Her Jacket

by Allie Burke

Usually women with schizophrenia are diagnosed in their twenties. The same went for me, but my symptoms started around 3 years years old. I just didn’t know it at the time. Most children have monsters in their closets or under their beds, and as I got older, I figured it had to do with that, even if they were still there. Humans—we’re such odd creatures. Always looking for the excuse that makes us normal.

My hallucinations manifested in the walls. They started as these thick shadows. Black tar dripped from its fingertips to reveal sharp claws. It grew from the corner of the walls until it darkened every space of white in the room. The shadow monster’s voice was demanding and dark. It spoke to three-year-old me in a language the little girl couldn’t understand.

I was a strange child; never fit in, blah blah, nobody cares. I mean, really. What child fits in? Read a YA book. Even the popular cheerleader doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life.

The voices, as I would learn to call them, never went away. When I was a child, I was so scared of them. I used to cover my ears and squeeze my eyes shut until my eyelashes felt like they were breaking in half. Eventually I would fall asleep, and they would go away until the next night. When I was a teenager, I was used to them. “You again,” I used to say to dead air in the middle of the night. I listened more closely in my teens, instead of trying to block them out with my hands over my ears. I would lay awake in bed, just listening. But the language was unlike any I’d ever heard, and I never figured it out. If I had to, I would guess an ancient language. It sounds angry yet delicate; broken yet structured. It sounds just like a shadow would sound if a shadow could talk.

I was nineteen when the voices escaped my bedroom and started following me around in the daylight. Except it wasn’t just those voices. There were new ones. In English that I could understand just fine. People I knew. There were people I talked to every day walking with me to my college classes or driving with me to work. Why? Because I was fucking crazy. Have you ever tried to have a conversation over the voices in your own head? Have you ever made reference to a conversation you and your friend that never had actually happened? It makes you feel pretty crazy. Not to mention the way others look at you when this is happening.

I was twenty, taking a math final when the voices—the shadows—appeared. They were louder than they ever had been in my bedroom, the volume rising with every minute that passed. The words on my exam were bleeding. I tried to focus but my white page was nearly entirely red, with thick, sticky fluid. It was all over my hands. I pushed it off the desk and I walked out. I never went back.

That’s a lie. I’m in my first semester back now. I’m 30.

I got married, eventually. I got divorced too. I got institutionalized when new voices told me to kill myself. Well, I institutionalized myself. I was in my car one afternoon—I do this thing where I sit in the car forever before I get out and actually go where I need to go—and I felt a tingling sensation in my arm. It felt like a foreign object trying to break it’s way through my wrist. I could have ended it in that car. But I drove to a local hospital and told them I was suicidal.

Mental hospitals are much like Girl, Interrupted—one of the only themes Hollywood gets right. They are terrifying. When you look into patients eyes all you see is emptiness, and you’re not allowed to cross certain lines if you don’t want to be strait-jacketed. The beds are dingy and you’re not allowed any clothes with strings on them. People wear socks with little grips on the bottom. The only difference from Girl, Interrupted is they don’t take you out for ice cream and the rebel girls don’t go exploring in the night. There is no exploring. There is nowhere to go.

I wasn’t there long enough to stay the night. After the quietest and driest dinner I’ve ever eaten, I demanded to a nurse that they release me after I found out how long some people had been there. I was naïve to think that it would only take a couple days to ‘fix’ me, but I didn’t have that kind of time. I had to go to work.

I left my husband after two years of marriage. I knew there was a way to figure out how to beat this thing called schizophrenia without the debilitating medication, but he didn’t. He didn’t believe that I was okay. To his credit, I wasn’t, but that was what I needed at the time. For someone to tell me I was okay. His family hates me now. I wrote a piece for Stigma Fighters—a non-profit organization I would eventually co-found from the ground up with its CEO Sarah Fader, wherein I wrote I would die if I had stayed with my ex-husband, which I would have. But I could have said it differently in a way that wouldn’t hurt him, and I didn’t think about it at the time. A family member of his—my maid of honor at our wedding—wrote a comment on the piece that made me cry for days. I deserved it, though. I don’t ever claim to be a good person, and I’m not. I certainly wasn’t to him. Divorce is such a selfish act.

The two years after that would be the most horrendous. I stopped taking my medication and it was hard, going home at night to nobody. I cried a lot. I drank a lot. But I was still me. This person who just refused to give up because she had been through too much shit already.

I got hooked up with this guy who calls himself an energy doctor, and he saved my life. He works with the sympathetic part of your brain that that connects to the ailments in your body with energy work and flower remedies. I felt better than I ever had. After moving in with my dad for about a year, I got myself an apartment. I became an associate of my company where I was a contract employee for close to eight years and wrote a book that very closely related to what I had been through. It’s a bestseller, and certainly my most popular. I did it for the schizophrenic people like me who have nowhere to turn.

Using schizophrenic instead of person with schizophrenia is an artistic choice like many other elements of my life. I’ve been warned by advocates that it is offensive and contributes to stigma. Elyn Saks, the acclaimed professor with the illness, said once that “There are no schizophrenics. There are people with schizophrenia.” But there’s another saying that says the difficult times make us stronger, and I really do believe that. I’m proud of who I’ve become and I wear schizophrenia like a jacket on a cold day. I need it, and it needs me to work right.

It keeps me warm enough to remind me I’m still alive.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece will be published in the Seeing Her Ghosts Anthology.

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Allie Burke is the creator of the literary magazine and writers society Organic Coffee, Haphazardly. Her writings have been featured in Vice Magazine, Refinery 29, and in bestselling books sold nationwide.
Allie lives in Long Beach, California.
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