Lifestyle

I have schizophrenia and hear voices – but don’t define me by my illness

This is one of a series of exclusive stories that we are highlighting as part of the Time To Change See The Bigger Picture campaign, led by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which aims to end stigma around talking about mental health. Please note that these articles contain discussion around topics that may be triggering to some readers.

I hear voices in my head. I have done since I was 22. They started when I was living in Lagos, Nigeria, where seeking help for mental health issues was seen as taboo.

On good days, my mental health is stable and I hear positive voices saying I’m an achiever or that I’m going to be great.

However, on bad days, the negative voices tell me I’m a waste of space, a failure. They say things like: ‘You are nothing but a crazy man, a wasted non-entity.’

I ask them to leave me alone and let me be who I am, but there have been times in the past where I’ve been so low that life hasn’t felt worth living anymore.

I’ve even thought about self-harm at times, but thankfully I’ve always been able to fight back and ignore the voices attempting to communicate with me.

Sometimes people have preconceptions about who I am. There have been occasions where I’ve experienced discrimination, stigma and prejudice.

I remember once being with a friend in my local coffee shop and somehow the conversation turned to mental health.

He looked over at a random woman and told me she had schizophrenia, adding, ‘most of them are aggressive; they hear strange voices and have personality disorders.’

To me, he was stigmatising everyone with a mental health diagnosis, showing his bias and the fact that he had no understanding of mental health. He simply saw us as violent, aggressive, weak and crazy.

After a while, I told him I had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and that I actually functioned very well. After a long, awkward silence, he apologised.

But the truth is, unfortunately, I don’t always function well. There are nights when I find it difficult to switch off and get some much-needed sleep.

The voices scream, and although I can now find ways around listening to them, there was one point in my life when I realised I’d lost all sense of care and wellbeing – I’d lost my own voice.

My symptoms heightened when I arrived in the UK from Lagos in 1992. The voices became extremely angry, and unbearable. I was so scared – terrified about what was happening to me and about society’s perception of schizophrenia. I was convinced I’d be murdered or tormented physically.

I cried a lot and I had no control of my senses, thoughts or feelings. Every strand of my life felt like it had been shredded into pieces of hopelessness. I knew I needed help but wasn’t confident to seek it, so at first I denied anything was wrong and tried to stifle my feelings and thoughts.

Help came as a matter of chance, five months after I arrived in the UK. By then I was homeless and was walking aimlessly at night along Charing Cross Road in Central London, when a man, who turned out to be a medical doctor, asked if I needed help. It was the trigger I needed, so I told him that I was unwell and he took me to a hostel for the night, which kick-started my journey to diagnosis. Eventually I was admitted to a mental health care home named “Open House” in South London, where I received one-to-one care. It became my safe haven and changed my life.

It took a long time to adjust to my diagnosis, but I’ve learned over the years to speak out about it whenever I can, even though it can be ponderous at times, as that’s the reality of living with schizophrenia.

When I tell people about my experiences, they’re surprised; they can’t believe I have suffered with mental health problems, because to them I seem so stable. But I will continue to speak out, reach out and help others to better understand.

I’m on medication which helps with the voices, thoughts and feelings and nearly 30 years on from that night in Charing Cross, I feel my life is full of beauty and positivity.

I’ve gone from living in a hostel to a self-contained flat in east London, completed an MA in creative writing and have a job with a theatre company in London. Once, I barely had any friends, now I have a great network of mates, colleagues and family.

I feel very proud of myself, my diagnosis and my way of life.

Time To Change

The reality of living with less common mental health problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder remains largely misunderstood. Time to Change is calling on people to see the bigger picture – click here to find out more.