Rebecca Chamaa: Every night, a few hours
before going to bed, I start thinking of what I need to, or want to, write about the next day. Often what I am thinking about is a topic for my blog. When I finally come up with an idea (this can take a couple of hours) then I start writing the first few sentences in my mind. I put myself to sleep every night by working and reworking what I will write the next morning. When I wake up, I get to work by typing it all up on the computer. I spend much more time thinking and planning than I do writing.
F: You’ve discussed having schizophrenia and the urgency around seeking adequate mental health care for women in particular. How do you go about utilizing your writing as a platform for these issues?
RC: In terms of using my writing as a platform: I didn’t always write about mental illness, I lived in the closet about my mental illness for nearly twenty years. I recently (six months ago) made my diagnosis public to friends, family, etc. Since that time I started a blog: A Journey with you: Surviving Schizophrenia. On my blog, I often write about issues involving the mentally ill and homelessness. I also write about the high percentage of prisoners who are mentally ill. I feel women are the most vulnerable in these scenarios. I also wrote a short book: Pills, Poetry & Prose: Life with Schizophrenia, I wrote a monologue about living successfully with schizophrenia that was performed in San Diego, and I have written many articles for mental health organizations and magazines. I do all of this to try to educate people about one of the most misunderstood, stigmatized, and severe of the mental illnesses. I want people to know that the characters they have seen, and continue to see, on television (usually a genius or a murderer) are not accurate. Those of us with schizophrenia can be your neighbors, coworkers, or the person next to you in line at the grocery store. I feel my writing is important to help break down the barriers that exist and that keep people from being accepted in their communities and seeking long term treatment which can keep them off the streets and out of jail.
F: You also acknowledge that you write from a position of privilege. Would you say that the popular perception of mental health is impacted by socioeconomic disparities as well as sexism?
RC: In an urban environment people’s exposure to schizophrenia is probably someone who is homeless or living in a shelter. So yes, there is a socioeconomic perception about severe mental illness.
In terms of sexism, when someone is showing obvious signs of schizophrenia, or even bipolar disorder, such as having an episode of psychosis, I think men fair far worse in these situations than women. People tend to be more frightened of what a man will do, than what a woman will do, and there have been many instances where unarmed men with a mental illness have been killed because they were seen as threatening.
F: How can we best utilize our privilege to advocate for the less fortunate through writing?
RC: I think the best thing all of us can do is to interact with people who are less fortunate or even different from ourselves, and to write about those encounters. I often walk downtown and talk with homeless people. I use the gems from those conversations to tell stories. Telling stories can normalize and humanize marginalized populations. The homeless and the mentally ill definitely benefit from having positive stories written about them.
F: Do you think that writing can bring about change in terms of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness? What’s your ideal vision for how the mental health system should look?
RC: Yes, I believe that writing can bring about change. By writing about my relationships, my travels, and my daily life, I normalize myself to people and I frequently receive e-mails from people saying they had no idea someone with schizophrenia could be so high functioning. Having people change their perception of severe mental illness chips away at the stigma and makes life easier and better for all of us.
In terms of what my ideal is for our mental health system, I would say my number one concern is to rebuild many of the hospitals that closed in the 90’s. We don’t have enough beds or treatment facilities for all the people who need that level of care. Also, I know it is a fine line to walk in terms of people’s rights, but I would like to see a system where a hospital can hold someone for more than seventy two hours (in California this is called 5150). Three days is not enough time for most anti-psychotic medications to work. Sending people back on the street after three days is dangerous. It is basically releasing them with little to no treatment. Even if the law was changed to keep people for a week, those extra four days would help a lot. I know my view would not be popular with many advocates, but I have been psychotic and I have refused treatment, and I know how problematic that is for families and the risks that it entails to the individual and possibly the community.
F: Do you have any advice for women, writers or otherwise, struggling to cope with mental illness or deciding whether or not to seek treatment?
RC: This question gets me in the heart. Yes, I have something to say. I nearly died two times to suicide attempts in 1997. Two strangers saved my life on both occasions. I am so thankful that I am alive. I didn’t know at that time that the next eighteen years of my life would be the best I have ever had. I had no idea life could be so good. Get treatment. Reach out. Your best days are ahead of you, and trust me on this one you don’t want to miss a single one of them.
Rebecca Chamaa has published her essays and poetry on Yahoo Health, The Mighty, Role Reboot, Manifest Station, Structo, Transition, Serving House Journal, San Diego Reader, City Works and many other journals and anthologies. You can follow her blog at http://www.ajourneywithyou.com