Overcoming Schizophrenia: Janelle Borsum
I grew up in a stable and loving household. I attended excellent public schools, and played competitive sports including soccer, swimming, basketball and volleyball. After working hard throughout middle school and high school, I graduated with an honors diploma.
In 2010, I began college at a university in Oregon on an athletic scholarship for rowing, even though I had never done so competitively. I loved rowing on the erg machines and being on the water, but the pressure of a highly competitive collegiate sport was too intense for me, and I gave it up after a year.
I have always loved cooking, so I decided to focus on food science as a major. I landed a job working on campus in a dairy making cheese, where I was able to use my passion for the profession for the first time; I even came in second in a college-wide contest. While I had successfully transitioned off the rowing team into a new passion, all was not well. My grades began slipping, and I spent my savings on home decor, kitchen items, food, make-up hoping it would make me feel better. Having grown up with dogs and cats, I recognize the emotional benefit they provide. Feeling homesick for family and my animals, I got Millie, a darling tuxedo cat.
During my senior year of college, I became more anxious, and friends recommended marijuana gummies to ease my nerves. I did not use drugs, so I had no tolerance for marijuana. My doctors said since I was suffering from depression and my mind was fragile, the marijuana precipitated a psychotic break. I went to the hospital multiple nights knowing something was wrong, but they just dismissed me as a drug user. Eventually, the psychiatrist called my mom and told her I had a severe drug problem. She and my aunt drove through the night for ten hours and found me in the Janis House, a respite facility for drug and alcohol abusers. I was still in the midst of a psychotic break.
Because I was so embarrassed, afraid and ashamed, I wouldn’t see my mom for hours after her arrival. Following days of confusion and a failure of mental health care to recognize my immediate needs, I dropped my classes, and my dad flew up to get me home. I lived in a fog, feeling like a failure. The future I was hoping to build abruptly changed as my dependency on my parents increased.
Early in my diagnosis, I begged my parents to find help for me. I’d go anywhere. I couldn’t handle the degrading voices and hallucinations. The medication also made me feel so disengaged with reality.
Inpatient mental health facilities are hard to find if one does not also suffer from addictions. I have learned that finding high quality mental health care is incredibly difficult; and this is compounded because I live in a state that ranks 51st in the nation for mental health care.
Fortunately, I have a loving family who have been able to fight for me even when I am not able. In California, we found a treatment facility which seemed to be a good fit. After a month, I was feeling less paranoid, so I went home. Unfortunately, this respite did not last. At that time, my psychiatrist retired, launching me into a downward spiral.
I found another psychiatrist who had more respect for my illness and realized the importance of my connection with family. He also had higher expectations for my recovery. Rather than calling the police when I feel suicidal, he contacts my parents, who sent the appropriate actions into motion.
In 2019, I attended an Elyn Saks Institute seminar at the University of Southern California where I learned many people who suffer from severe mental health illness can live successful lives. From this seminar, I heard about the pros and cons of clozapine. Subsequently, I went to see Dr. Steven Marder who advised I begin clozapine since previous medication had not alleviated my symptoms; I asked my treatment team to start me on clozapine. The blood tests have been arduous, but the results for me have been life changing.
While I am still learning to live with my diagnosis, I have noticed a few things that help me stay well. Taking my medication, honestly communicating with my family and healthcare team, and living a more active, purposeful lifestyle.
Besides my psychiatrist, I work with a family counselor, a personal counselor and an amazing general practitioner. They have all contributed to my recovery. I feel I present them with a challenge – I am determined to not be an invalid due to my illness. My family and I are not satisfied with the idea that I will have to live in a facility or at home as I was originally told.
My twin brother, Scott, has been a constant support. He lives in Florida, which is hard for me, but I know I can contact him anytime. He knows my strengths and weaknesses; he can sense better than anyone when I need help. I worry I am a burden to him, so this furthers my determination to get better.
Having a job provides a sense of accomplishment, as well as a means toward financial independence. After I moved home, a chef recognized my talent and desire to improve my cooking skills, and she offered me a job to work in a pantry on the line. This involved making all of the desserts, salads and appetizers. The job gave me purpose. Fortunately, my colleagues recognized and appreciated my skill while understanding my illness. I worked full time including service at nights, but the stress caused my hallucinations to return with a vengeance. Over time, I am learning to manage these hallucinations.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the restaurant has closed and will not reopen. I have now transitioned to doing small, family catering. I have lived on my own with financial support from my family for five years.
My goal is to either find another restaurant job or extend my catering into a fulltime business, so I can become financially independent. I also plan to finish my college degree and get into better shape physically. Forming more meaningful relationships is also important to me, and I hope to become an advocate and stand up against the negative connotations people have of schizophrenia. I have achieved a life-long dream by adding a boxer puppy to my life. She will help me navigate between reality and hallucinations.
Today, I realize that my independence and freedom depend on my ability to make conscious decisions to take my medications, ask for help when I need it and take care of myself both physically and mentally. I would encourage young people struggling with schizophrenia to look for purpose. Work in my field has helped me find myself, and has been key in my recovery.