A self-portrait in Princella Woods’s bedroom shows her in a bright red dress holding an umbrella up to a cold winter sky. The viewer cannot make out her obscured face inside.
“My nervous breakdowns always happened around Christmas,” said Woods, a 33-year-old single mother from San Jose. Petite and the owner of a wide smile, she looks much younger and uncommonly vivacious for someone coping with paranoid schizophrenia.
“That’s what everyone I come across says when I tell them I have a mental illness,” she said with a hearty laugh. “They can’t believe it.”
She lives today with her infant son, Jamari, in a sparkling new apartment building for low-income families in San Jose. The building attracted hundreds of applicants.
“I won the lottery!” Woods said.
The middle of three children, she grew up in Sunnyvale with her brother, sister and their mother. Enthusiastic about a career in health, Woods moved after graduation from high school to Pinole, in the northeast Bay Area, and studied to become a medical assistant while working at a supermarket.
Her dream was interrupted that same year, in 2003, when she suffered her first of several hallucinations and anxiety attacks. Not knowing what was going on, she dropped out of the medical training program and moved back with her mother.
“Mom, am I going to be OK?” she asked. “Is there something wrong?”
Not long after, Woods suffered a major breakdown inside the market freezer at the market.
“I started seeing strange things,” she said. “I ran and got into my car, drove really fast, got out, and then someone called the police.” She ended up in the psychiatry ward at the local hospital. Her eventual diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
She began a frustrating, eight-year journey through emergency rooms and psychiatric clinics. A string of doctors, she said, prescribed anti-psychotics that were too strong and left her lethargic for days at a time. She couldn’t finish any of the community college classes she had enrolled in. Her career dreams were slipping away.
“They were treating me like I was just another crazy person,” she said. “I slept eight years of my life away and I spent a lot of time switching doctors.”
Following another breakdown in 2012, this time in San Jose, the city police officers who responded first to the scene gave her a teddy bear to calm her down. Woods still has that teddy bear, gently tucked away in her apartment. A mental health worker ended up referring her to Momentum for Mental Health. There, she met the late Dr. Baoling Chai, a psychiatrist she credits for saving her.
“I finally got a doctor who finally saw me as a person,” she said. Dr. Chai died earlier this year. Woods improved rapidly under Chai’s care, and even started college again. However, she remained in an abusive relationship and found herself pregnant in 2015, having to choose between motherhood and staying on her meds. She chose to give birth, and the hallucinations returned with full force.
Even with Dr. Chai’s help, it took months to regain her health and custody of her son. Today, Woods centers her life on raising Jamari, caring for her aging mother full-time and volunteering at her Baptist church in San Jose. In her spare time, she paints, writes poetry, plays piano and keeps a diary. She’d like to start a Christian daycare center for children someday, but she’s in no hurry.
“For the first time in my life I’m at peace,” Woods said. “I look forward to every day.”