“I like the fact that, through my work, I’ve been able to really break down the stigma,” says Lisa Guardiola, vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate in the south suburbs of Chicago. Guardiola, along with 20 million people worldwide, has schizophrenia. Through her recovery and volunteer work, she’s been able to inspire herself and others. “Even though I have a debilitating mental illness, I can live a productive life — a fulfilling and happy life.”
But her road to recovery took time. From a young age, Guardiola remembers showing signs of schizophrenia. She heard voices, or auditory hallucinations. It was hard for her to socialize and form relationships.
When her symptoms peaked after high school, Guardiola’s family checked her into a hospital. It was there, in 2004, that doctors diagnosed Guardiola with paranoid schizophrenia.
Since then, Guardiola has been able to lead a successful life helping others manage symptoms of schizophrenia. “I derive a sense of pride from what I do. It gives me an opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people in the community,” she says. “It has also provided me the opportunity to share my story.”
A Journey to Recovery
After her first hospitalization, Guardiola attended different programs for support as she worked toward her goals. Here, she strengthened her coping skills, ability to form relationships, and medication routine. She learned to use her favorite hobbies, like drawing, journaling, and pottery, as ways to manage her symptoms.
This prepared Guardiola to go back to school and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and another in studio art.
Since then, Guardiola has had other hospitalizations, but notes that they’re unlike her first. “The difference between my first hospitalization and my other hospitalizations is that I’m self-aware,” she says. “I know when I’m struggling, and it gives me the ability to know when to ask for help.”
As with many other conditions, recovery from schizophrenia isn’t linear. Even though you may be improving, you may still have moments where your symptoms get worse. Guardiola reminds herself and others to be patient as they heal. “It didn’t happen overnight. It takes practice and time,” she says. “Be forgiving of yourself.”
Living a Good Life
Carlos Larrauri was always a good student. But when he attended college, he found himself obsessed with religious texts. He eventually began to hear voices, which he thought belonged to angels. Soon after, his grades started to slip, he ignored his hygiene, and began to show changes that were too extreme to be from the typical stress of university life.
In his early 20s, Larrauri’s doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia. Now, at the age of 33, he is a law student at the University of Michigan, a board-certified family nurse practitioner, a mental health advocate, and a volunteer with NAMI. “I’m achieving the goals I want to achieve. With that comes self-confidence and a sense of self-determination,” Larrauri says. “But it’s not easy. It’s still a difficult journey.”
A healthy routine can maximize your recovery. There are many things you can do in addition to taking prescribed medication and talking to therapists to manage your symptoms.
Larrauri and Guardiola both find that family and peer support help normalize their recovery. “I have a friend who also has the same lived experience,” Larrauri says. “That sense of camaraderie and bonding that we get through sharing our experiences is valuable.”
Physical activity, a good sleep schedule, advocacy, and self-education are just a few other things Guardiola and Larrauri use to lead a successful life. They also emphasize the importance of understanding the condition from a scientific standpoint. Learning about schizophrenia on a biological level can help you stay grounded during recovery.
Playing an active role in your mental health is also important. “You have to take the reins of your recovery,” Larrauri says. “It’s not like having a cast where someone puts it on for a couple months and they’re fine. It’s not a passive recovery process.”
Guardiola points out that being an advocate for your health is crucial. She urges people to ask questions about their treatment and medication. If you’re able to learn more about your own care, you’ll be able to tell your doctors what works for you and what doesn’t.
Through their self-advocacy, Larrauri and Guardiola encourage others in their community to stay hopeful. “You have to have the belief that things can get better,” Larrauri says. “Even if there’s periods that are very thick with fog, or very dense and difficult.”
Larrauri admits that he linked many biases and stereotypes to schizophrenia despite his decent knowledge of the condition. He believed his diagnosis was a death sentence and that he’d never reach his goals of living independently, creating meaningful work, or having relationships.
“There’s so many misconceptions surrounding mental illness, especially one like schizophrenia,” Larrauri says. “Stigma is very real; it’s a barrier to care and quality of life.”
Whether it’s community discrimination or self-judgment, people with schizophrenia often develop issues with self-esteem and confidence.
After her diagnosis, Guardiola didn’t want to be labeled. “You don’t want to reduce people to their diagnosis,” she says. “You want to make sure that you see the person first and not the diagnosis.”
Guardiola and Larrauri believe that the best way to beat stigma is through conversation. When people share their stories, they break down barriers to understanding mental illness.
Years ago, Guardiola remembers hardly hearing about celebrities with conditions like schizophrenia. Now, more people in the media share their stories. Not only does this dialogue normalize these conditions, but it also shows that individuals who live with them are able to overcome struggles and achieve great things.
“You are not to be feared,” Guardiola says. “You are a person, an individual. You deserve the dignity and respect that every human being has. You’re more than your disability.”