For this week’s Mental Health Monday, I was incredibly lucky to get to interview an amazing entrepreneur and mental health advocate, Michelle Hammer.
Michelle is the founder of Schizophrenic NYC, a mental health advocacy clothing line operating out of New York City. Previously an award-winning graphic designer, in May of 2015 Michelle decided she wanted to work for herself and do what she could to end the stigma against mental health conditions. She created Schizophrenic NYC and developed artwork, t-shirts, accessories, and more, all designed to make people think differently about mental illness. Michelle is inspired by her personal experience as a schizophrenic New Yorker, and by the countless conversations she’s had with people who have stopped by the Schizophrenic NYC pop up shops.
Last week, we talked about a little bit of everything: how the coronavirus is affecting both her mental health and her business, what she likes and dislikes about being her own boss, and how harmful misrepresentations of psychotic disorders in the media have affected her personal life.
We started by having a good laugh at what quarantine has done to our standards for acceptable appearance in front of other human beings. To be honest, Michelle looked completely fine with her gorgeous curls and Schizophrenic NYC t-shirt as I sat there in a stained shirt with my overgrown pixie cut clipped out of my face.
Michelle Hammer: I look disgusting right now, just so you know.
Megan Writes Everything: Oh yeah, so do I, it’s fine.
MWE: I guess should I jump right in with some questions?
MH: Yeah! I’m good to go.
MWE: Okay! So, um, first of all, I love your company. I started following you on Instagram I think when I first got an Instagram, and I was like, this is great! Um, so I’m really excited to be interviewing you right now.
MH: Oh, awesome!
MWE: Yeah! So I think where I wanna start is with the start of Schizophrenic NYC.
MH: I wanted to do something with schizophrenia, but I didn’t really know how, and I was sitting on the subway one day and there was this homeless man who had schizophrenia. I mean, it was really obvious, and I just realized how lucky I was. … I knew I wanted to start something where I was spreading awareness, you know, starting conversations, and I wanted to go for it, so that’s what I did.
As we talked about how Schizophrenic NYC came into being, we quickly stumbled onto a topic that’s nearly impossible to avoid when discussing schizophrenia: stigma. As you can imagine, when Michelle told her friends and family that she was going to quit her job and start her business, they were concerned. But not for the reason you might think.
MWE: So, people weren’t necessarily worried about you starting your own business and it being successful, like, that wasn’t people’s concern, it was more “Are you sure you wanna tell people you have schizophrenia?”
MH: Exactly! They were like “Are you sure you want to tell people?” And I’m like, “Yeah!” … You walk around New York City, and you see the mentally ill people, and they’re the homeless, but yet, 1 in 5 New Yorkers has a mental health issue, so, how is there so much stigma? But there is, because people do not talk about it.
But Michelle is here to change that. Schizophrenic NYC is all about starting conversations and opening up dialogue between all kinds of people, mentally ill or not, so we can all realize that our differences matter, but at the end of the day, we have more in common than not. Many of the conversations Michelle has had with people at her pop-up shops or in online communities have been positive, supportive, and encouraging, but of course that isn’t always the case.
MH: Still, I get called a faker.
MWE: Which is so insane. Why in the world would anyone want to fake having schizophrenia? That just doesn’t make sense.
MH: I know! If I was going to fake something, I’d fake a disease that would actually get me sympathy. It’s so ridiculous.
I’ll be honest, we got a bit sidetracked here, trying to psychoanalyze the kind of person who accuses someone else of faking schizophrenia, but when we got back on track, I wanted to check in on Michelle’s mental health now, especially with the coronavirus quarantine going on and being so severe in New York City.
MWE: Where would you say you are in your recovery now? Like, how are things going mental health-wise, especially with all of the corona stuff going on and isolation?
MH: Um, well, I’ve actually been pretty well, talking to my doctor over the phone, getting my meds called into the pharmacy … Quarantine’s not fun, y’know, but it is what it is.
For some people with mental health issues, the quarantine has been enforcing negative coping mechanisms of avoidance and isolation, but Michelle is looking on the bright side. She says that this is way better for her mental health than if the situation were flipped: if she had to move around different places constantly, she said that would be way worse. Getting to stay in one place and just do her thing isn’t so bad, really. The worst part is having to stop the pop-up sales she does so often in New York. She said she misses all the spur-of-the-moment conversations she would have with all kinds of people, but she’s getting by and happy to do what she can to keep people safe.
Later on, I got up the nerve to ask a more personal question about Michelle’s earlier misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder. As some people who follow this blog know, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar for several years, and it took me a long time to accept that it was incorrect. I’ve never met anyone else who’d been misdiagnosed with bipolar, so I was eager to hear more about her experience. Did she know it was wrong all along, or was she more like me, just relieved to have a diagnosis and crushed when she started to realize it wasn’t quite right?
MWE: You were originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later found out that that was incorrect, and I actually have the exact same story. … I know that was really, really difficult for me because, like, I was finally like “This is what’s wrong with me! I have an answer!” And for me to accept that that wasn’t the right answer was really difficult. I just was wondering if you went through the same thing, or if part of you sort of knew, y’know, “I know bipolar isn’t right.”
MH: Well, I knew bipolar wasn’t right. The bipolar meds didn’t work. Also, my roommates, they knew I wasn’t bipolar. There’s this story where, I got diagnosed with schizophrenia, and then I went up to visit my roommates from college, we all lived together our senior year, we lived together all four years, and we’re sitting at dinner and I told them “I just wanna let you know, I have schizophrenia.” And they were like “..isn’t that what you’ve had the whole time?” One of them was like “That could not have been more obvious.” And my one friend says to me “Yeah, we told you that.” And so my best friends already knew and didn’t care, so I was like, why would I care what any other people were thinking? So that was like, really empowering.
If you’re out there, worried about disclosing your mental health issues with your close friends, I encourage you to look to Michelle’s empowering experience. Her friends were completely unfazed, and there’s a good chance your friends will be exactly the same way. If all you can do is picture the ways it could go wrong and all the awful things they could say, try replacing at least one of those nightmare scenarios with this beautiful one. Some people really are kind and love you for who you are, mental illnesses and all.
As we talked more about disclosing her schizophrenia and making it such a focal point of her brand and her company, I couldn’t help asking if it was a difficult choice to make. I went back and forth for years and years, trying to decide if I should disclose my mental health issues on any kind of social media or in my writing, and it was absolutely torturous. Was she the same way?
MWE: Was that like a difficult choice for you? Did you waffle between like, should I own this or should I maybe do a business with something else? Or were you just like, no, this is what I wanna do, I’m doing it, I’m just going?
MH: I just wanted to do it, and I was going, even though I was terrified.
MH: At first, y’know, when I introduce people to the company now, I always say, you know, “Schizophrenic NYC was started by me, a schizophrenic New Yorker,” that’s how I do it now. But what I used to say was “Schizophrenic NYC was started by a schizophrenic New Yorker who wants to change the way we see mental health, so I created” blah blah blah, so if people listened, they would know I was the creator. Now I blatantly say that I am, but I was a little stand-offish about it at first.
That fear we all have in the mental illness community about disclosing our illnesses all circles back to stigma, so I was glad I got the chance to ask, from one mental health advocate to another, what Michelle’s best advice for breaking down stigma was. Her answer wasn’t a surprise, but it bears repeating: talk about it. She has found that simply by having a pop-up shop called Schizophrenic NYC and some amazing merch to start conversations, she has been able to reduce stigma for so many people, both those with and without mental illness themselves.
One vehicle for talking more about mental health is the media. More and more, we are seeing realistic, empathetic depictions of depression and anxiety, and that is great. But has anyone else noticed that the depictions of stereotypically “scary” conditions like psychotic disorders or personality disorders are still either not present at all or completely misrepresented through a violent, unrealistic character? I asked Michelle about this, and she had an interesting story of how this misrepresentation had a direct effect on her life and her relationships.
MWE: I was just wondering, like, does that misrepresentation affect you personally? Do you just try to ignore it?
MH: I mean, I try to ignore it. … There’s this movie called The Roommate, okay. It’s about this girl, she was on Gossip Girl, and she was supposed to be this crazy roommate and they find out there’s these meds she’s not taking, and they show the label, and it’s the exact same medication I take, and I’m like really? So, they’re using a real medication, a medication that I take at night, and the person I’m watching this with goes “So if you don’t take your medication are you gonna start killing people?” And I was like, are you serious.
MWE: Yeah, it can have such a direct effect on people’s lives. Like people who wouldn’t normally think that way at all, and now they see this and they’re like “Oh, is that going to happen to you?” And it’s like [long sigh].
MH: That movie! I will talk about that movie forever. It was the worst movie.
Finally, I was curious to hear what Michelle liked and didn’t like about working for herself. I’ve been freelancing for almost two years now, and even though I love it, there are definitely aspects that I struggle with, and I’m always interested to hear how other independent workers feel about their situation. As usual, Michelle was incredibly positive.
MWE: So what are, like, some of your favorite parts of working for yourself, and what are some of the harder parts?
MH: Um, my favorite part of working for myself is I can’t fire myself.
MWE: [Laughs] Very true, very true.
MH: Um, I like that I have full creative control over everything, and that I control what I make and my designs. My least favorite part of working for myself is that I’m just one person, y’know? There’s just so much. But mostly, I really like working for myself.
One of the benefits of having your own business that Michelle and I talked about for a while is the issue of getting credit for your work. When you work at a design agency, like Michelle used to, or when you ghostwrite for people like I do, the credit for your work goes to someone else, and your name isn’t even attached to what you’ve made, which is infuriating. Now that Michelle is selling her designs through her own business, she gets full credit, and that’s a huge reason she likes working for herself more than any of the fancy design jobs she had in the past.
Then, after chatting a bit, we wrapped up our conversation and went back to watching paint dry as we wait out this awful virus. But talking to Michelle was a terrific reprieve from quarantine, especially because I really have admired her and her company for years now. When I reached out to set up an interview, I never thought she would actually respond. But here we are!
If you want to check out Michelle’s work or buy some of her amazing merch, I’ve put links to the Schizophrenic NYC website, Instagram, and YouTube below. Check them out!