Lightning in a Bottle

By September 4, 2013Blog

“What? No. We’re best friends. You don’t have schizophrenia.”

“We’ve worked together for years. You don’t have schizophrenia.”

Apparently, all it takes to not have a mental illness is to chitchat around the water cooler, or go glow-sticking with the Kandi Kids. What a relief. I wish the professionals who’d convinced me otherwise had used this formula for diagnosis and recovery. Imagine the breakthroughs if this equation were applied in the medical community.

“I’ve known you since high school. You don’t have diabetes.”

Takes on a different tone, doesn’t it?

Physical illnesses are cruel. Witnessing the outward effects of a disabling injury, or the withering weakness from chemotherapy, we empathize. We don’t question what we see before us: our loved ones being ravaged by a lentivirus or malignant cellular growth. For a moment we consider our own mortality, but our brain immediately deletes that notion. Our going concerns become other-focused. We circle the wagons instinctually.

My stepmothers died young. I watched cancer take them both. My first stepmom was a professional photographer. Her last roll of film was shot from her hospice bed in our living room, photos of me at the kitchen table composing music for her funeral. She was taller than me and heavier, too, before cancer’s incursion. By that afternoon, I could pick her up in my arms and carry her to the bathroom, help her wash up, and carry her back. In my arms. I weighed a buck-twenty soaking wet. She weighed even less.

“But…I’m your son. You don’t have cancer.”

It’s perplexing when every square on the Rubik’s Cube is white. You never know which side is complete. There’s no way to know where to start or when to quit. The answers are all questions are all answers. The Invisible Man has no reflection. Nor does Dracula, but we can still see him. Without context there is no connection.

We can understand depression because we’ve all been sad. We can understand anxiety, because we’ve all been nervous. We can offer compassion to those who suffer from these disorders because, to some degree, we have had similar experiences. We can relate. Their conditions are magnifications of our common emotional states. We find ourselves more tolerant of something we have shared. The culture circles its wagons most effectively when they find a common thread. Without it there is no glow. It’s just a stick.

Consider this: the Count bites a pachyderm and brings it to your house. You now have a vampire elephant in the room. You stare at it, but won’t discuss it. You turn to the mirror, and it’s vanished. We point at the conundrum, then we name it. Out of fear. We leave the wagons unattended, trays locked, seats in the upright position.

Crimes of passion, impulsive acts, a heartbeat lost to misconstrued thought. A nanosecond of confusion, loss of reason. This is as close as any person without a mental illness will ever get to psychosis. Temporary insanity – key word: temporary. Burden of proof. Shadow of a doubt. Shadows. Doubts.

Granted, correlation does not imply causation, but if the only experience the public has to draw on is being momentarily blindsided in the heat of an argument, then it’s no wonder that “madness” is so easily misunderstood, and “crazy people” become feared, vilified, and ultimately discriminated against. It’s good for sales. It’s also contempt prior to investigation. Burn the witch.

In a culture where intelligence – the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills – is valued above all else, where information is power, the very idea of not being in control of one’s thoughts is almost inconceivable, terrifying, its existence dismissed as inventions borne from the minds of playwrights and journalists, seductive in that it gives one an excuse to act out. But that’s where it stops. No one wants to be powerless.

An individual living with a thought disorder has no initial way to know that their brain is not telling them the truth. We all trust what we know. We know what we learn. We learn from experience. Experience informs us. So the intel is correct, even within the dream. Even when the dream dreams the dreamer. Yet we still hunt the monster under the bed. Because that thing can’t control its thoughts. It is free in a way that we only know when we’re under the influence, when we “get a little Cray-Cray.” Willingly. By choice. Tomorrow morning it’ll be aspirins and a hangover. Temporary insanity. We envy and fear the power of the uncontrollable mind.

I educate myself about my illness every day because information is power. It can be harnessed. Science continues to examine that white puzzle cube. There is a way to find color. There is hope for the Invisible Man.

Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle artist, writer, and musician living with schizophrenia. He received his diagnosis in 2010 and has been managing his illness with a passion ever since. He is currently writing a memoir chronicling his experiences with schizophrenia and trauma in the hope that people living with a mental illness – as well as those who love and care for them – will find something in his story that compels them to share their own. Publicly open in his advocacy for awareness and change, Henry focuses on education and communication as the most effective tools in any superhero’s utility belt. Honesty and humor work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.

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