Although her roommates know about her mental illness, and in fact have their own afflictions, 27-year-old Kathy Livingstone prefers to meet at the nearby Hardee's to talk, rather than her apartment.
Thisis her first time talking publicly about her illness, which has plagued her for nine years, and she feels more comfortable meeting at a public place.
"It's hard to talk in front of my roommates," she says.
Sipping coffee, still dressed in her security guard uniform from work at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Livingstone tries to explain what it's like to have schizophrenia while refusing to live in a secluded world of mental illness.
Her goal, for which she was recently honored by Omni House Inc. -- a rehabilitation program for the mentally ill -- is to live and work in the community, doing the things everyone else does.
For Livingstone, it's just more of a struggle.
"I have goals I set for myself every day," she said. "Fix your hair, fix your makeup, fix your uniform, do your job.
"The simple things can be hard. Eating, sleeping, exercising, bathing -- if I've done that, I've had a good day."
In the past, she said, getting out of bed and getting dressed has at times been more than she could handle. She's lost at least one job because she didn't have enough energy to get there.
"I wouldn't show up, I wouldn't call, I'd be late," she said. "I just didn't care."
Her illness, which is sometimes coupled with long bouts of depression or mania, can make even the most basic things difficult.
"When I was manicky, I wanted to talk all the time. I had racing thoughts; I kept thinking the same thought over and over," she said. "I wouldn't be able to eat or to sleep. I'd doall the things that make you feel worse and worse."
Livingstone'sschizophrenia -- most often thought of as split personalities, but actually a catch-all term for a form of mental illness that can include delusions, hallucinations and bizarre behavior -- is controlled with a combination of drugs. Her doctors say she'll be taking those drugs for the rest of her life.
One of the hardest things about battling a mental illness, she says, is starting her life over and over again. At least twice, traumas in her life have caused mental breakdowns. Each time, she's been hospitalized. Each time, upon release, Livingstone has had to start her life from scratch, with no job, no place to live and few friends.
After graduating from South River Senior High School, where she ran varsity track and got good grades, Livingstone, a Davidsonville native, started college at Salisbury State University.
But her illness, diagnosed as schizophrenia at age 19, madeit hard for her to deal with the pressures of college life. She dropped out after three semesters and moved back home.
For the next few years, she held a string of jobs, moved around, changed friends often.
In 1988, at the age of 23, she found herself temporarily homeless when a boyfriend she had been living with threw her out. The stress brought on a mental breakdown, landing her first in a psychiatric ward for two weeks and then in Crownsville State Hospital for two months.
After slowly putting things back together, with the help of Omni House, the suicide of a close friend two years later started the cycle again -- first a breakdown, followed by hospitalization, then finding another apartment, new roommates, another job.
During the nine years she has been mentally ill, Livingstone has had to put her life back together many times. And each time, it gets a little harder.
"I have to keep starting over -- that's the hardest thing," she said. "Other people can build toward something. With me, I'm starting over and over again. I don't know what I'm building."
Livingstone's perseverance and determination to make it, despite many obstacles, is inspirational, say Omni House staff members. This year during OmniHouse's 10th annual awards ceremony, she was honored -- along with 30 other Omni House members -- for her humanitarian actions and for getting and keeping a job out in the community. The others received awards for being energetic, congenial and hard-working, among other things.
"She's a wonderful example. She's basically independent, with some help from Omni House," said Jill Lockwood, Livingstone's case manager. "I think she's somebody others can look up to and hope to be like."
Omni House, a private, non-profit program that helps the mentally ill find work, housing and psychological support, has played a central role in Livingstone's life since her first hospitalization in1988. While in Crownsville, Livingstone got on a waiting list for Omni House, which helped her find an apartment and get counseling.
Without its support, she said, she does not know where she would have lived when she got out of the hospital.
"I'm definitely better offnow with their help," she said, yet the struggle to make it is ongoing.
She now has a job as a security screening guard at the airport, which she has held since January. So far she has managed to get herself to work regularly, Saturday through Tuesday, for a 6 a.m. shift,which requires her to get up at 5.
Although things have gotten much better with the support of Omni House, she said she still lives in"a constant state of fear."
"With a mental illness, you're alwayscombating the unknown," she said. "You're always living in fear. What's going to happen? Will I have a breakdown?
"In this world, it'shard to make it. And mental illness makes it twice as hard."