Honoring Our Heritage, Nurturing Our Mental Health: A Black History Month Reflection
By Jessica Orenstein As a young Black woman, this Black History Month feels particularly poignant. It’s a time when we celebrate the richness of our ...
Something terrifying and unexpected happened to me. By making the right choices, I am here today to share my story.
I grew up with love from my family and friends. Life was really quite easy for me, and I am blessed for the things I have had that made my childhood the best it could be. My grade averages in high school were B’s and C’s, I’d play excessive amounts of video games, and I’d hang out with my three best friends as often as I could. I’d come home to my family consisting of my mother, father, and sister for a while, until my parents divorced, and my sister went off to college.
However, I smoked marijuana recreationally, binge drank alcohol only around a dozen times between the ages of 16-18. Both my mom and I knew that I was taking a big risk—my family has a history of addiction. Though marijuana made me extremely euphoric, that would eventually turn to paranoia and something much worse than I could have ever imagined.
During my astronomy class in my senior year of high school, I suddenly felt the creeping feeling of extreme paranoia. “Strange,” I thought to myself. “It couldn’t have been from marijuana since that day I hadn’t smoked–so, I wasn’t high. It couldn’t have been a lack of sleep because my sleep schedule was good and consistent.”
I didn’t know it yet, but it was the onset of something called psychosis, which would be part of my first diagnosis: major depression with psychotic features.
“What is going on? What is going on?” I thought to myself. “My peers in class are all staring at me.” But they weren’t. It only felt like they were. I left school, drove home, and curled up on my baize leather couch in a fetal position, while my entire world collapsed in on me.
The normal reality I had been experiencing turned into a hellish paranoia and was unimaginably terrifying. Imagine having every single thought you’ve ever had given a microphone. No privacy, no control, and on maximum volume for six months. And imagine that your thinking is chaotic and disorganized, memories mixing with the wrong perceptions in those memories, like an infinite downward spiral. And imagine having delusions that you couldn’t keep to yourself, confusing and worrying loved ones around you. My self-awareness was absent. I truly believed my cat was God and that I knew I was Jesus Christ.
For the next six months, I struggled behind what has been, and what I define as the underlying traumatic period of my life. My brain was bruised. I needed to heal, I needed to recover, and I needed it to happen NOW and FAST. “Mom, when will I get better? When will the medicine kick in?” I would ask the same question non-stop during our daily walks. This became my mantra for months. And then, something incredible happened that shifted my mentality. “The click.”
For a few fleeting moments, which I remember as the 15 seconds, I tangibly felt all the hell I was experiencing–all of those loud thoughts, paranoia, lack of self-awareness, and absolute fear–come to a point of pure control. Colors became clear again like bright yellow sun rays after a storm, and I thought to myself, “This is the end of psychosis.” But that peculiar event slowly faded away, and I lapsed back to a state of psychosis.
From then on, I grasped onto this idea of the power of self-control. This was twinned with hope–a remarkable force that remains present with me. Psychosis was not going to win me over. I was going to wrestle it; I was going to defeat it.
Those 15 seconds of clarity were an incentive to take my medicine every day afterward. I discovered an optimism, an introspectiveness, and a growth-mindset approach. I got to a place where I knew that I would survive this crisis because of the support of my family, therapists, specialists, and psychiatrist.
My father noticed a ballroom dance studio near my psychiatrist’s office. He asked if I’d try out a few lessons. This out-of-the-box thinking not only helped speed up my healing process but also proved to be something that would eventually be my greatest talent. Every day I clung onto hope that my medicine would kick in, that my life would return to normal, that maybe if I prayed hard enough, I’d get the click again. And oh boy, did it get better.
I was beginning to heal very, very gradually. I was actually healing! After that point in time when I had very little hope, back when I’d say, “This is permanent,” and, “Will I ever get better?” it got better. I wanted to give my support team all the credit, but they told me, “Dev, you did most of the hard work. You should be very proud of yourself.”
From 19-21, I finally was free of the misery I had been going through, however, using the wrong dosage of medicine; it just was not the right medicinal cocktail for my brain.
Fast forward to my 21st birthday. I relapsed from missing my daily medicine intake, mixed with the previous night’s drinking in college. Putting myself in the psych ward was the best birthday gift I could have ever given myself because I asked for help and I received care. But this psychotic break only lasted one month. And the most crucial part about my hospitalization was that they found me the medication that 100% works. But, what followed closely behind was with my new diagnosis. It didn’t faze me; in actuality, it gave me a sense of relief and even a sense of belonging to the world around me. This optimism about becoming healthier was the beginning of my new identity. I was going to sacrifice drugs and alcohol and anything necessary to keep myself good.
For the past four years, I’ve had none of the positive symptoms of psychosis. Life’s current issues seemed like nothing compared to what I’d been through.
I’ve accumulated over 45 tools in a dense “toolkit” that is there for emergencies and for reflection. I am very self-sufficient in entertaining myself with activities such as playing piano, singing, socializing, caring for animals, working at my new job, writing a book, reading, creating video content, and the list keeps growing.
During my years of ballroom dancing, I won a few competitions. I’ve danced in two blockbuster films (Joy and The Finest Hours) next to the renowned Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pine. I received my bachelor’s degree in the performing arts with a minor in creative writing. I graduated with magna cum laude honors. I passed my Certified Peer Specialist exam, and currently work for Parent Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and Youth MOVE Massachusetts as a youth coordinator where I help people between 14-30 years old to find hope in their own lives.
Most of all, I can finally say that I am 100% recovered and that I have never felt so present, secure, and resilient as I do today. I have not touched alcohol or drugs in order to never revisit that trauma. I have manifested a life that is now better than before my illness. I have become more empathetic, friendlier, grateful, independent, healthier, socially adept, confident, communicative, honest, self-aware, and collaborative. I have uncovered talents I never knew I had.
I am Dev, and this is why I am not afraid to say that I have schizophrenia.
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7.
You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.
If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.