For much of her life, Keris Myrick has tried to silence the voices that filled her head with suicidal thoughts and repeatedly sent her to a psychiatric hospital.
But now, Myrick, 51, who has schizo-affective disorder, is embracing one voice that has grown loud and clear — her own. And as she becomes a symbol of recovery and strength in the face of mental illness, others are listening to what she has to say.
Members of the nation’s largest mental health advocacy organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, recently elected her their board president, giving the Pasadena resident a critical role in pushing for education, policy changes and better access to mental health care. The position is on top of her full-time job as chief executive of a nonprofit that provides peer support to thousands with mental illness in Los Angeles County.
On a recent Saturday morning, Myrick stood confidently before several dozen people in South Los Angeles for a discussion about mental health disparities.
She showed a photograph of a grocery store aisle lined with cereal boxes and told a story of what happened one day in her mid-20s. She was trying to decide which cereal to buy and the voices were telling her they were poisonous and would kill her. She kept pulling out different boxes, hoping the voices would say one was safe. They just got more insistent.
Then she heard a loudspeaker: “Pick up on aisle 7.” Unknowingly, she had torn the shelves apart and boxes surrounded her feet. She ran out of the store.
She felt frightened and ashamed. She had even been keeping the voices a secret from her family. “You don’t air your dirty laundry,” she told the audience. “You keep stuff at home. My home was actually in my head.”
After the cereal incident, she told her parents. Her mother advised her to argue with the voices. Her father suggested telling them to shut up.
Years later, Myrick, an articulate African American who dresses in stylish, loose-fitting clothes and has piercings all the way up one ear, speaks openly about living with mental illness. She recounts being locked in an ER psychiatric room without a bathroom or a window, being handcuffed and taken to a hospital in the back of a police car.
“I don’t know any other disease where somebody comes to your door, puts you in handcuffs and puts you in the back of a police car because you are not feeling well,” she told the group. “That’s how many people of color are actually receiving services, if you want to call that services.”
Myrick says she uses her personal story to show people that recovery is real and accessible. She frequently speaks at conferences about stigma and discrimination, has testified before state and national lawmakers and is an advisor to the American Psychiatric Assn.
At the same time, she is still coping with her own illness, which can cause delusions and depression. Myrick’s life is a delicate balance as she tries to keep the voices at bay. Though she hasn’t been hospitalized in several years, she regularly consults with a psychiatrist and often hides in a walk-in closet or a bathroom to quiet her mind.
If she starts to cry over what others might see as ordinary life stressors, her psychiatric service dog, a rat terrier named Steinbeck, knows to curl up alongside. “He has this endearing look,” she said. “All I have to do is just pick him up and pet him. It’s a nice distraction.”
If she starts hearing the voices, she counts repetitively to 10 or she calls her psychiatrist, Timothy Pylko. Her mother died a few years ago, but she still relies on her father, now a professor at Temple University, for support.
Sometimes, she retreats to a nearby hotel for what she calls a weekend of “luxury” that she said gives her peace. Because of the side effects, Myrick takes medication only as needed.
Despite her gregarious and ebullient nature, Myrick — who is single and lives alone — largely keeps to herself. She says she spends so much time around people during the week that she likes solitary time on weekends. She is an avid reader and often will bike near her apartment.
Even though Myrick likes being alone, she says it is when her “mind gets a little too empty” that the voices are most likely to come.
Myrick, the daughter of an Army colonel, moved often with her brother and parents, living in West Germany, South Korea, New Jersey and Kansas. As a young girl, she remembers fearing gigantic spiders crawling under her bed or her dolls coming to life and strangling her.
Her parents saw that as “imagination,” she said. “For me it was real.”
Myrick’s parents had high expectations. Myrick excelled in school and attended college at Wellesley.
“I had a really hard time there,” she said. “But we had a very academic family, so it would have been really hard to say, ‘I hate it here and I want to come home.’”
She started climbing up to rooftops, skipping class and spending more time alone. She deliberately failed her classes, and left school. “That was the first indication of something, but nobody knew what the something was,” she said.
After dropping out, she worked in retail but had severe panic attacks. The voices started to tell her that food was poisonous and she stopped eating. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with an eating disorder, which later was changed to an anxiety disorder, then depression and finally schizo-affective disorder.
“You can call it whatever you want to call it,” she said. “Ultimately, what is important for me, Keris Myrick, is to be happy and live my life.”
Despite her illness, she went on to get a bachelor’s degree at Temple University and then two master’s degrees. She started working in college admissions, taking medication off-and-on and hiding her illness from co-workers.
“I was so worried about the stigma and that I would be discriminated against that I just kept it quiet,” she said. “Nobody ever knew.”
The voices got worse and she ended up in the hospital about half a dozen times. There, at times, she was physically restrained and her shoes, jewelry and purse were taken from her.
Myrick was overwhelmed and had frequent psychotic delusions, Pylko said. Once, she told him she wanted a neurologist to cut her head off to silence the voices. On another day, she asked for aMcDonald’sHappy Meal so she could be happy.
He recalled one time finding her curled up in a closet at the hospital.
“But there was always that strong and healthy side to her even as she was getting these hallucinations,” Pylko said. “She is a very bright and determined person.”
She continued to work but lost an admissions job after yelling at someone. Her psychiatrist urged her to look for work in the mental health field. “I needed to move on to something else where I could fully be me and not have to hide me,” she said.
She discovered the National Alliance on Mental Illness when she was looking for a support group. Over time, she became a peer mentor and started doing presentations and some consulting.
Dave Pilon, chief executive of the Los Angeles office of a nonprofit called Mental Health America, saw her speak and was impressed. He was looking for someone to run a division of the organization. She became chief executive at Project Return Peer Support Network in the City of Commerce in 2008.
“She is an amazingly charismatic figure,” Pilon said. “She demonstrates that people can achieve more than what we generally expect of people with mental illness.”
Myrick divides some of her memories into “icky” times and “yippee” times. The icky was when she was taken to the hospital the first time. The yippee was her first anniversary at the nonprofit. When she thinks about it, she gets goose bumps.
“There was something so significant about being at work, being happy, being fulfilled, knowing that people really wanted me to use my gifts and skills, not to hide them, and knowing that this organization could do so much,” she said.
She is unassuming and friendly, quick to make a joke. Myrick, who thinks of herself as having a young spirit, plans to use social media and technology to reach more young people and push the conversation about how those living with mental illness, and their families, are treated.
“I think a person who lives with the illness has a great voice to talk about what that feels like,” she said.
In her office, Myrick has shelves of toys: a Freud figurine, a black “advocacy Barbie” doll and a wind-up brain. On one wall are the Chinese characters for hope and peace. On another are photographs of her parents.
Many on her staff have been diagnosed with mental illness. There is a peace room, where they can sit quietly on a lounge chair and listen to music if they need a break.
Angelica Garcia is an employee who suffers from major depression. Myrick, she said, makes her want to strive for more. “People look up to her and everything she has accomplished,” she said. “She paves the way.”
To Myrick, staying focused at work is the best therapy. “As long as my mind is doing that, there is really no space for voices,” she said.
She knows how fortunate she is. When she considers how far she has come, she thinks: “Pinch me. Pinch me.” Today, she serves on an advisory board with a police officer who used to take her to the hospital in his squad car.
Myrick is both thrilled and nervous about taking the national stage.
“There is a lot of exposure and a lot of expectations on me,” she said. “At the same time, it is just super duper exciting.”