience of both writer and editor. But Brian and I were both committed to publishing his story….
THE VOICES NO ONE ELSE CAN HEAR
People with mental illness don’t always live on the streets or end up in a psych ward. They can have normal lives. I have struggled with hearing voices, but I’m getting myself through it.
Before I was 10, I lived pretty much a normal life. I had fun with my friends. I played outside in the street and slept over at their houses. Every Memorial Day, I would drive with my parents up to Santa Rosa to see some family friends, a boy and girl who were about my age. But that all stopped when I was in fifth grade.
I was in class one day and I heard stomping and clicking. I thought someone was walking down the hall and clicking his or her tongue. But when I walked outside, nobody was there.
I heard the noises on and off every day. They would last a few minutes and then come back later that day. It was like rainfall in my head. They would distract me in class and sometimes when I was watching TV or playing video games. I wouldn’t be able to sense or hear my mom or dad. It bothered me, but I thought it was normal to hear them so I didn’t tell my parents.
One day in class I asked my friend if he was hearing any noises. He said no. That made me realize that I was the only one hearing them. It was frustrating because I could not talk to anyone about them because I was scared that people would find out and tease me or call me dumb.
In seventh grade, when I got to school in the morning I would walk around by myself, instead of hanging out with my friends. I also sometimes faked being sick to skip school so I wouldn’t have to be with the other students. I started to get depressed because being the only one hearing noises made me feel alone. I would think, “Should I kill myself?” Then I would get angry for thinking those thoughts and tell myself, “Calm down, Brian.”
I felt like I needed help so I went to the counselor at my middle school. We sat there for two minutes not talking to each other. She finally said, “What are you here for?” I told her, “I feel like I don’t belong in the world.” She asked me why and I told her, “Because I feel like no one loves me or cares for me.” Again she asked why. It was hard for me to get it out, but I finally said I was hearing noises. It felt good to get it out. She said, “I need to call your parents.”
The next day my parents took me to the doctor. He asked me what was wrong and I told him that I was feeling depressed and suicidal. Because he thought I might hurt myself, he decided to put me in the hospital for 72 hours.
The hospital was not a happy place to be. It smelled like gloves and medicine, and I was away from my family and friends. I was there for four weeks. I went to school at the hospital and hung out with the other kids in the day room. The doctors would see me for only five minutes a day. They’d ask me questions about how I was doing, like “Are you hearing noises today?” and “Do you feel like you’re ready to go home?” They gave me medication and gradually increased it. The medication worked a little because the noises came every other day. After four weeks the doctors said they thought I could handle it at home. I was excited to go home, but I was still hearing noises.
My scariest experience
The noises slowly got worse and progressed to voices. They told me to kill myself or kill others. One day two weeks after I left the hospital, I had my worst experience. I was in the kitchen when I spaced out for a few minutes—I was standing there like a zombie. When I came back to, I heard the voices. (I don’t remember what they were saying.) The next thing you know, I was holding a knife to my stomach! My mom came in and saw me and tried to persuade me to put it down, but I didn’t have control over what I was doing. My parents called the police, who came and told me to put the knife down. I got scared at that point. I realized what I was doing. So I put it down and kicked it toward them. I went to the hospital after that for a week.
I was in and out of the hospital over the next year. I would zone out for a long time listening to the voices. At first I’d think they were real, but after a few minutes I would realize they were in my head. It was scary because they were angry and would tell me to do things. My mom would say, “Brian, are you OK? Do you need to go to the hospital?” and I would say yes.
That is when I realized how serious it was. I looked at the other kids around me and I saw almost the same thing, other people with problems. Some would get angry really fast. Some would talk to themselves. There were people with drug problems getting restrained and yelling at staff. I asked a girl why she was there and she said she had schizophrenia. She said it was a disorder where you hear or see things that aren’t there and you get really depressed. I realized I might have schizophrenia. But the doctors didn’t tell me anything. They just put me on different medications but nothing was working. It felt like I was on a bus that was going somewhere, but not in the direction I wanted it to. I knew at the hospital I would be safe, but I felt like I needed more help.
The doctors recommended that I go to a group home, where I would live with adult staff members and five other boys who were in foster care or had emotional problems. I thought it would be better for me because I could get help 24/7. I could knock on the door and have a staff member to talk to.
I was 13 when I arrived at the group home. When I first got there, I didn’t like it at all. I missed my parents and there were a lot of rules, like “appearance,” which meant you had to be well groomed. If your shirt wasn’t clean or your hair wasn’t brushed, you would lose privileges, like talking on the phone.
At first I heard voices every day. It was really horrible because I was away from my parents. I would sit in my room and listen to music and rock back and forth. One time one of the staff members came up to me and asked if I was OK. She talked to me and said, “Don’t go straight to killing yourself. Think about what is around you like your parents, family and friends.” I thought about what she said for two days. Even though it was hard, I thought about all the people who loved me, like my parents and my grandpa. That helped me get through my depression. After that when I missed my parents, I would remember what she said.
The voices stopped after two weeks because they had me on a new medication. I talked to my parents every day. They would ask me “How is school going?” and those types of questions that parents always ask. Talking to them made me feel better because I was able to get things off my chest. That was important because I get mixed up in my head when I don’t talk and can get depressed. I also tried to see my parents as often as I could, on weekends and on Thursdays for family therapy. I loved going home on the weekends. I got to see my parents and my two dogs.
After a while I sort of got used to the group home’s structure and I began to like it. The staff and kids were funny. Every day after school we would have “cool out,” which was staying in your room for an hour—sleeping or listening to music or doing homework. Then we would either have homework group or physical recreation, where we played basketball, football or ultimate Frisbee. “Phys. Rec.” got me in shape and kept my mind off the voices. After about a year, things were going good. The group home said I could go home because I was more upbeat.
At home things were awesome. My parents were so happy that I was home. They didn’t talk about the voices, except to say “Are you OK?” once in a while. I started my life again. I would go to my friends’ houses and walk to Target. I could watch TV late at night and play video games whenever I wanted. I had a girlfriend. I had pretty much everything I wanted. It was like fresh air through a pigsty.
But after nine months, when I was 14, I started to hear voices again. I’m not sure why, maybe it was caused by stress from arguing with my mom over little stuff. I’d hear screaming. It was worse than before, more violent and intense. For the second time, I grabbed a knife one day and held it in my hand in a trance until I dropped it. At the hospital the doctors said I might have schizophrenia. That made me really depressed. To be possibly diagnosed with a mental illness is scary. I wondered if I would be able to do normal things in my life.
If it weren’t for the group home, I don’t know if I’d be alive. The therapy has helped me open up. When my grandpa died, I talked to the staff about it before my feelings got out of hand. I was really close to my grandpa. I told them about the memories I had of him, like how he gave good speeches at dinner. I felt a lot happier afterwards.
Therapy has also helped me communicate when I’m hearing voices. In June when I heard voices in class, I was very surprised. They were chanting the word “hate.” I didn’t tell anyone for two hours but that was better than waiting a week. I told my teacher. She said, “I’m glad you came to me.” It was the Tuesday before Father’s Day. I wanted to go home and cook my dad breakfast for Father’s Day. But I couldn’t go home because I was on safety restriction at the group home. That’s when you can’t go out by yourself or have anything sharp. Instead, my parents came and saw me for four hours and I gave my dad a card. My parents said “Hang in there,” “You’ll be OK,” and “You’ll get through this” to give me words of encouragement, which helped.
I talked to the staff. I told them, “I’m feeling down right now because I’m hearing voices.” They said, “Don’t think about them.” The voices went on for a week. If I hadn’t talked to the staff, I would have heard them for a few weeks longer. The staff said I handled it well.
I’m hopeful for my future
I’m getting better. I’m not taking as many meds. On the weekends when I’m home I hang out with my friends. We play basketball, surf the Internet and play video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo.
I want to move back home. I know I won’t get depressed because I have learned coping skills, like talking to my mom and dad. Another example is my emergency plan. It’s a rating from zero to 10, with zero being the happiest and 10 suicidal. If I’m not feeling well, I’ll tell my parents that I’m at a two. Then there are different activities I can do like playing basketball or writing in a journal.
Nothing’s perfect in life. Everyone has challenges, whether it’s being depressed when a family member dies or having trouble understanding schoolwork. My challenge is a mental illness. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a natural thing that happens to some people.
I’m hopeful I’m going to make it in life. I want to get a job, maybe become a nurse or a veterinarian, and get an apartment. I think I’ll be able to handle my depression if I hear voices.
I’m thankful to my parents, the group home and my friends for sticking with me through these hard times.