Broken Dreams: Beyond Mental Illness

A guest post by Rebecca Chamaa

When I was in my late twenties, I had graduated from college, and was a practicing social worker, but all I really wanted to be was a poet. I started a little literary magazine called, “The Numbug Ate the Passionate Woman with too Many Feelings for Lunch.” I started sending off my poetry to journals and I was having success at getting them published. I also started a poetry reading in a theater turned coffee shop where the well-known Poet, Marvin Bell, once showed up to hear a friend of his read. After my reading Mr. Bell said, “Beautiful.”

I never forgot what Mr. Bell said, but his words would break my heart a thousand times before I would see him again.

While my dream to be a poet consumed me, something else was brewing in my mind and made itself known in a dramatic way – I was mentally ill. I suffered my first of many psychotic episodes and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. The medication I was put on killed the little voice that gave me poetry. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus.

The only dream I had ever embraced was torn away from me like a tree or a house in a tornado. Years later, my diagnosis would change to paranoid schizophrenia. My medications would change frequently too. I didn’t give much thought to writing because the memory of that one dream, that one hope, that one desire was just too painful.

Over the years, I won a couple of 100 -200 word essay contests. I wrote an essay for my husband and he won a Harley Davidson tour through Europe for two people, and I won a Hallmark essay contest that included employees of Hallmark writing my Christmas letter, buying and sending out my Christmas cards, and buying and wrapping presents for a few special friends. That was the extent of my writing though – intermittent contests for major companies.

Two years ago, at almost fifty, I started writing poetry again. I joined a poetry workshop and met an amazing poet, Steve Kowit, who encouraged my writing. My dream started to pop a little here, and pop a little there and then I decided to really go for it and try to get an MFA in poetry. I applied to schools and was accepted. The school I went to turned out to be a disaster – the poetry instructor I was given never commented on or returned any of my critical papers. I knew the teacher wasn’t serious about teaching poetry and I didn’t want to pay tens of thousands of dollars and end up being the same poet going in as coming out. Something happened at that school that changed my life though. I was required to take a course in creative nonfiction (CNF). 

In the course of CNF, I wrote about my battle with schizophrenia. My papers and my story were well received by the professor and the students alike. I showed my essays to my then poetry mentor, Steve Kowit, and he said my prose were fantastic. I wanted to try my hand at memoir. 

I saw Marvin Bell at a conference this year, and I told him that I had never forgotten his response to my poetry nearly twenty years ago. He was kind and generous to me a second time, but this time his words didn’t impact my writing or my heart, because I am moving in another direction that does involve a dream, just not a dream of being a poet.  

I am currently working toward a CNF certificate at UCLA, I have a book out, I blog daily, and I have been published on Yahoo Health, Role Reboot, and on other magazine sites and in anthologies. 

I have a dream to be published in one big national publication. It is my hope, it is my desire, it is the thing that gets me out of bed, but because of superstition, I won’t name the publication here, but I know for certain you have heard of it. And maybe one day, you’ll hear of me, because I have paranoid schizophrenia but along with that, I have a dream.


Rebecca Chamaa's essays and poetry have been published on/in Yahoo Health, Role Reboot, Manifest Station, Pearl, Serving House Journal, San Diego Reader, Transition, and other journals and anthologies. Her book Pills, Poetry & Prose: Life with Schizophrenia is available on Amazon. She blogs daily at 


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