Growing up, Bethany Yeiser did everything the right way. In fact, she never even smoked a cigarette. But because of the onset of schizophrenia, she went from being a violinist, scientific researcher and honors student at college to spending four years living on the streets.
Born in suburban Chicago in October 1981, Yeiser was raised in Illinois and Ohio, where she avidly played her violin and excelled at school. At age 17, she headed to the University of Southern California. There she was involved with research on antimicrobial resistance and contributed to articles that landed in such publications as the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.
Upon completing her junior year, she embarked on a three-month volunteer trip to Nairobi, Kenya, and Lagos, Nigeria. Subsequent to the trip, she returned to USC for her senior year–very much changed, and not for the better. Neglecting her studies, she started entertaining grandiose delusions about becoming a “Mother Teresa” type of figure who could “radically change the world.”
“I believed I would win a Nobel Peace Prize for the volunteer work I had done and would someday do in Africa,” she says. “I also believed I would someday raise billions of dollars to help the people I lived with in Kenya and Nigeria, and other people in poverty throughout the world.”
Indulging a delusion that a rich man in Boston would help finance future humanitarian endeavors, she parted with the key to her college dorm and flew across the country. No rich man–or, for that matter, anyone– awaited. After a long and fruitless wait at the airport, she flew back to Los Angeles, and became homeless.
Able to hide her predicament at first, Yeiser often spent nights in the USC library. She even managed to make international trips, sponsored by friends who were not fully aware of her situation. Ironically for someone who was now homeless, one of these trips involved attending a U.K. conference on poverty.
Returning to California, she would suffer her own poverty. She slept in an abandoned building that had an unlocked side door, a “miraculous provision from God” in her confused state of mind. At other times, she slept in a churchyard, which she regarded as a “Garden of Eden.” She avoided food banks, opting for garbage cans, from which any unspoiled food and beverage was a gift from “angels.”
Yeiser relates, “When I was experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, managing the illness and simply trying to make it through each day was a full time job, and took up all of my energy. School or work was impossible.”
“Managing schizophrenia was a full time job… school or work was impossible.”
Eventually, she was beset by voices in addition to her delusions. Some voices insulted her, while other voices told her she’d become one of the world’s most influential people. These voices could reach a screaming intensity, as she proceeded to sleep outside in the rain.
During her years of homeless travail, she refused any contact with her family. Like many who suffer from severe mental illness, she initially was unable to accept the fact that she was mentally ill, even though she’d been reduced to scavenging for food in garbage cans within a two-minute walk from the USC campus where she had excelled academically.
Hallucinations were also a factor: When she looked in the mirror, her own face became that of a cartoon character. Even the date on a newspaper became distorted, as her tenuous grip on reality further slipped.
Her first hospitalization took place in Los Angeles, where police had confronted her for screaming back at voices only she could hear. “When I was arrested, I did not understand what was happening, and I thought the arrest was a mistake. I was confused, in my illness,” she recalls. “I feel very embarrassed by what happened,” she adds. “But I do not feel guilty.”
Yeiser feels that the law enforcement community should make more effort to train its officers about how to recognize and deal with the mentally ill. They “should understand that psychotic behavior cannot be overcome by willpower. Psychotic behavior can only be overcome by medical intervention, including talk therapy and medication. People struggling with mental illness need patience, compassion, understanding and treatment.”
“Psychotic behavior cannot be overcome by willpower. Psychotic behavior can only be overcome by medical intervention.”
During her second hospitalization, which took place in Cincinnati, she came to terms with her mental illness and accepted the reality that, in order to improve, she needed to follow a medication regimen. Though her insight into her condition was a milestone, the struggle continued, as she went through several medications (and endured their side effects), hoping to find one that worked.
For Yeiser, the magic pill was clozapine (also known by its brand name Clozaril). This was the medication that facilitated her recovery. Soon she was socializing and pursuing her former hobbies as well as plans for her future.
Clozapine is often regarded as a last-resort medication because of its potential serious side effects, including significant weight gain, heart and respiratory problems, risk of seizure, and reduction of white blood cells. Despite such concerns, the strong possibility for life-changing benefit makes Yeiser “want to see more patients try clozapine, so that there will be more stories of full recovery like mine.”
With her schizophrenia in remission, she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, where she finished her undergraduate studies, eventually obtaining her degree in molecular biology in 2011. She since has been involved with medical research, in which she was investigating the possible relationship between antimalarial drugs and rare mental health side effects.
In February 2012, she began composing her memoir, Mind Estranged: My Journey from Schizophrenia and Homelessness to Recovery, which saw publication in July 2014. Also of note is that her mother, Karen, wrote her own memoir about the parental perspective of her daughter’s psychosis.
Mind Estranged has garnered considerable readership, and Yeiser has been contacted by many people and their loved ones “asking for advice, and sharing their own stories. Many of these stories have similarities to my own journey. Some of these people who have contacted me have become great friends.”
Among her shorter written works is her article, “My Triumph Over Psychosis: A Journey From Schizophrenia and Homelessness to College Graduate,” which appeared in the Schizophrenia Bulletin. One can access links to other articles, along with her blogs, at her website.
Asymptomatic for almost a decade, she has been very active as a speaker and advocate for the mentally ill. She often delivers talks at the University of Cincinnati, where her audience has consisted of law students, medical students, resident psychiatrists, and student organizations. She also has delivered motivational speeches at a variety of hospitals and churches. “My passion is to promote public education and to reduce the stigma of schizophrenia,” she says.
In spreading this message, much work remains. She laments how “society does not properly treat persons with schizophrenia who are in desperate need of compassion or care. People suffering from schizophrenia are very often incarcerated…They are also unlikely to receive medical care for other serious illnesses they may have, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Yeiser sees the stigma of her condition perpetuated by a news media that “often presents sensational stories about people with schizophrenia, which portray us as dangerous, eccentric, weak, and difficult to relate to.” She points out how “many people with schizophrenia struggle to find employment, even after their symptoms improve and their behavior returns to normal.”
Striving to advocate and educate, she – along with Dr. Henry Nasrallah, who chairs the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at Saint Louis University – established the CURESZ Foundation in July 2016. The CURESZ acronym stands for: Comprehensive Understanding via Research and Education into SchiZophrenia. Through this organization and her speaking engagements, Yeiser’s goal is “to be the voice of those with schizophrenia who have not yet recovered.”