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Stephen has been living with schizophrenia since he was in his teens. He’s 36 now, and for years, his story was one of delusions, misdiagnoses, hospitalizations, and brushes with the law.
“I’ve had my ups and downs,” Stephen says. “But that’s the context of how things happen, there are setbacks and mistakes, just like how it is like in the game of chess; I’m not going to point my finger at me or other people.”
Recently Stephen — who asked that we use only his middle name to protect his privacy — says his story is taking a happier turn. Three weeks ago, he moved into his own apartment in Silver Spring. It’s the first time he’s living independently in more than a decade.
“It’s tough with a mental health problem, it can be tough but I tried to reach out to hands that helped picking me up,” he says.
Among those helping to pick him up is Sarah Wisotski. She’s a rehabilitation counselor for Cornerstone Montgomery, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of those living with a mental illness. Sarah meets with Stephen once or twice a week to help him with routine chores, such as paying utility bills. Stephen either takes the bus to Cornerstone or sometimes Sarah comes to Stephen.
At the moment, Stephen and I are hanging out in Stephen’s new apartment, and he’s showing me his extensive collection of books.
“Here are my books on Judaism, this one was recommended by a rabbi, The Book of Our Heritage. Then I got Charles Darwin’s the Origins of Species, a book on Turkey, some prayer books, Plato, the Beatles, Elie Wiesel’s memoir, a very influential person,” he says.
Stephen has achieved a level of success that he once thought impossible. He says reading and studying have helped him through some of the lowest points in his struggles with schizophrenia, and he graduated with an associate of arts degree from Montgomery College in 2012.
“I love to learn, I just do it all the time,” Stephen says. “It keeps me going… it’s my food, kind of.”
But it hasn’t always been an easy road for Stephen. He says one of the hardest things for him to accept was that his delusions — including his belief that passing cars were shocking him with electricity — weren’t real.
“My disease can really be debilitating. But I have radically accepted that though,” Stephen says.
After a brush with the law several years ago, Stephen spent well over a year in a state mental hospital. Then he entered Adrienne House, an inpatient 24-hour residential care unit that’s part of Cornerstone Montgomery.
“I had some real bad problems come up where I had a probation period of five years where I had to see my doctors, take meds,” Stephen says. “I couldn’t even mess up once… maybe once.”
Nicole Graner has worked for Cornerstone Montgomery for more than a decade, and has gotten to watch Stephen grow on his journey to recovery. She’s sitting in her office chatting with him, something they do from time to time when he comes to Cornerstone for appointments.
“I’m glad you’re in your own place; it’s been a long time goal,” Nicole says. “I was telling Megan you and I had this conversation 13 years ago when we first met, that your goal is to be where you are right now. And you did it, right?”
Nicole says she’s also proud to see Stephen taking on the role of mental health advocate. He recently shared his story in testimony at a Montgomery County Council meeting.
“I can’t begin to tell you the impact that working toward the goal of having my own apartment has had on my mental health and well being. I’ve not been hospitalized since 2009 and have been working for over a year,” Stephen said during the meeting.
Nicole says Stephen truly is a picture of recovery — and hope — for people living with mental illnesses.
“Best professional day I’ve ever had it was just amazing to see him grow from this guy here, to, fast forward 12 years, and he’s speaking in front of the County Council and advocating for himself and other people with disabilities,” Nicole says.
Cari Cho is CEO of Cornerstone Montgomery. She first met Stephen when he was taking an evidence-based psycho-education class with his mom years ago. The goal of the class was to educate and equip individuals living with a mental illness — as well as their family members — with the skills necessary for effective communication and problem solving.
“He’s come such a long way. Even when he was struggling you could see the potential and this is what we expected would happen,” Cari says. “With his hard work and with support, with access to treatment… he’s thriving.”
Stephen says he’ll keep sharing his story and working to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. He doesn’t want his mental disorder to define him, and continues to set goals for the future.
“I want to be grounded in reality,” Stephen says. “My next big goal is to find some exercise 3-4 times a week. Start out with 30 minutes of cardio and work myself up.”
Stephen’s ambitions extend far beyond exercising; his long-term plans include obtaining his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and someday starting a family. He is also working on his own autobiography.
Music: “Flacana 10” by Melodium from Flacana Flacana