AJ Scheuerman was 16 when he had his first episode of a yet-to-be-diagnosed mental health illness. It was not only the first incident, but also unforgettable, leaving AJ’s family broken, confused, physically injured, and the teenager left to deal with the consequences in a locked psychiatric ward.
Although AJ’s story may seem atypical compared to the millions of seemingly able-minded people suffering from depression on a day-to-day basis, they all share the importance of this month and what it means to be in tune with one’s own mental health awareness.
AJ became fixated on lightbulbs, wearing white button-down shirts, and on cutting himself. Seeing himself bleed “was a reminder that I'm human, that ultimately, I'm just flesh and blood,” he said.
“So, I’d go for long walks during this time, and just think about different things. One night, I went for a really long walk, and I was listening to my iPod. And I thought that the songs were made for me, that these people knew about me, and they were trying to communicate to me about the secret society that I was supposed to be a part of,” he said.
The Batavia resident would go for these walks, and while listening to songs, he became convinced that the artists weren’t just singing to an audience but that they were singing a message directly to AJ.
After three months, he decided to share his discovery with his parents, but they didn’t have the same response as he did to the music or the messages that he believed he was receiving. He had gone on an extensive walk one night and didn’t return until the next morning.
“I got lost. I actually had to ask for directions from a couple of different places. I got home at, like, 4 a.m. And my mom was waiting for me … I couldn't sleep because I was just thinking about what it was that these people were trying to communicate to me through the songs and stuff. I had this idea that people break away from the Bible secretly. And that was the secret society that they wanted me to be a part of. So in the morning, I tried to tell my parents about the secret society and all this stuff. And they were just listening to me. And I'm trying to put on the songs for them and, like, show them that the songs were talking to me and just give examples that they could be enlightened the same way I felt like I was enlightened,” he said. “And then I didn't get any response from them. So I showed them the scars on my thigh from when I cut myself, which I cut myself pretty much every night. So my thigh was just like a scab. My mom started crying. My dad was like, ‘Is this because I never showed you how to shave?’ And it was just confusing that he would have that reaction."
Confusion to Delusion to Action
"So then my mom, she started crying. And she said, ‘Your dad has thin blood; your dad has thin blood.’ And then I was like, okay, so that means that if he got cut, he would bleed out. Yeah. And I was like, do they want me to hurt my dad? The secret society wants me to kill my dad? And I was like, 'No, I can't do that.' Why are you making me do this? And then that's kind of how delusions start. And then my dad was like, ‘Come on. Let's go to the bathroom. I'll show you how to shave.’ So then, we went to the bathroom, and I took the razor out of the bag of razors. My dad was standing in the doorway. And I thought, my dad wants this. My dad is a willing sacrifice. My dad wants me to attack him.”
And all of that mental build-up led AJ to slash his dad’s face with the razor. His father staggered backward, and AJ slashed him again, dropping the razor to then begin punching him in the head.
“And I recoiled because of the way that his skull felt on my fingers,” AJ said. “And he fell to the ground.”
Meanwhile, his mom had called the police, explaining that her son was just 16. She hugged AJ as his father escaped, and then the police arrived.
“I was taken to psychiatric jail for 39 days,” he said.
AJ was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition in which someone experiences symptoms of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder. These symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, lack of pleasure, decreased mood and poor attention.
If AJ seems to be one of those anomalies that we don’t run into very often, one in about every 300 people develops this disorder at some point in their lives, according to therecoveryvillage.com.
For Genesee County’s population of roughly 60,000, that’s 200 people struggling with schizoaffective disorder and many more with bipolar and depression, which affects more than 18 million adults (one in 10) in any given year across the United States, according to the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists depression as the primary reason why someone dies of suicide about every 12 minutes for cumulative 41,000-plus death a year.
Although Scheuerman, or AJ as he much more prefers to be called, isn’t quite at the point of happiness for being alive, he is at a place of knowing that he has survived his ordeal so far. He was put on prescriptions that have negative side effects, he said, and he has to weigh the pros and cons of being alive on meds versus possibly getting worse without them.
Living to Try Another Day
He admitted that he has never fully sought out and attended counseling of his own volition; it has been something forced upon him, he said. The Batavian asked if he thought he ever would have reached out for help on his own, and he wasn’t certain if he would have. Meds have helped to keep his worst symptoms of violence from escalating, and hospitalizations — he’s had 11 of them to date — have kept him alive.
“I’m still here is kind of my message,” AJ said. “I’ve been through a divorce and just different delusions. I tried to kill myself when I was 17. Because of delusions, and yeah, I’m not living my best life right now. But I’m still here. And I’ve survived what I’ve survived.”
Do you see a place for mental health treatment now, even though you say it’s been imposed on you? Do you think it has saved your life?
“Yeah, I’d say, I guess, begrudgingly, I would say that medication has saved my life,” he said. “So my family, I couldn’t have done it without my family, especially my mom and my ex-wife. I’ve kind of been resistant to therapy. I don’t really get too much out of it.
"I went through psychoanalysis for about a year that it made me realize why I’d had the delusions that I’d had, and I thought that I could go off medication because I had realized why the delusions were the way they were,” he said. “But, ultimately, that didn’t help me either. Just because it was the fact that I was having delusions and not the impetus behind the delusions that I needed to know about.”
A common scenario most people may relate to is when prescribed a 10-day course of antibiotics for an illness. By day six or seven, you may begin to feel better and stop taking the pills because they don’t seem necessary anymore. It was a similar feeling for AJ, he said, in that he started to feel better and believed the meds were no longer required to remain healthy.
And it didn’t work.
“Yeah, I went off the meds, and I was hospitalized within a few months,” AJ said.
This is common behavior, Genesee County Mental Health Clinical Director Rachel Mieney said. A lot of times, people will be on medication and start doing well enough to think they can go off their meds.
“And some people are able to use tools that they've learned in therapy and to kind of maintain the progress they've made,” she said. “And then for other people, sometimes, you need that medication, especially if it's more of a brain chemistry type thing where the medication is really necessary to allow you to be able to function.”
As AJ talked about his struggles and recovery — imposed as it has been at times — he said he considers medication to be a “boogeyman” in his life, stealing who he is at his very core and leaving him not feeling “like you’re the person that you’re meant to be.”
Mieney strongly encourages people like AJ and anyone, really, who is struggling with any type of mental health issue to seek help, not go through it alone, and know that there is hope.
From Patient to Peer
Despite his ups and downs and uncertainties about the joys of life, AJ does have a few positives: he’s “definitely” stable and is able to function in society, he said. He also has a job as a peer guide at the Mental Health Association of Genesee and Orleans Counties to “help people with mental illness.”
Through his own experience, AJ works with others to “focus on helping the person achieve goals.”
“And for the most part, I can’t even tell that people have a mental illness that I work with,” he said. “It’s just there. They’re just people, and they have hopes and aspirations. And I’m there to help them with those hopes and aspirations.”
What does it feel like to be a useful tool for people and to help them?
“It’s great that I have a use for the episodes that I’ve had. There’s no, ‘Oh, I’m not sure what this feels like for them. I’m not sure what to do.’ It’s always like, ‘Okay, I’ve been through this, and I can help them with whatever ailments they have,” he said. “And just the goals that they ate, the barriers that they put on themselves, I can kind of help them to break down those barriers by being like, I’ve come this far … I’m still here, and I can help you in any way that I can.”
Mieney wanted to reiterate that whole piece for not only AJ but others doubting the value of their bumpy lives.
“You’ve been able to use your experience to help other people. That’s huge. A lot of people feel like that, you know: I’m the only one that deals with this. And so you can show them no, 'I’ve done it too,'” she said. “'And I’ve succeeded.' And it’s not perfect. There’s going to be side effects with medications. There’s going to be episodes that happen depending on the diagnosis, but, you take it one day at a time. You work through it.”