A child's imagination has no bounds. Some boys and girls pretend to be astronauts and mermaids. Others run alongside imaginary friends. But, for a few children around the world, the mind conjures hallucinations that never go away. At times, these make-believe visions even lead to violent behavior.
Michael and Susan Schofield know all too well how mental illness can affect a child's life. Their 7-year-old daughter, Jani, has been diagnosed with one of the most severe cases of childhood schizophrenia Jani's doctors say they've ever seen.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia is a chronic, disabling brain disorder that may cause a person to hear voices and misinterpret reality. In some cases, schizophrenic patients believe people are plotting to harm them, which causes extreme agitation or depression.
Jani may be younger than most people with schizophrenia, but she battles the same demons. In her case, hallucinations take the form of imaginary children and animals. There's a little girl named 24 Hours, a rat named Wednesday, and a cat named 400 who tells her to do bad things.
Over the years, Michael, a college English professor, says he's met more than 200 different cats, rats, dogs, birds and little girls that only his daughter can see.
Michael and Susan say they knew something was different about their baby girl from the day Jani was born. They sensed Jani was smarter than most children, but they couldn't explain her bizarre sleeping habits. "Most newborns sleep at least 16 hours a day, but Jani only slept 20 minutes at a time," Michael says. "And no more than four hours in a day."
Now, when Jani's parents look back at home videos, Michael says they notice signs that something darker was going on inside their daughter's mind, even when she was a toddler.
As Jani got older, she required constant stimulation, and at times, she stared off in the distance at things that weren't really there. Michael says Jani also wanted people to call her names like Blue-Eyed Tree Frog and Jani Firefly, which he chalked up to a remarkable imagination.
Then, when Jani was 2 years old, her imaginary friends began showing up. "While lots of kids have make-believe friends, Jani's became constant companions," Michael says. "It was when her hallucinations turned violent that we knew that something was terribly wrong.
Jani was 5 years old when her behavior went from temperamental to dangerous.
"She would scratch until she drew blood. She bit until she drew blood. She would try to run her nails down my face to try and scratch my eyes out," Michael says. "Then, seconds later, she was back to being sweet again."
Jani explained to her parents that imaginary animals named Wednesday and 400 were telling her to hit. If she didn't do it, she said they would scratch and bite her until she did.
When things got really bad, Susan, a stay-at-home mom, says Jani would try to hurt herself. "I remember she was so upset, she was choking herself," she says. "[She was] holding her hands around her neck, and she's like, 'How can I break my own neck?'"
Once, Jani's parents punished her by sending her to her room. When they went to check on her, Michael says they found her trying to jump out of her bedroom window.
This was the first year of life as Michael and Susan now know it. "The violence got so bad in year five that we had to hospitalize her," Michael says. "She's been in the hospital more than she's been home this year."
While in the hospital, doctors diagnosed Jani. Finally, Michael says he and Susan had a name for the enemy that threatened to destroy their family. "Its name was schizophrenia," he says.
From January to August 2009, Jani was admitted to the hospital three times, spending a total of 174 days in UCLA Medical Center's psychiatric ward.
Her psychiatrist, Dr. Mark DeAntonio, says it's very unusual for a child Jani's age to have this kind of mental illness. "I've seen only really a handful of children in my 20 years that fit this kind of diagnosis," he says. "This kind of alternate reality that she lives in—that's very scary. That's very disturbing."
Year after year, Jani's hallucinations change and evolve, but all the cats and rats have one thing in common…they live on an imaginary island Jani calls Calalini. This island, which she describes as a place between her world and our world, is very real to Jani.
"I like Calalini better than this world," she says.
There's no cure for schizophrenia, but doctors try to control Jani's violent impulses and normalize her brain activity with heavy medication. "She's on the top of the line—Clozaril, 200 milligrams a day, and lithium, 600 milligrams a day," Susan says. "Clozaril is the last resort for adult schizophrenics."
Even on medication, Jani still becomes violent at times. In June 2009, Michael and Susan decided to separate Jani from her baby brother, Bodhi, to keep him safe.
"In the two-bedroom, it was so stressful always having to make sure that Bodhi was safe, because she would attack him. She was violent all the time," Michael says. "We couldn't go to the bathroom. We couldn't take a shower. We couldn't do anything for fear that she would hurt Bodhi."
The children now live in two different one-bedroom apartments in the same complex. At night, Michael sleeps in one apartment, while Susan stays in the other. Then, the next day, they switch off.
In Jani's apartment, Michael and Susan try to replicate the hospital environment as much as possible. "We try to keep her to a similar schedule that she had in the hospital," Michael says. "There are no cleaning supplies in this apartment. There are no knives, sharp knives in this apartment."
Michael says it's as if Bodhi is growing up with a divorced household, but they'd rather split their time between apartments than risk his safety. "He never has both parents with him at all times, and as heartbreaking as that is for us, we thought that was a better alternative than having him grow up in fear of his sister," he says. "We did not want that."
At night, Michael and Susan find peace, knowing Jani survived one more day. Michael says this is his favorite time. "[I think]: 'We've kept her alive. We have now about 10 hours of rest until we've got to do it all again,'" he says. "And we will probably have to do it all again for the rest of our lives."
Oprah traveled to California to spend an afternoon with Jani and her parents, and after an hour, she said she was exhausted. "I just marveled at what it takes to keep her alive," she says. "And as you had said to me, Michael, your number one goal is to keep her alive and keep her happy."
While some people have good days and bad days, Michael says their lives have been compressed into moments.
"The moment is really all that we have," he says. "We're trying to give her as many happy moments as we can. … She's already tried to kill herself a couple of times. We want her to feel that our world has enough to offer her so that she wants to stick it out."
To create some normalcy in her life, Susan and Michael try to send Jani to public school, where she has a one-on-one teacher in a special education classroom. Susan says she doesn't play with the other children at school. Instead, she chooses to play with her imaginary animals, as well as the class lizard, Spikes.
Jani does have one real-life friend who can understand her illness. Becca, a 9-year-old with paranoid schizophrenia, was once Jani's roommate in the psychiatric ward. Now, the girls are best friends.
Schizophrenia is an unpredictable illness that can take a toll on a family. Over the years, both Susan and Michael say their daughter's illness has tested their relationship and affected them emotionally. Both are currently battling depression.
"I was extremely depressed. I was thinking of ways out," Susan says. "I didn't want to live with this anymore."
Michael also struggled with suicidal thoughts. One afternoon, he says he tried to take his own life by swallowing half a bottle of antidepressants.
"I had reached the point of just feeling so powerless. We're taught as parents that we are supposed to be able to help our children—to save them," he says. "And we alone we couldn't do it. We couldn't save her."
After taking the pills, Michael says he was planning to drive away and let them take effect, but then he had a change of heart. "I realized that I couldn't leave Susan and Jani and Bodhi alone. I just couldn't do that. I couldn't be that selfish," he says. "So I turned around, and I went back."
While the government provides social services to adults with mental illnesses and children with behavioral problems, Michael and Susan want people to know that there are few options for children with mental illnesses.
"The Department of Mental Health wanted to send her to an out-of-state residential facility, and we wouldn't allow that because she was only 6 years old at the time," Michael says. "We want her in our lives. We love her."
Michael and Susan also want to encourage people to be empathetic toward children like Jani. "The goal is to keep kids like Jani and Becca alive, and the way that we have to do that is to try and make their lives as happy as possible," Michael says. "Now, this doesn't mean giving them everything that they want, but it means not judging them for what they can't control."