A Journey through Schizophrenia and Homelessness: Author Bethany Yeiser
Bethany Yeiser is a motivational speaker, writer, and advocate for the mentally ill. She was diagnosed with treatment-resistant schizophrenia in 2007, after being homeless for four years, and made an unexpected and full recovery in 2008. She earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology with honors from the University of Cincinnati in 2011. Her book Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery was published in 2014.
Please join us for a unique interview on Mental Health News Radio. Bethany is generous with sharing her journey and tremendously inspiring. Her book is equally forthcoming. Our on staff clinicians at Mental Health News Radio have worked with many patients dealing with schizophrenia so it was a pleasure to interview someone offering facts and insight towards a road to recovery.
What was your life like before the onset of your mental illness?
I grew up in a Middle class Midwestern family with a strong faith in God, and a good work ethic. My parents, younger brother and I lived in Mentor, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. In 1995, at age thirteen, I was accepted into the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra as a violinist. I won a National Merit scholarship to attend my first choice university in California in 1999. In college, I did research in biochemistry and served as concertmaster of the community orchestra.
During my first three years of college, I began to search for something more, which led me to travel to Nairobi, Kenya, Africa in summer of 2002, where I lived in poverty for two months. While in Africa, I developed a debilitating obsession with helping the poor, and on my return to America, I was unable to study normally for my classes. That fall 2002, my senior year, I went from a scholarship winner and honor student to failing all my classes. I rationalized it, telling myself I didn’t need a college degree. I had no idea that my inability to study was a result of emerging schizophrenia.
When did you realize that you were mentally ill?
Even though I could no longer pass classes that used to be easy for me, I had no insight into my mental illness. I was becoming delusional, believing I would someday win a Nobel Peace Prize for the work I did in Africa. As I became more and more ill, I still did not know I was sick. In March of 2003, only two months before I expected to graduate, I dropped out of the university, refused contact with my family, and became homeless. I would spend the next four years homeless, before I was evaluated by a doctor, and told I had schizophrenia.
After I dropped out of school, I began sleeping in the university library regularly. I tried to blend in with the students who studied there at night. In the middle of the night, when few students were around, I would secretively look around the library for leftover food, and I began living on this food. Every morning, I would wash up very early in public bathrooms. I would try my best to blend in with the students during the day, reading heavily and taking walks. When the library was closed in summer, I spent every night in an empty university dormitory where I had lived when I was a student, during the school year. Despite being homeless, fundraising for Kenya was fairly successful. I founded a small nonprofit organization with a friend, to send money overseas.
Everything changed for me when I began to hear voices and experience hallucinations. I lost all the rest of my few friends and began to sleep in a churchyard, which was across the street from a dormitory where I lived as an honors student. In late 2006, I was finally picked up by police for regularly sleeping on campus, jailed briefly, and legally barred from being on the university campus. When I was kicked off the campus, I continued living in the churchyard. I spent my days in a local park, starring into space while I listened to the voices I heard in my mind.
What was it like to hear voices and experience other hallucinations?
I began hearing voices on January 28, 2006, about eight months before being banned from campus. I was sitting on a park bench when I began hearing a chorus of children’s voices in the distance. Hearing the voices was sometimes horrible, and sometime thrilling. They called me a “homeless hoodlum” again and again, but they also said I was one of the smartest people on earth, and would someday hold a position of power. I also began to experience hallucinations in my reality that were as real as anything I have ever seen, heard or felt. I looked in the mirror one day and saw my face distorted, looking like the character Lisa from “The Simpsons.” I heard a woman with loud high heels walking back and forth for minutes at a time. One day, I saw a Chinese friend at an intersection waving at me continually like a machine at Disney World. I knew she had returned to China years prior.
Did you ever take drugs?
I have never taken drugs at any time in life, or consumed alcohol. My illness is genetic, and my doctors are fairly certain that I would have developed schizophrenia regardless of my lifestyle choices. My schizophrenia may have developed at a different time if I had never visited Africa. If I had been using alcohol or drugs, I may not have ever achieved my full recovery.
How did your mental illness affect your relationship with your family?
After my return from Africa in 2002, and at the start of my senior year of college, my illness was slowly turning me into a different person. I became angry that my parents didn’t want to sell their house and give all the money to Africa, so I refused to speak with them. We disagreed about another trip I wanted to take, to Thailand, since they saw I had traveled to China and Africa within ten months. In hindsight, arguing over the Thailand trip was the tip of the iceberg. The real problem was that my mental illness made my mind like a broken record, always going back to what I saw in Africa. Because of the obsession, I could no longer study, or work the simplest job.
Even though my parents did everything in their power to contact me, I refused to be in touch. They tried contacting my professors and friends, but after I found out my parents contacted these people, I would refuse to see them. A year after arguing about my trip to Thailand (and I did visit Thailand) my dad flew out to California to try to find me. The university was huge, and his chances of finding me on campus were almost impossible, but I did run into him. He had been my best friend, and my biggest supporter. In my illness, I had become a stranger. When I saw him, I turned around and ran the other way.
When were you diagnosed with schizophrenia, and when did you begin treatment?
I had been living in the churchyard for about thirteen months as my illness became worse every day. One morning, on March 3, 2007, when I was wandering around the churchyard, screaming back at the voices, a neighbor called the police. I was still certain nothing was wrong with me. That day, the doctor asked if I wanted to speak with my parents, who I had not communicated with in four and a half years, and I was willing. My parents told me that I had been sick, and that my behavior was not my fault. They welcomed me to live with them in Ohio again. I began medication and flew to Cincinnati.
A difficult year followed. I tried many different medications with terrible side effects that did not eliminate the voices. Finally, in February of 2008, I tried a medication called Clozaril. The voices became quieter everyday, until they disappeared, and my mind cleared. My parents first suggested that I return to college, and then my psychiatrist. My psychiatrist also spent hours with me talking about my new goals, and helping me make plans to rebuild my life. After two years, I finished my molecular biology degree with honors at the University of Cincinnati.
What is your life like today? Do you still take medication?
I continue to take my medication, Clozaril, everyday and expect to for the rest of my life. In some ways, managing schizophrenia is like managing diabetes. If patients with diabetes commit to watching their blood sugar levels and taking insulin, many of them can live normal lives. Today, many people with schizophrenia who commit to staying on their medications can also live normal and productive lives. A diagnosis of schizophrenia is not a “life sentence” as it used to be years ago.
After I graduated from college, I began writing my memoir, Mind Estranged, which took two years. I also began speaking publicly about my illness for drug companies and groups of physicians who were interested in my full recovery from treatment-resistance schizophrenia.
Today, I have a wonderful relationship with my family again. I live independently near the University of Cincinnati. My present work involves writing and speaking about schizophrenia, and I also volunteer with children through my church, tutor a ten-year-old, and play violin for gatherings and fundraisers. I enjoy swimming and spending time with friends. I’m grateful everyday for my full recovery, and for my parents and my doctors who helped make my recovery possible.
Bethany Yeiser holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology with honors from the University of Cincinnati. Prior to becoming homeless, she published three articles in biochemistry, including a first-authored article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2000, Bethany presented a first-authored poster at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. She began full-time college at age fifteen and transferred to a well-known university on the West Coast at seventeen.
Bethany spent three months living and volunteering in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya and in Lagos, Nigeria during the summer of 2002. On her return, in October, 2002, she incorporated a small nonprofit organization to channel money into indigenous African medical missions. It received tax-exempt status in March 2003, and raised several thousand dollars to build a new clinic in Nairobi, Kenya in August of 2003.
Bethany is an accomplished violinist. She has performed in orchestras, worked for recording studios, and taught violin.