A California telephone number showed up on my caller ID and my stomach dropped. I knew it was bad. I knew it had to be related to Jackie. Does she need help? Is she lost? Is she dead? The questions ran through my head as I answered the phone. And immediately, I heard her voice.
“Cathy, it’s Jackie.” She sounded frightened and panicked. “I don’t know what happened. They say I stabbed someone. He’s okay. I guess I thought he was raping me. I can’t remember. I don’t know. I can’t believe I’m in jail. I’m in jail!”
My heartbeat sped up, yet I tried to stay calm. Despite the disturbing news, I was happy to hear her voice. I was mortified that she was in jail, but I was relieved that she was alive. I couldn’t believe someone as gentle and fragile as Jackie could ever physically harm someone. At least, not the Jackie I knew… before the schizophrenia developed.
The last time I spoke to Jackie before that phone call had been two years earlier when she attended my baby shower. She stayed until the party ended, hugged me goodbye, jumped in her Hummer filled to the roof with clothes, and began her drive from Illinois to California. I never imagined she’d make it there, but she did.
Now, she was in California and in prison. I tried to calm her. “Jackie. Slow down. Tell me what’s going on. You’re sick. Do you understand you are sick? Did you get a lawyer? Does the lawyer know you are mentally ill?”
I went on to explain to her that a few years before she left for California, she had started showing signs of schizophrenia. “Do you remember sitting in your car, telling me you saw the devil walking down the street? Do you remember covering all the windows in your apartment with black tape? Do you remember believing the FBI was following you? Do you remember running through a restricted area at O’Hare airport? Do you understand that you are sick, Jackie?”
Through scattered thoughts and scrambled words, Jackie explained that her public defender told her she was schizophrenic and that she kind of understood, but I could tell she was confused and didn’t grasp that she was living with one of the most difficult forms of mental illness. Her life had been forever changed.
Jackie and I grew up across the street from each other. We were instant friends from the moment we first met at the bus stop in first grade. We remained close all through elementary and middle schools and graduated high school together. Even as we went separate ways for college, we stayed in touch and then moved to Chicago within a year of each other. Over the years, we shared adventures of our working lives together and stories of family drama, boy troubles, and fashion mishaps. Jackie even introduced me to her coworker, who eventually became my husband.
In her mid-twenties, Jackie started acting paranoid and displaying unusual behavior. She confided in me and shared her troubled thoughts. I pleaded with her to get professional help, without success. I felt utterly helpless. Despite losing my parents, a nephew, aunt, and grandmother within a four-year span, witnessing my childhood friend lose herself to schizophrenia was the most terrifying experience of my life.
I knew there was nothing I could do to keep my loved ones alive — they were dealt incurable diseases — but I always had hope that somehow my support and love for Jackie would help her get well. After all, as kids, whenever she needed to escape the sadness of her home or vent about a broken heart, I was there with an open ear, an ice cream cone, and a joke or two.
But this time was different. This time I was at a loss.
Here’s what I now know about Jackie’s debilitating disease, though there is still much I do not understand. The National Institute of Mental Health describes schizophrenia as “an incredibly complex disorder that has increasingly been recognized as a collection of different disorders.” It can occur in men and women of all ages, but women often tend to show signs of the illness in their late 20s and early 30s, which is exactly when Jackie exhibited signs.
There are different types of schizophrenia, “paranoid” being the one that Jackie has. Schizophrenia is often misunderstood and definitely stigmatized, as is much of mental illness. Research psychologist Eleanor Longden gave an incredible TEDTalk detailing how she discovered her own schizophrenia, how her friends reacted negatively, and how she ultimately conquered the voices in her head. Her story is one of hope. Hope that I wish exists for Jackie.
After the shocking phone call from jail, Jackie was convicted of assault and sentenced to seven years in the California state penitentiary system. Three years in, Jackie was transferred to a mental health facility. During this time, we had been writing to one another, and my husband and I decided to visit her. The anticipation of seeing Jackie was gut-wrenching. I didn’t know if I could go through with it or bear to see her in that environment. But I knew I had to try.
As my husband and I stood in line outside the mental health facility waiting for the doors to open, my head was flooded with happy memories. Me and Jackie, playing hopscotch at the bus stop, walking to junior high together, driving to high school in her beat-up car. My throat choked up. My legs shook. The guilt of failing her, of not being able to help her, overwhelmed me.
I looked at the pizza box and Fannie May chocolates in my hand and thought about how ridiculous it was to think they could brighten her day. She was trapped inside this place and inside her own mind. For a second, I thought it would be easier to just turn away. It would be easier to remember giggling together on the school bus, or cheering her on while she was in the high school prom court, or shopping for trendy outfits together at a Chicago boutique. It would be easier just to remember her before all this happened, as my carefree, fun-loving friend.
But that wasn’t her whole story. Schizophrenia, and prison along with it, was now part of her life. So when the doors opened, I took a shaky breath, dug deep, and walked in.
When Jackie saw me and my husband, she gave us a huge smile — the same stunning smile I remembered from when she was 5, and 15, and 25. She was still Jackie no matter what had happened to her. She was still my beautiful friend.
Our visit passed all too quickly. I showed her pictures of my son and daughter, whom she had never met. We laughed about the time a bird pooped on her head as we walked to school, and how we danced until 4 a.m. at a St. Patrick’s day party when we were 24. She told me how much she missed home, getting her nails done, working, and being intimate with men.
She still didn’t remember anything about the incident that landed her in jail, but felt deeply sorry for what she had done. She talked openly about her illness and said medication and therapy were helping. We cried about the fact that we might not see each other again for a long time. Suddenly, it was like the barbed wire fence outside had disappeared and we were sitting back in Chicago at a coffee shop sharing stories. It wasn’t perfect, but it was real.
When my husband and I left, we drove for nearly an hour in silence holding hands. It was a silence filled with sadness but also a glimmer of hope. I hated the heartbreaking situation Jackie was in. I resented the illness that had put her there, but I decided that while this might be part of Jackie’s life now, it would not define her.
To me, she will always be that sweet girl I looked forward to seeing at the bus stop every day.
If you have a friend or family member with schizophrenia, you can help by encouraging them to receive treatment and to stick to it. If you don’t know where to find a mental health professional who treats schizophrenia, ask your primary care physician to recommend one. You can also reach out to your loved one’s health insurance plan. If you prefer an Internet search, the American Psychological Association offers an online search by location and specialty.
The National Institute of Mental Health urges you to remember that schizophrenia is a biological illness that your loved one can’t just shut off. They suggest that the most helpful way to respond to your loved one when he or she says strange or false statements is to understand that they truly believe the thoughts and hallucinations they’re having.