When Rachel Star Withers was a child she saw demons everywhere.
That was how she understood the specters that flitted through her room at night, moved things around, and made faces at her from the branches of trees.
Raised in the Southern Baptist community of Indian Land, South Carolina, Star Withers used her faith to understand a universe that she said seemed “distorted.”
“If the church was open, I was there,” she said.
When she confided in church leaders about her visions, they told her she was seeing demons manifest.
“And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, well I guess that makes sense,'” she said. “Creepy-ass monster hanging out watching me. At the time I’m thinking that makes sense. Yeah, it’s a demon.”
Until she was older she didn’t realize her visions were all that unusual.
“You hear things like monsters under your bed, monsters in your closet,” she said. “I just assumed that’s what everyone was talking about. I just thought everyone saw them.”
“It wasn’t until I was in high school that I said something about it to my school friends. They were like, ‘What are you talking about, Rachel?’ And I was like, ‘Oh crap — am I the only one that sees these?’ But that was the first time I realized that this is actually weird, this isn’t normal.”
About seven or eight people in 1,000 will develop schizophrenia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That makes schizophrenia about as common as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“In some ways, [schizophrenia] is kind of the prototypical mental illness, because it represents madness,” Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of Columbia University’s department of psychiatry and a specialist in schizophrenia, told Business Insider.
People with untreated schizophrenia experience false beliefs, disorganized thinking, disorganized speech and behavior, delusions, and hallucinations. However, any one person with the illness might have just a couple of those symptoms.
Often, symptoms strike when people are in their late teens or early 20s, though Star Withers said she has lived with hallucinations her whole life.
“Every night I was terrified to go to bed,” she said. “And I could watch [the demons] on the ceiling, moving around — these horrible faces. I’d see them outside. I’d see them on the trees and on the walls. Just monsters everywhere. A lot of them would stand in the corner of rooms.”
She developed rituals and coping mechanisms.
“Like if I lay really, really still in the middle of the bed, and I didn’t move, then for the most part they’d leave me alone.”
At the same time, she had obvious symptoms of depression and anger. Her parents brought her to see doctors, but she never told them the full depth of what she was experiencing.
Lieberman said people with schizophrenia often experience symptoms severe enough to seek treatment during their first year or two out of high school. For Star Withers, that meant they struck while she was a student at a Christian missionary-training program in Texas at age 17.