'I thought everyone had their own little voices': Neuroscientist Erin Hawkes on her battle with schizophrenia

First aired on North by Northwest (08/09/12)

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Erin Hawkes started hearing voices and music when she was a small child, voices that eventually turned nasty and led to a suicide attempt, a bout of electro-shock therapy, eight different medications, and 12 hospitalizations. But Hawkes was also a straight A student who earned a master's degree in neuroscience. She has written a memoir about her struggle with mental illness and schizophrenia, called When Quietness Came, and she discussed the book and her experiences in a recent interview on North by Northwest.

For Hawkes, the voices started when she was very young and they were never alarming in her childhood. Indeed, Hawkes describes them as her "little friends." She also heard music. "I would hear it when we were in the car and it mostly sounded like it was coming out of the trunk," she told host Sheryl MacKay. "I'd ask my mom to turn up the volume because I couldn't hear it very well and she'd say, 'Erin, the radio's not on.'"

As a child, she took the audio hallucinations for granted. "I never thought it was anything different. I thought everyone had their own little voices. Everyone says, 'The little voice in my head said this' and I just assumed it was the same thing," she explained. "But around adolescence they started to get more persistent and meaner, talking about me as if behind my back or telling me what to do, what not to do, what I shouldn't have done, what I should do."

When the voices started to get nasty, Hawkes tried to avoid them by studying really hard. "I excelled at school and put all my effort into it. I had a few good friends, so I was relatively normal," she said. "I kept the voices to myself. I thought everyone had them and there was no point in discussing them."

Hawkes earned a master's degree in neuroscience and excelled in school, earning high averages and multiple scholarships — even while dealing with the inner turmoil of hearing voices that urged her to commit suicide. "I think the studying was a coping mechanism," she said. "The harder I studied, the more I could ignore the voices."

Studying was also a way to reassure herself that she was in control of her mental health. "I had heard about schizophrenia, and some part of me wondered if that was me. But I heard the stereotype of schizophrenia — uneducated and stuff like that — and I thought, 'Well, if I maintain an A-plus average there's no way I could have schizophrenia," Hawkes said. "And a doctor once told me, which I don't agree with, but he said, 'You're too smart to have schizophrenia.'"

Hawkes is schizophrenic, but it took a long time to receive an accurate diagnosis. First she was told she had depression, borderline personality disorder, and was even given electroshock therapy, which is not usually used on schizophrenics. She often felt misunderstood, and lost in the system.

"One of the reasons I wrote the book, and put on the cover 'Erin Hawkes, MSC,' is that I really wanted to reach professionals," she said. She thinks that many psychiatric professionals have a lot of learn about the experiences of their patients, and she hopes her book is viewed as not "just" another memoir by a schizophrenic and that she'll be taken seriously. "I think my credentials should make it more acceptable to a professional."

Hawkes also wants to reassure others with mental illnesses similar to hers. "There's always hope...When you're in the middle of it, it seems like it'll never be normal again," she said. "And in some ways it will never be 'normal' but it is very livable."