How I beat the hell of schizophrenia

As a teenager Dani Hopwood heard voices in her head and suffered horrific hallucinations. She describes how, through long years of treatment, and by falling in love, she overcame the ravages of mental illness


Dani Hopwood: comforted by religion

Dani Hopwood: comforted by religion

'I started hearing the voices when I was very young - there are always four or five men in my head, shouting at me,'

I only recognised it as a sign of serious mental illness when I was in my first year of a music degree at Manchester University. I had become depressed and had a complete breakdown when I went home to Weybridge for the summer.

The psychotic symptoms quickly evolved. I started having hallucinations that resembled a horror film. I'd see blood dripping from the walls, people's eyes would glow red and I believed the devil's fork was etched on my wrist. Soon after I was admitted to my first psychiatric unit.

It sounds archaic now but they injected me with a truth drug to make me talk. I knew it was meant to help but it was frightening. I was only 19 and dealing with my mental health issues while surrounded by lots of very ill people. That's when I started to self harm - burning my arms and cutting myself. At some point - my memory of exactly when fails me - I was labelled as schizophrenic.

I'd see blood dripping from walls

Being heavily medicated for both the schizophrenia and depression, it doesn't mean that everything goes away. In fact, sometimes I found it impossible to carry on with daily life. I was unable to decipher what was real and what wasn't, and couldn't fathom anything outside of my life.

I'd suffered with bulimia since I was 12 but later on I started becoming obsessive compulsive over other things too. I made everyone who came into my room say a password. It was my way of fighting the fact that in every other way I had lost control.

Over the next 10 years I was in another two psychiatric facilities. Every time I came out I had to pick myself up from the depression and start again trying to find structure in my life, but at each hurdle I fell. I always had low expectations of myself anyway and felt that everyone around me had doomed me to failure. I believed I was worthless. If someone paid me attention I thought if they could see inside me they'd see I was a horrendous person and they would want rid of me.

It wasn't easy for those around me either. Most people find it difficult to empathise with mental illness so they didn't know how to deal with me and I felt more and more isolated.

When I was younger, before all of this surfaced, I was went to services at North-West Surrey Synagogue every week. I had even wanted to be a rabbi when I grew up. At some of my darkest times I found great comfort in religion, even teetering on becoming frum then at other points I would question why God would let this happen to me. What remained pretty consistent was that I didn't much want to live.

Although I had previously fiercely resisted being involved in a community set-up, it was when I was placed in a Jewish Care group home that my recovery started. I lived alongside three girls all battling mental illness and together we were offered an immense amount of practical and emotional support which was amazing. I did relapse and had stints in hospital but, ultimately, I began to win the battle.

When I started at the home, I couldn't get out of bed until mid-afternoon, my curtains were forever drawn and I was unable to socialise. But the combination of the facility, a new medicine called Clozaril and a dedicated psychotherapist turned my life around.

Soon after I moved there I found myself falling for one of the men in another group home. Frankie also suffered mental health problems. At first I was very wary of him but soon we became friends and, despite me not understanding how he could like me, we fell in love. After nine months we were engaged and last year we married at the North-West Surrey synagogue. Frankie is my best friend and I feel blessed to have him in my life.

Two years ago I also graduated from the University of North London with a 2:1 in English. It took me seven years and was incredibly difficult at times but I was determined to do it. Now I help run a group for Jewish Care called Hearing Voices. Plus I am an educator for Jewish Care's schools' programme which aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health problems.

I still hear voices but now I see them as an extension of my personality. Plus I have developed coping strategies, like if I am out and talking to them I speak into my mobile phone to hide what I am doing. I'll always be on medication and will continue to see my psychotherapist but my life is so different now.

On reflection I can see that my problems began when I was four and my mum died. My dad hadn't been well either and I was sent to live with another family who would later adopt me. Although my childhood was full of love, warmth and care, it was also very challenging and the voice hearing began.

But now, at the age of 35, I finally see myself as a useful person in society who has something to offer other people. That's what makes me smile the most.

As told to Caron Kemp

    Last updated: 11:44am, June 10 2010