Schizophrenia affects just 1 percent of the population worldwide, but it has an outsized reputation. Popular imagination is littered with myths and hyperbole about what schizophrenia is like. Much of the ideas springing from television and movies, not actual interaction with someone who has schizophrenia.

The biggest misconception is that people with schizophrenia are dangerous. Not true.  Unpredictable at times—yes. But most schizophrenics are not violent—especially if they’re being treated.

The second thing people always seem to get wrong about schizophrenia: that schizophrenics are not smart. Another doozy that’s all wrong. In fact, there have been many creative and intelligent folks throughout history who had schizophrenia—like Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and theoretician John Nash. Try telling us he’s not smart!  And Syd Barrett, a British artist, songwriter, and guitarist—most famous for being the founding member of Pink Floyd.

To help break the stereotypes and de-stigmatize the condition, Psycom sat down with Michelle Hammer, a leading light in NYC’s creative community, who is living with schizophrenia and using her artistic talent to battle the stigma that is so stubbornly attached to schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.

Hammer founded Schizophrenic.NYC, a clothing line with a mission to spark dialogue about mental health. And she’s been creating dynamic, conversation-starting work ever since. Hammer has been featured in Mashable, The Daily Mail, Stylist, and Buzzfeed, to name a few. And Voices, a schizophrenia documentary she was in, was nominated for a Tribeca X Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2018.

Before we dig into our conversation, a little background: Hammer was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 22, after a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder at 18. In the spring of 2015, she founded Schizophrenic.NYC.

KME: You received an incorrect diagnosis of bipolar disorder when you were 18—what was that experience like?

MH: When I was 18 and diagnosed as bipolar, I decided to stick with that diagnosis—even though after looking up a lot of stuff about it, I kind of knew it didn’t fit. All through college, I insisted I was just bipolar. My friends and roommates had other ideas, but I just kept saying: “No, no, I’m bipolar.”

Another tip off was that the bipolar meds didn’t help, not at all. And I tried more than one. Nothing helped. The only thing that worked for me was an antidepressant that I had to take three times a day. If I missed it, or skipped it, or waited too long, I would go berserk—it required very precise scheduling, which was sometimes challenging to manage in college.

Those years were a tough time. And I didn’t realize that the antidepressant I was being prescribed at the time was giving me akathisia—a movement disorder that manifests as a feeling of inner restlessness and an inability to stay still. I felt like I was jumping out of my skin. I couldn’t sit still—all I wanted to do was run around all over the place. It’s the worst feeling in the world.

To make matters even worse, I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t know it was akathisia until I met my new doctor in New York City after college and explained to him what I was feeling. Ironically, he told me that the akathisia could be fixed by taking another pill. If that had been shared with me when I was 19 years old, I could have been so much better for so many more years.

KME: What about your teenage years leading up to being misdiagnosed with bipolar?

MH: High school was pretty terrible. I was so paranoid—so paranoid. And my mind was racing. I failed English class because I wouldn’t do the reading; I just couldn’t get through the pages of a book. Writing assignments were tough too. I was afraid the teacher would think I was stupid, so I never handed anything in. Plus, I was having delusions.

People tried to get me to talk to the guidance counselor. They told me the conversation would be completely confidential (unless I talked about wanting to hurt myself or somebody else). But I did want to kill myself, so I never said anything. Nobody knew I had suicidal thoughts, not one person. I knew they would have to tell my family, and I absolutely didn’t want them to talk to my mom—who I thought at that time wanted to kill me.

I was achingly alone.

KME: What was your reaction when you were correctly diagnosed with schizophrenia at 22? And how did a diagnosis of bipolar differ from that of schizophrenia in terms of perception?

MH: To be honest, I think I already knew I had schizophrenia, so I wasn’t really surprised. But I was bummed out. People’s reactions are different to bipolar than they are to schizophrenia. It’s like they think bipolar is not as bad as schizophrenia.

It’s not true: schizophrenia is not worse than bipolar; bipolar is not worse than schizophrenia. They are both mental illnesses.

KME: How did your friends and family react?

MH: I went out to dinner with my three roommates from college with a plan to share my news. We are eating dinner, and I’m getting nervous, so I just blurt out: “Guys, I just want to tell you that I found out I’m schizophrenic.” And they all just looked at me. My friend Kate said: “Isn’t that what you had the whole time?” Then my other friend shared, “That could not have been more obvious.” My third friend piped in, “We told you that.” And I’m like, wait—”You guys already knew?” And they all said, “Of course we knew!” If my best friends knew and didn’t care, why should I care what anybody else thinks about me?

KME: What kind of schizophrenia do you have—and how do the symptoms manifest for you?

MH: I have paranoid schizophrenia—voices manifest as thoughts in my head, like: “Why did you just say that? That was so stupid!” “Why are you speaking? Everything you say is dumb. Just don’t talk anymore.” “You look fat today!” “That person over there is looking at you. They’re looking at you because you look stupid!”

And then I start projecting these thoughts onto other people and start thinking that other people are looking at me, judging me. This kind of thinking brings a ton of anxiety and paranoia.

I mentioned earlier that in high school I believed my mother was trying to kill me. The when I got to college, I started thinking that my roommate was trying to kill me. I was like, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense.” I realized that it’s me that has paranoia issues. It’s me thinking that people are trying to kill me. That’s the number one thing that got me to see a doctor.

KME: Can you share a bit about your medication journey? Was it challenging to find the right combination?

MH: It took a very long time to find my current cocktail. After college, I got home and wasn’t on anything. I was seeing things, hallucinating, dissociating from reality. I started taking anti-anxiety medication. From there more meds were added and added. My doctor would recommend different things and then he’d add on something else that would also help; and then another thing to help the side effects from the first two meds. I never meant to be on seven medications—two of them are for side effects. But this mix of drugs has helped me so much, and I’m very happy with the medications I’m on now. 

KME: Do you have any symptoms when you’re on medication?

MH: Sometimes I get paranoid if I think somebody doesn’t like me. Or if I wake up in the morning and I’m late to take my medication, I might pace around. But I don’t have many negative things going on in my head anymore. If I skip my meds for a day or two, it’s not going to be pretty, but I try to keep on schedule so that doesn’t happen.

KME: When did you start creating art, and what is your artistic process like today?

MH: When I was 20 and working at a sleepaway camp, I had a lot of anxiety so I got a sketchbook and started creating intricate drawings. Later I brought them into the computer and manipulated them with Photoshop. My creative process is very similar today.

KME: How did you decide to use your artistic talent to create your clothing line?

MH: I wanted to do something that would make people talk about mental health. If I just put artwork on a wall, you have to go to the wall and have the conversation. A shirt is a portable conversation mechanism. I’ve got a shirt that says, “I’m Mentally Ill, and I Don’t Kill.” People see me on the subway with that shirt on, and they’ll point at me and give me a thumbs up.

KME: How did you get Schizophrenic.NYC off the ground?

MH: Everyone thought this was some episode; no one was supporting what I was doing. But look where I am now! Even my doctor questioned whether I wanted to tell everyone I had schizophrenia. But I don’t like secrets. At first, coming out like this was terrifying, but after some thought, I realized that anyone who wouldn’t accept this wasn’t someone I wanted in my life. Mostly what I hear now is that I am very brave.

KME: Why did you start Schizophrenic.NYC?

MH: My main focus is advocacy. I was fortunate that when I was a freshman in college and finally realized something wasn’t right with me, I called the health center and had an appointment with a doctor the next day.  Now, I advocate so people who need to see doctors can do so as soon as possible. I want to eradicate the stigma around psychosis and schizophrenia. I don’t want people thinking it’s the worst illness you can have—because it’s truly not.

KME: Where do you sell your products?

MH: I sell online at Schizophrenic.NYC, and at Fountain House Gallery, where I often do summertime pop-ups in front of their space in Hell’s Kitchen.

KME: What is Fountain House and Fountain House Gallery?

ME: Fountain House in New York City empowers people with serious mental health conditions to live well and thrive in society. You become a member when you’re first diagnosed and they help you with everything you need—from getting on disability, finding healthcare, insurance, groups, housing, student grants, art scholarships—they are the best place ever.

KME: How has your Schizophrenic.NYC clothing line been received?

MH: People really like what I’m doing. I like to sell in person so I can talk to people and have them get to know me.

KME: Where would you like Schizophrenic.NYC to be in the next two or three years?

MH: I would like to be more of a name and have more people know about me. I’d also like to give more speeches and bring more attention to my brand so that I can make a more significant impact.

KME: What helps you live your best beyond medication and therapy?

MH: Keeping myself busy. Having good friends and family to talk to and a strong support team.

 

Last Updated: May 26, 2021