LeRoy Simmons -- A Survivor's Story
By Bryan Kost
In 1991, LeRoy Simmons did not show up when the family got together for Thanksgiving. In fact, he just disappeared. His family had noticed his recent strange behavior. But he'd never just vanished before.
Instead of at the Thanksgiving table, LeRoy was walking restlessly in downtown Columbia, lost on the streets and lost in his mind. The next day, he ended up in G. Werber Bryan Psychiatric Hospital, a short-term, emergency care facility of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. As his family began looking for him, LeRoy was looking for himself, too. How could he have a mental illness, as his doctors were claiming? He was a former college athlete with a master's degree and experience in banking and real estate. He was a volunteer softball coach, engaged to be married, a born-again Christian.
He was also a man with Delusional Schizophrenia. LeRoy was a man who was seeing things lately. Things like a flooded road on a dry day, blood in the eyes of his fiancée, beer cans in the trash though no one in the home drank alcohol. LeRoy noticed these creeping little alterations in reality, but he told no one. When he thought of the people who knew him, he told himself, "I can't tell these folks because they'll think I'm crazy."
But the one who really knew him already saw the signs of the mental illness. LeRoy's fiancée could see from the outside that something was changing on the inside. "She had noticed something," LeRoy says. "I was becoming real irresponsible. I wasn't dressing right, not keeping my appearance up."
And neither LeRoy nor his fiancée sought help. Perhaps this would pass. It's small stuff- mind tricks, just a slump maybe. Nothing to worry about.
Then there was a voice. "I think the thing that really scared me was the voice," LeRoy says. That got his attention. One night, while deep asleep, LeRoy was awakened by a male voice. He was alone in the house, but the voice was real. And loud. "It just called my name."
That was all the voice said, but that was enough. LeRoy knew he was struggling. He knew that hearing voices could be a symptom of a mental illness. And though he had not resolved to seek help, he stumbled upon assistance indirectly. He was not always thinking clearly at this point, but his confusion essentially led him to the professional care he needed. Shortly after the voice, LeRoy drove his car to a parking lot in West Columbia. He left it and walked to a local police station. For some reason, he was going to report his car stolen. (Looking back, LeRoy clearly remembers all of this, though he can't explain why he did what he did.)
At the police station, LeRoy's story was received with hesitation. The police noticed his incoherent speech, his disheveled appearance, and his confused state. LeRoy didn't mind that there was no police report filed. In fact, LeRoy didn't mind a thing. So he just stayed put. "See, I was like on the borderline, " he says. "But I just stayed there all night. " He just sat at the station. "I was there until about eight o'clock the next morning."
LeRoy remained sitting at the station until the officers, suspecting drug abuse, took him to the hospital. The staff at Lexington Medical Center sent LeRoy to Bryan Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation.
Being admitted to Bryan was a good thing, since some people with mental illnesses face a more life-threatening situation before they're brought to help. But LeRoy was taken in without incident. He says he's glad they took him to Bryan.
At Bryan, though, LeRoy began to resist. During the intake process, he was told he would be able to go home shortly, since he was not in a crisis state. They simply asked him to sit. But for some reason, LeRoy didn't want to. And then they wanted to give him a shot. He wouldn't have it. "They had to wrestle me to the ground," he says. "They had to fight me for that one."
For most of his three weeks at Bryan Psychiatric Hospital, LeRoy's biggest battle was simply accepting that he was sick. He never needed psychiatric help before, so this was certainly a mistake. Certainly, they had it all wrong, he thought. He was 35 years old. His doctor told him that males will usually see the effects of Delusional Schizophrenia at earlier ages --and his was an uncommon case. And though he didn't buy their diagnosis, LeRoy was impressed with his doctors at Bryan. He said they pieced together many elements of his life for him, helping him see how he got to this point. Maybe, just maybe, there was a reason he was at Bryan.
LeRoy's theory for his illness is that in addition to the chemical imbalances in his brain, stress helped usher in the disease. In the few years prior to 1991, LeRoy had struggled with his career, facing setbacks beyond his control. LeRoy describes himself as someone with high professional goals, and he felt he wasn't reaching those goals. He was juggling two careers, he had a marriage on the horizon, debts were building. If the biological, brain-based chemical foundation for a mental illness had been established, now the environmental elements were present to build on that foundation. And it all added up to an unhealthy mind.
Le Roy's unhealthy mind did come to grips with the reality of a mental illness. And that realization didn't make him happy. At Bryan Psychiatric Hospital, LeRoy understood that now, for the rest of his life, he could be labeled as someone with a disorder, someone with psychiatric problems, someone "crazy." So LeRoy wanted to kill himself. At the hospital, he came across a butter knife. In a quiet moment, he took off his shirt. He put the knife to his chest and pushed. He tried to cut himself open. But he didn't finish the cut, he didn't go deep enough, he didn't end it all. He bled, he broke the knife, and he resolved to get out of there. He flushed the knife pieces down the toilet and covered his cut. No one ever knew he tried to die.
Le Roy's family, especially his fiancée and her family, visited him daily at Bryan Hospital. He says it's a rarity for a patient with a mental illness to have the amount of visitors he had. Maybe some families can't face the shame of a mental illness. Maybe some families feel like their loved one failed them. Maybe some families simply don't know how to support someone with mental illness.
Medication and counseling stabilized him, and he left Bryan after three weeks. He was no longer suicidal, but he was not at peace either. Now he would forever be a "former mental patient." He was okay with himself, but would the world be? When he was released from the hospital, he says, "I cried like a baby." He went home and tried to figure out how his dreams would ever materialize now. Hopelessness set in. And though he would never try to end his life, he still , figured "my life was over."
Except life went on. One week later he was married. Now LeRoy could turn his attention to other aspects of living, and he slowly felt good again. And like many people with a mental illness, LeRoy decided that he was probably healed now. He thought he no longer had a sickness. "I didn't think I was mentally ill so I went off my medicine." But, he adds, "I wasn't dumb, either." LeRoy had seen what happens to people with mental illnesses who go off their medicine. So he told his counselor and his wife, and they helped him monitor his condition without medication. LeRoy thought he could prove that he was not really sick, after all.
At first, without medication, his body took some transition time and LeRoy felt no different. But soon his illness returned, and he noticed the creeping signs that his chemicals weren't right. He wasn't sleeping, and he felt urges to injure others. And he was ready for these signs, aware from experience what the symptoms would be. So he immediately went back to the medication. He's followed his prescription for nine years since.
Today, LeRoy doesn't see any doctor for therapy. He sees his doctor simply to refill his prescription when needed. His treated Delusional Schizophrenia affects him as much as treated diabetes or high blood pressure would. He takes responsibility for it, and life goes on. "I take my pill at bedtime. I haven't really had any side effects," he says.
But perhaps there has been a side effect his job. As a survivor of a mental illness, LeRoy realized he how has a responsibility not only for his own recovery, but for the healing of others. So he's made a career of it. For almost five years, LeRoy has served as Consumer Affairs Coordinator at Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center, an outpatient facility of South Carolina Department of Mental Health. LeRoy helps other people with mental illnesses, called consumers, as they walk their own road to recovery. He says he may be making less money than he set out to earn, but he's helping more people than he ever thought he could.
In addition to mentoring and supporting people with mental illnesses, LeRoy tries to teach the public about mental health issues. He speaks to churches, schools, and practically any group or individual who wants to hear about the bravery of those who battle mental illness.
It's easy for LeRoy to talk about bravery, because it's bravery that helps him accept himself, accept his diagnosis, and go forward. "You can't deal with your mental illness until you can agree with yourself that, 'Hey, I have a mental illness so I need to be responsible and take care of it.' "
He's brave. He's responsible. He's taken care of it. LeRoy Simmons is a survivor.
Leroy Simmons, Consumer Affairs Coordinator for the Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center featured in SCHIZOPHRENIA DIGEST Volume I, Issue 2 (Summer 2003)
Cover story: Finding Inspiration