Anna’s story

"When I am really sick and my inner-devil voices are strong, I have often tried to break an arm or a leg or some other bone in my body. I figure that, if I have a broken bone somewhere, people can see that something is wrong and that I am in pain. But generally I think people are less frightened by mental illness than they were a few years ago. The discussion has opened up and there is less stigma these days.

I am a thirty-year-old woman from Iceland diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’ve done self-harm to myself since I was around twelve, and my body is covered with scars that I will bear until the end of my life. When I was eighteen I began hearing voices, and I’ve been hearing them almost every day since then. Some of them are friendly aliens who support me and give me advice when I feel lost, but others are devils who terrify me and make me sick. The first time they visited me I was petrified. Not knowing what to do, I began behaving strangely, shaving all the hair off my body, and frightened the people around me. Luckily the devils are not with me all the time, but when they come I know they will invariably make me sick.

I wrote my first suicide note when I was twelve, and when I was sixteen I stole my father’s sleeping pills and made my first suicide attempt. As a result, I was sent to a psychiatric institution for children and adolescents, and that is where my mental history started. Since then I have been in and out of mental hospital. Sometimes I have good periods and sometimes bad.

I have a wonderful eight-year-old daughter who lives with her father. She is very important to me, and often she is the only reason that I take my medicines and don’t just finish myself off. She helps me fight off the devils and try to remain strong, so that I can be there when she needs me and watch her grow.

I separated from her father last February, after living with him for 10 years. I met him while I was in psychiatric hospital, and he has been the greatest help and support that anyone could ever wish for. I owe much of my recovery to him. His family, too, has been supportive, even though it has been difficult for them to understand me at times.

I had a rough childhood, although there were some good times in between. I was sexually abused by my stepfather from the age of eight. When my mother found out about it five years later, my stepfather appeased her by admitting to the act, but saying that he would never do the same thing to his own children. Apparently this satisfied her and she took no action.

Since nothing improved at my mother’s, I went to live with my biological father a year later, in another part of the country. At first everything seemed fine, but after a few months he, too, began abusing and raping me. It turned out he was a drug addict and when I confronted him with it, he stopped hiding his dependence and started taking the drugs openly, in front of me.

Through all of this I had an imaginary friend who was a great comfort. Her full name was Timothy Kent Mason, but I called her Tim for short. She was a kind of soldier, and so mentally strong that she could go through any kind of torture without being affected. When things were difficult for me, I became Tim. At one time when I was living with my mother and having difficulties at school, I shirked classes by sneaking down to the basement and hiding there during the day, while my mother thought I was at school. I spent the time lying in a sleeping bag, taking part in all the wonderful adventures of Tim. Sadly enough, she is no longer with me; she disappeared around the time when the evil voices started. I still miss her and mourn her. She was my dearest friend and would always be there when I needed her.

I finished school in style and with very good grades, but I couldn’t handle college. I made three attempts at different ones before I finally gave up altogether. I was back with my mother again, but our relationship was getting worse and worse. In the end I was forced to go to a Red Cross Shelter for children and teenagers, since I had no other place to go. I left the shelter for the streets, lived with friends for a while and began to smoke pot. After my third and most serious suicide attempt, I met my husband and went to live with him.

I’ve had a few odd jobs and at one point I worked in a protected workplace, but since I always let the employer know that I have schizophrenia, it’s difficult to get a job. I haven’t been able to stay at college long enough to finish a semester, so I don’t have an education. There is no way that I can get a job that I would really enjoy without one, so I’ve had to watch my dreams go by without being able to do anything about them. It’s been very bad for my self-esteem, and I have often felt that I was no more than a worthless piece of garbage.

I have been active in a user organization called Hugarafl, which means Mindpower. I became involved through my ex-husband who was very active at the time. I have translated brochures and other materials for them, and they have helped me in many ways, for example in getting food donations for Christmas, and getting me admitted to hospital when I needed it (in Iceland it can be very difficult to get admitted to a psychiatric hospital if you don’t arrive in an ambulance or with police escort). Working with the translations has made me feel that I was useful and had a role to play in the organization. They also provide a place where you can relax and meet other users, and a workspace that you can borrow if you need it. Another service I have made use of is talking to an occupational therapist, and being visited by a home assistant, who comes to your home in the mornings and helps you to get up, take your medicine and perhaps get out of the house.

As far as the treatment in psychiatric hospitals goes, I am not that satisfied. In order to stay there, you have to take drugs, and you hardly see the doctors at all. They may talk to you for five minutes a day and ask how you are doing, and if you say that you are OK, they will say: “That’s good, have a nice day.“ If you answer that you are not feeling too well, they will say: “Oh, that’s too bad, I’ll see you tomorrow.“

There is a psychologist working at the hospital but he tells me that, since my diagnosis is schizophrenia and not depression, talking therapy cannot help me. I am in contact with a doctor outside the hospital who gives me talking therapy, however. I’m supposed to see him for half an hour every two weeks, but it’s expensive, so often I can’t go even though I need it. I feel very lucky to have him, though.

I would really like talking therapy to be more accessible, less expensive and easier to obtain than it is. The first time you need to talk to a therapist, you spend hours calling different doctors, trying to find one who will accept you. Some are fully booked, others only take on special cases that have been redirected from other doctors, and psychologists are so expensive that the average person does not have the means to go to them.
I would also want the psychiatric hospitals to admit people a little earlier and not just when the users have become seriously ill. It would prevent social damage, like families and friends giving up on you because you have begun behaving in a difficult fashion. People lose their jobs because their illness stops them going to work, and they lose their homes because they are too sick to pay the rent regularly. If people were admitted earlier, it would save the community a lot of money, unnecessary illness could be prevented, people wouldn’t have to spend so much time in hospital and could become active in society much earlier.

There is also a need to follow up on patients after they leave the hospital. A social worker should be attached to each person, helping him or her to sort things out, and everyone should have at least one appointment with a doctor or a psychologist outside the hospital.

Another idea is that a person leaving the hospital be put in contact with an experienced user on the outside, who can help and guide the “newcomer“ in his or her first steps through the mental health system on the outside. Who knows, they might even become friends.

I do think some positive changes are taking place in the mental health system in Iceland, though. Doctors are opening up to alternatives to the traditional system, and are actually starting to mention user organizations and self-help groups to the patients. Occupational therapy is also a growing factor during and after hospital stays.

For me personally, things are looking better, too. I’m starting art college in January and hope to become a graphic designer.

This was my story. Thank you for your patience."