This story is by Jasmine Taylor and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“Wow, almost a year later and we are completing our last interview.”
I stated, finding a place to sit. Ella lightly smiled.
“Time does fly doesn’t it? I’m ready when you are.”
I smiled and turned on my recorder.
“So can you explain what life is currently like for you, to live with schizophrenia? I’m sorry if that sounded impersonal.”
I waited for a response from Ella, whom I was interviewing for an article series I was working on. Ella, or Ella Christine to some, was a budding artist. Mostly known for her artwork that had been coveted and shared multiple times on social media, she was also beginning to receive attention for her contemporary dancing.
Ella twiddled her fingers and gave a faint smile.
“Oh its fine Mandy,” she muttered. “No offense taken.”
She let out a loud sigh as she casually crossed her left leg over her right.
“Um well, I cannot speak for others who deal with the, um, disorder,” Ella stated.
The recorder lay on the table as I sat next to Ella with my small, worn-out leather journal and pen. I nodded, intrigued by every word she released from her lips. She began to speak again.
“Imagine being trapped inside of your mind to the point of not being able to escape and not being able to tell the difference between then and now, your imagination or reality.”
My pen smoothly glided over the page as I scribbled down notes.
“It’s a bit hard to verbally describe honestly,” Ella said as she continued to twiddle her fingers. She carefully placed a stray hair behind her right ear as she continued her explanation.
“It is not as extreme as other cases I have heard. I do hear voices sometimes, not always, but I have learned to live with it. They are not bad. They are nothing more than the whispers of close friends. For others this is not the case but, I can only speak for me.”
I nodded in approval of her response.
“When were you diagnosed?”
“I was around 21, sigh it’s still so vivid.”
Ella sighed and continued.
“I was at um, university at the time and it had always been a concern of mine for many reasons. I went to speak to a specialist about a few concerns and questions. After months of observation and tests, I was diagnosed.”
“Wow, what was your reaction to that?”
“Relief.” Ella replied. She continued on.
“I’m sure that’s not the response you were expecting. I mean sure, I can give you the generic reply. I was terrified, worried, scared, upset, angry, all of those things but it didn’t come as a shock to me. I was more relieved to know the truth instead of feeling as if I was living in a gray area, not knowing why I did certain things or reacted a certain way in situations.”
I moved my notebook to cross my legs. Ella adjusted in her seat before continuing to speak.
“My father, rest his soul, was schizophrenic. They say it can be hereditary so I’m not sure if that plays a role in my situation. Though he was misunderstood at times, he was the most talented person I knew, a creative genius I called him. My dad was the essence of a starving artist. He lived and breathed music, it was his life. My mother would say he wasn’t fit to be a father or husband, he regularly put his craft before us, but I didn’t see it that way.”
I jotted down a few notes.
“Did your mom ever explain how he wasn’t fit to be a husband or parent? Was it that he was never around?”
“Um, that would be the case sometimes, yeah. There would be times when he would go missing for days and we wouldn’t hear a word from him, oh that would infuriate her. She used to get so upset and just squeal about it for hours when he finally came home.”
She laughed as she reminisced on the moments.
“Though I understood where she was coming from, I understood my father’s side of it as well. He may not have been meant to be a husband or father, maybe he was meant to do his own thing and just create. I believe there are individuals like that. My dad though, he didn’t do it to hurt us, though it did sometimes, but he did it to stay alive.”
She faintly smiled, wiping away a stray tear as she quietly sat for a few moments. I offered her tissue but she kindly declined. I took a closer look at her as I waited for her to continue her train of thought.
She was a beautiful brown-skinned woman with a petite frame and a head full of brown, frizzy curls that cascaded to her shoulders. She was soft spoken and had a soft twang when she spoke.
I was a fan of Ms. Ella Christine. She was asked to paint something for the mayor of our city a while back, the unveiling of the painting was an event I covered. After interviewing her and learning about her from the first talk, I was interested in her backstory and how she got to this point. From that moment, I decided to turn this into a short series on Ella and the importance of acknowledging mental health.
She was transparent and open about her schizophrenia. I admired her for that. Our first talk she broke down when she shared her downfalls. Ella dropped out of college two semesters prior to graduation. She went through a terrible breakup and experienced a miscarriage. She was checked into a hospital after attempting suicide and lost friends. It seemed as if she was in a dark pit she couldn’t escape. I replayed the interview in my head. I visualized when I immediately cut off the recorder due to the breakdown and her best friend rushed in to help.
It was very emotional and we didn’t talk for a while after that. I felt awful and thought the series would not come to fruition, until she called and agreed to keep going, knowing her pain could be the light at the end of the tunnel for someone struggling. This was the last of three interviews and I was honored to share her story. She continued with her story about her father and his music.
“His artistry was a two-edged sword that helped him but at the same time pushed him too far. He isolated himself, he and his music. He was too great for his own good I believe.”
“Do you feel a similar feeling with your art, does it push you too far at times?”
“For me, no. It does keep me sane but for my father, it put him in an imagination so great he couldn’t figure out how to contain or escape it. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. My art, puts me in reality.”
“Hmm, wow. Now how did you get into art, both dancing and painting?”
“Shortly after my diagnosis I began painting. I was relieved to know the truth but the voices, before I knew how to really handle them, got the best of me at the time. I don’t think every individual who deals with schizophrenia hears voices but it was something I did deal with and still do at times. I was too into my mind and one day out of frustration I just picked up a brush and started painting my wall and something happened. The voices ceased for a moment.”
“Did they go away completely while you painted?”
“Not completely but it helps. I mostly paint what I envision in my mind. Many of my pieces are pretty wild and all over the place because that’s what I mentally see.”
“So would you say that the tortured artist theory has some truth to it?”
She chuckled at the comment.
“Um, to a certain degree maybe but not all artists are, tortured. There are people who believe that the most genuine, raw art is created through some form of pain and discomfort. That may be true, but I don’t think that’s the story for every artist.”
I adjusted my eyeglasses.
“Can you, talk a little about your dancing? How did you get into that?”
“I have always danced in some form or another. I began taking classes when I was 7 but as I got older the lessons became more sporadic. I took my last class when I was 11.”
“What made you start dancing again?”
“My health. It’s a, somewhat, similar story to the painting except more extreme.”
I felt the pain I saw in her eyes. I could tell the matter at hand was not easy for her to elaborate on, but I was grateful that she continued to share.
“That, was probably my lowest moment but I listened to music to help heal internally. Music is good for the soul and my father was a musician so music was always a part of me. I remember, hearing “Searching” by Roy Ayers oh I love that song. My father used to joke around and sing that all the time. I heard it and started to move however my limbs felt like moving. It sounds nice when I say it now but if you would have seen me, you probably would have thought I was out of my mind.”
I smiled as she laughed at her words.
“I think what I love most about dancing is that, I feel in control. I could move any way I wanted. I felt free from the noise, the voices, the torment, the pain, all of it. I was unrestricted, I was just, being. That’s it. That’s what I love. It’s so therapeutic and really helps. I haven’t used a single ounce of medication in the past three years.”
“Wow, your story is, phenomenal Ella. We have been working on this series for some time and I’m just, amazed. Your strength is very admirable.”
“Well I don’t think I’m doing anything special. I’m just doing what keeps me here on this earth until I’m no longer needed here.”
“To wrap up this three-part series, what advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find that light at the end of the tunnel or happiness as you did?”
“Well, happiness looks different for everyone, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. I’m not this happy, free loving girl running through meadows, dancing and painting murals. I still struggle. I still have terrible days. I still have thoughts of seeing my father sooner than planned. I still feel as if my thoughts are suffocating me alive, but that’s okay.”
I nodded as I continued to listen.
“That’s the most important thing. It’s okay to not always be okay, the key is to not get stuck in that mindset you’re in when you’re down. I know it’s easier said than done, trust me I know. You just have to keep going somehow. Find what makes the noise cease. If medication helps do it. If meditating or praying helps do it. You know your truth and what your safe haven is. Find that and do it. Find your reality.”
“Wow, well thank you so much Ella, this was truly a pleasure.”
“Oh of course. Thank you for believing that my story is worth sharing.”
We continued to converse as I packed up my belongings. We left Ella’s small studio as I joined her for a short stroll to go grab lunch. We continued to talk about her life and the book she was in the process of writing. As we walked, she told me her father’s birthday was two weeks ago. She went to his grave and sung “Searching” by Roy Ayers.
I smiled at Ella, completely inspired. I pray that she continues to share her light and truth with the world. We need it.