Understanding a Roommate with Schizophrenia

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by RI Editors

This essay in our Peculiar Minds series is written anonymously, with names changed for privacy.

Cal Berkeley Dorm  [ unit one ]I met Trudy for the first time when I got home from work and she was unpacking in my bedroom. Aisha, my former roommate, had turned in her mission papers mid-semester and surrendered her housing contract for the complex rental office to sell on her behalf. So when Trudy walked into their office, they were happy to offer her our apartment as her new home without so much as an advisory telephone call to us, her new roommates.

Trudy’s words of introduction to me seemed without segue or logic. She wasn’t a student; she was here to get the job God told her to find. She was getting married to someone who lived in our apartment complex; she had met him in the temple. Her sentences were peppered with non sequiturs and bold pronouncements. She had grand plans. She saw angels. She spoke with God. I was angry with Aisha for leaving me vulnerable to this new roommate. I hated going home and avoided it whenever possible. My roommates played jarring music that Trudy hated so she would leave.

The more time I spent with Trudy, the more unsettled I felt around her. We never met the person she said she was going to marry. She never got a job. After a while, with the help of a family friend, we learned that she was already married and had left after suffering a psychotic break. She would call the bishop almost daily and then he would call me at work and ask me what really happened. I got to know the bishop really well during this time.

Trudy often spoke of angels, of what God was telling her to do. She did a lot of research and made a lot of plans. Everything she said was unsettling and off-balance and feeling that way made me feel entirely disingenuous. Didn’t I believe in revelation? Didn’t I believe that God talks to His children? Why, then, did every visitation and revelation from Trudy’s mouth make me cringe? Why did I doubt so completely that she saw whom she said she saw and heard what she said she heard?

My roommates felt the same way. It was a surreal and disturbing ride whenever Trudy was home. We hated that we felt this way. But we all agreed that we felt this way. Our family home evening sisters called us uncharitable, told us we were downright mean. The bishop kept calling me to try and sort things out. He talked to family friends and gathered as much real information as he could and we all prayed.

Trudy’s lack of a job led to her rent check bouncing. Our paternalistic landlord called the bishop and asked what he wanted to do. The bishop, the kindest man I have ever met, felt that eviction could perhaps help her, so they did. Trudy eventually ended up sleeping on the couch of our more charitable family home evening sisters, who within days were begging for our forgiveness for their harsh judgments. They had her involuntarily committed. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She called us at least once a day to talk of her research on the inappropriate uses of psychotropic meds. Nothing seemed to be helping. She was agitated now, because the voices had stopped and she seemed frantic for them to return.

She appealed her commitment hearing and they had to release her. She wasn’t of physical danger to herself or anyone else. She didn’t come back to us. She stopped calling. One day later that summer, I thought I saw her on the street and I nearly crashed my car. And then in the fall, my former roommate watched Trudy stand up in her sacrament meeting and sing a musical number. My roommate panicked and ran out of the meeting.

Why was our reaction so universally fearful? She never hurt us or even threatened harm. During the time Trudy was in my life and in my room, I deeply questioned everything about divine communication that I thought I knew. Ultimately, my only conclusion as to why I was certain she neither saw angels nor heard God was that the fruits of her communications were not peace. No one felt better for what she saw and heard, not even Trudy. She seemed disoriented, even in her certainty of angelic ministrations.

As much as she deferred to her voices — believing them to be angels — did Trudy have moments of lucidity? I don’t know. She seemed entirely given over to the delusions; she was lost and agitated when they were gone during her medicated stay in the psych ward. I wonder what I would have done if I were her family. They let her leave when she had her psychotic break and there were many days I was very angry they didn’t do more to keep her home and safe, if not for herself, for us. But really, what could they have done? I only know that we were ill-equipped to do anything.

I know more about mental illness now than I did then. I recognize the frenetic plans and research as likely how Trudy’s bipolar disorder worked with her schizophrenia. I imagine the disorientation of walking around with all those voices in your head all the time and I don’t know that I would have been able to choose the real ones either.

 

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2 Responses to Understanding a Roommate with Schizophrenia

  1. Bonnie says:

    So many issues brought up by this article. College years are a young time to face such difficult circumstances. Housing leaders need greater awareness. Ecclesiastical leaders need greater support. Those of us looking in from the outside need to ask more questions and walk in more shoes before we evaluate. And it’s all happening among such young people! It’s a tangled thing this life and we’re just meant to do our best. It sounds like you really tried with her.

    The underlying issue of revelation is an important one. I was just reading about Hiram Page and his stone, and Joseph’s gentle revelation received that it was Oliver who should go and talk to him about it. I’ve always been impressed with Hiram’s ability to hear Oliver and let it go. Even without diagnosed disorders, it can be hard for us to let go of something that may not have been from the Holy Spirit. Yet as bystanders, we are often called to “try the spirits” just as Joseph taught his associates to do, just as Adam had likely taught him. We spend our lives sorting these things out. It seems to be one of the most important things we do.

  2. it is hard to hear about your experience. I can only imagine how unsettling it was to have “Trudy” as a roommate as she experienced acute symptoms.

    However, I feel I need to caution readers. While this is an excellent article about your experience, I’m concerned it will lead others to believe that all people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia will behave in the same manner and create an environment as disturbing as the one you’ve described. That is not the case.

    I too have both diagnoses. It is known as schizoaffective disorder. I too probably created an awful environment for some of my roommates when I was experiencing acute symptoms and before I learned how to cope with them. However, after I began to learn coping strategies and was finally placed on medication which worked, I couldn’t find a place to live because my old roommates (who hadn’t had contact with me for several years) contacted potential roommates and told them about their awful experiences living with me. At that point, I was back to being myself again, a completely different person than when I was experiencing acute symptoms. It took me several months to find a roommate who didn’t give a hoot about my label and allowed me to live with her, regardless of the scary stories spread by previous roommates. Thanks to her acceptance, and living utilizing my coping strategies, I’ve since gotten married in the temple, balanced two jobs, served as Young Women Secretary, been the bread winner while my husband was unemployed, guest lectured on psychiatric rehabilitation at Universities and next month will be graduating with my Master’s of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling: Psychiatric Rehab emphasis.

    Not all people with the same label act the same way. However, many end up acting the same way because they internalize the stigma associated with their label, reflectant on how people react to them, and begin to believe the label is all they are and all they ever will be.

    People can change, regardless of how acute their label may sound: Recovery is possible.

    Maybe after Trudy has the opportunity to learn coping skills and strategies to take better control of her illness, she too will be in my situation. Or, perhaps she was pulled together when your friend impulsively escaped during Trudy’s musical number. Who knows?

    -SPH

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