One thing I know about myself is that I feel very deeply. Another thing I know is that I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know what that means. I have no context. This is not tranquility. This is something else. Something nameless, formless. How do I feel?
I can see between the frames of the film as it makes its way through the projector, instant by instant until a story is told, but my experience of you as you tell me your tale is scattered to the sands of my breaking memory. I scan your lips intently as they form the words you share, sprocketing their sounds past the shutter and the lens, but your eyes and lips float above the surface of your face like lazy koi in a still pond. I define the moment I am living in by the moment I am living. I am the moment. I meet you in the spaces in between. But how do I feel?
My senses are in overdrive all the time. That’s their baseline. Beyond that, it’s a mash-up. Seeing the flavor of touch, or hearing the scent. It’s not a magical world for me. I can’t switch it on and off. Psychedelics might afford a person a sensory experience akin to mine, but they get to leave it behind after the chemicals wears off.
I can’t wind down, even at bedtime. The blankets come alive. They rub against my skin and keep it awake with the sound of touch. Not the sound of fabric or fabric-on-skin, but the distant, rolling thunder of not sleeping. When slumber does finally wash over me, it’s at a price. The Voices start to taunt and ridicule. They pose riddles that would baffle even Gollum. Falling asleep takes a lifetime. I am old before I find peace. I am at the mercy of the nightmare when dreamtime comes.
I found a silver lining: I learned to access and channel my senses into art. I studied the masters in college and honed my skills. I found a way to shape a mental illness that I never knew I had into a way of expressing the world around me. I learned this secret from the jazz musicians, from the poets, the filmmakers, and game designers. Alice never stumbled into Wonderland – she arose from a dream with her high beams on, enlightened, aware, awake.
No amount of cake or spice will allow anyone even the slightest hint of a glance of a peek into the very real world of psychosis aligned with skill. Every time a journalist defaults to using the worn out cliche of the Tortured Artist slaving away in a garret, creating their masterpiece under the influence of some illicit substance, walk away. Tune that out. It’s an insult to every person living with a thought disorder, artistic or not. There is no romance in the internal torture of delusion, depression, or trauma. Trivializing that person’s psyche and the soul of their expression is inhumane.
So how do I feel?
Did I answer the question yet? You were speaking rhetorically, correct? Because to ask how I “literally” feel would limit my answer to the use of my fingertips. Perhaps you meant “figuratively”, as in “what emotional state am I in at the moment”, in which case it would be appropriate to scan the range of human emotions: acceptance, aggression, ambivalence, apathy, anxiety, compassion, confusion, contempt, depression, doubt, ecstasy, envy, embarrassment, euphoria, frustration, grief, guilt, hatred, hope, horror, hostility, hysteria, loneliness, love, paranoia, pride, rage, regret, shame, suffering, and sympathy.
Psychiatrists define me by my diagnosis – Paranoid Schizophrenia – so that’s a box I can tick. My clinical subset is Disorganized Type, which checks confusion off the list. I have an anxiety disorder which exacerbates my other symptoms – that could be considered a source of frustration.
Some news reporters would have you believe that I can only experience aggression, hatred, hostility, and rage. Schizophrenics portrayed in the movies are so unhinged that horror, hysteria, euphoria, and ecstasy charge after them like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. An audience might envy the purported freedom from all reason, believing the play’s premise when it couldn’t be further from the truth. This is not impartiality. This is something else.
What about my having to accept my diagnosis, or the depression, doubt, and shame which follows? How am I supposed to deal with the ambivalence, apathy, or contempt generated by others when I show them my authentic self? Where is the compassion, the sympathy, the love? Embarrassment and guilt strip me of hope and pride, reinforcing the regret that my life was lived for nothing but suffering and grief. With the list whittled down to a whisper, all that remains is loneliness. The space between the space between the frames.
One thing I know about myself is that I don’t know how to feel. Another thing I know is that I feel very deeply. Every day is a day when I can rise from a dream with my high beams on. Enlightened, aware, and awake.
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 courage work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.