Words by Sydney MacDonald

There are few places in the world that force one to plumb the depths of the human psyche like New York City. Traversing across the city, there’s hardly a spare moment to notice the thousands of passing faces you come across in a day, let alone connect with another human. Michelle Hammer was moving through her day in NYC at the same pace as everyone else, until an unexpected stranger caught her eye. This stranger would ultimately inspire her to start a life changing company, alter the course of her experience living with a mental illness, and ultimately help other individuals to speak openly about their own conditions.

 

“I was taking the F train to go see a friend and I looked down the subway and there was this homeless guy talking to himself in the exact same way that I did. So I’m looking at him and I’m like ‘Wow if I didn’t have my family, my friends, my doctor I could so easily be in his position.’”

Hammer, currently 29, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 22 years old. Growing up Hammer says her mom always thought she might have a learning disability due to her inability to pay attention in class.

“I was just so in my head. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t listen, I couldn’t understand because I wasn’t concentrating on the teacher. I was just listening to the voices in my head and  hallucinating situations.”

As Hammer moved through high school and college, she started to slowly make sense of what was happening in the world around her, but says it wasn’t easy to accept help from outside individuals at the time.

“When you’re so paranoid you really think that everyone’s trying to hurt you instead of trying to help you. Especially when you have that paranoid voice in your head that’s saying don’t trust these people don’t trust them at all.”

Initially Hammer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was eighteen. It wasn’t until four years later, when she was diagnosed schizophrenia that she began taking medication that alleviated many of her symptoms. Yet she still experienced the world through the clench of schizophrenia.  

“Things are just still really hard because even if you’re medicated it doesn’t mean the voices go away, it just means the voices become more positive.”

When Hammer began exploring the professional world in NYC, it was difficult to to show up to work everyday without feeling as though she couldn’t logically explain why she was late in the morning, nor why she occasionally talked to herself or why she couldn’t always be expected to be mentally present. “I worked in tons of different jobs doing different freelance projects but nothing could really be long term just because I was still in my head so much.”

The one outlet Hammer had at the time was her art. She constantly doodled as a release from her daily anxiety, drawing abstract designs of rorschach tests over and over again in her sketchbook. She toyed with the idea of creating t-shirts with a rosasach that would give individuals a different way of looking at schizophrenia. “I took that test and switched up the patterns and colors so everyone was forced to look at it from a different perspective, kind of getting you to think differently at starting a discussion to reduce or end the stigma surrounding mental illness.”

Hammer soon birthed the idea for her own company: schizophrenic.nyc. The company’s goal is bringing awareness to the experience of living with mental illness, specifically focused on the experience of living with schizophrenia.

“I mean seeing a mentally ill homeless person is just not okay. You can’t just leave somebody on the street who is so obviously ill. I don’t like being in that position I don’t like seeing people in that position.”

Schizophrenic.nyc offers a variety of handmade products, from art prints to pill bottles and acclaimed t-shirts featuring phrases like “Don’t be paranoid you look great.” Hammers’ company not only works to normalize conversations about schizophrenia, but also donates a portion of its profits to organizations that work with homeless individuals living with mental illness in NYC.    

Hammer’s journey in mental health advocacy has continued evolving in recent months: March 19th, she’s co-hosting a podcast with Gabe Howard on Psych Central, titled A Bipolar a Schizophrenic and a Podcast. She’s says she’s excited to continue taking on projects with other like minded individuals.

“When I say 1 in 5 New Yorkers have a mental health issue, a lot of people will respond with ‘Yeah I’m one of them, so it’s really interesting to keep talking to people and hear their stories.’”       

Michelle is an individual who’s transformed her own personal suffering into a conversation that’s helping people all around the country. Her work spreads the message that no one deserves stigmatization because they’re living with a mental illness. It invites new perspectives on how we view individuals that appear different from us.  

“I just want to get out there and spread the message of love, and let people know that they’re not alone in the world.”