Elvira E. Sears's Story
I thought my life was just beginning. I'd finished college a few years
earlier, and was working on a research project. Then, symptoms started
appearing, and my life came to a standstill. I had to be reminded what
to do when I woke up... to brush my teeth, to wash up. The man I was living
with at the time started staying home with me, and we both sought help
through his employee assistance provider. The psychologist there suggested
I go to one of the area hospitals. This was my first of about six psychiatric
My diagnosis was schizophrenia. After the hospitalization, I continued
with therapy and medication. I continued trying to work, but I couldn't
keep a job very long. I tried clerical work, proofreading, waitressing.
I even tried substitute teaching (I had gotten a teaching degree as "something
to fall back on") but my illness caused me to treat the students inappropriately.
One of my psychiatrists suggested I try to get a civil service job. At
first I was reluctant, because I thought I'd be working with people like
me. Eventually, I started working with people with mental retardation.
There was a provision in the job that allowed me to take off 12 weeks if
I worked 1250 hours. That leave helped considerably, and I kept that job
for about 11 years.
I had a very bad day treatment experience in 1998. At the day treatment
program in New York, someone committed suicide. I had to leave after that,
and I went home to Florida, thinking my life was over. I was cut off from
my medication, and I constantly thought about death and dying.
A psychiatric assessment center helped me find a source of medication
again. The center also ran a day treatment program. Despite my doubts after
my last day treatment, I ended up going there. And even to this day I miss
it. It was the best.
This program was great because it was long-term (I stayed from July 1998
to February 1999) and because the people were really caring. I had a car
and could drive myself, but the occupational therapist always said to me,
"We'll pick you up." This was so helpful because I had to be up,
showered, and ready for the car at 8:30. It got me out of bed.
The day program was instrumental in me securing a volunteer position at
a place that helps find housing for people with special needs, mental illness.
I volunteered there for approximately four years. Now I work there part-time.
I help people with mental illness find housing, and it's something I want
to do. It's a far cry from the other jobs I've had. I never thought I'd
be paid to talk on the phone!
In addition to my work, I volunteer for the Mental Health Association
and facilitate a Schizophrenics Anonymous support group. I think being
busy and having something to do is important. I still spend some time at
home, but I try to get out every day.
When a person is ill, it's important to have the support of family and
friends. I stayed away from my family for 22 years thinking that if I came
home, they'd lock me away in an asylum. But to my surprise, they were very
supportive. Of course, some are less supportive than others. There are
people who say "Theres nothing wrong with you. You're just spoiled." But
there are always going to be people who don't accept it. A mental illness
isn't like a physical handicap—you can't see it.
Drop-in centers are very important places for consumers to go as an alternative
to isolating themselves at home. Presently I attend and am active member
at three drop-in-centers including 9 Muses Art Center, in Lauderhill, FL;
REBELS Drop-in-Center in Hollywood, FL; and the Personal Empowerment Education
and Recreation (PEER) Center in Oakland Park, FL. Before leaving New York
to help in my recovery I also attended drop-in-centers there.
I used to think I was doomed. I used to talk about how I would prepare
for my funeral. Looking back on that now, I feel marvelous. As long as
there's life, there's hope.
Elvira E. Sears