Count the Schizos

By March 12, 2015Blog

It might’ve gone either way. I could have thrown my coffee at the oncoming traffic, screaming like the Elephant Man, or dragged my leaden feet across the intersection, praying that the universe would stop disintegrating before I reached the curb. It did, I didn’t. That’s how the morning started.

My therapist’s office used to be in the heart of the financial district. When I’d walk through the lobby from the cafe to the stairwell, the security guard always stopped me. I’d shown him the key his employers issued to me, but he remained suspicious. He’d been informed that I had a mental illness, which seemed to exacerbate his prejudicial tendencies.

His successor was more understanding. She only stopped me once. I explained that claustrophobia made elevator rides unendurable. I gave her my business card and talked about BringChange2Mind. For the following nine months we had weekly conversations about mental wellness. Turns out she had an anxiety disorder. We’d found a commonality.

Last winter my therapist’s practice moved to a location closer to the city’s Department of Social and Health Services. The bus I take travels from the palliative care hospitals to the county jail, and the majority of its riders are often on one end of that spectrum or the other.

I am not a wealthy man. I live below the national poverty level. I receive disability compensation because schizophrenia has undermined my capacity for standard employment. Regardless of the social stigma these circumstances carry with them, I find hope in interaction with others. No mean feat, considering my fear of people.

I survive by rote. I have medicine and therapy. I educate myself. I talk to professionals and peers alike. Had I been diagnosed when my symptoms first appeared, life might have turned out differently. Challenges might have been lessened, opportunities more available. I’ll never know. This is how it is now, and I work towards accepting that. It’s a lonely struggle, one the public doesn’t see.

I found a cafe near the DSHS bus stop. I made coffee house friends with the employees. The cashier is a design student, bursting with enthusiasm. His coworker, the barista, plans to marry her girlfriend this summer. Our conversations revolve around activism, art, and health. A welcome respite from the cacophony of the urban circus. A little downtime before my weekly therapy session.

I took the last seat in the shop, four feet from the barista’s station. She was chatting with a customer about the denizens of the surrounding neighborhood, that desperate acre of individuals at odds with survival and hope. The two women broke into gales of laughter when the shot-puller pointed out the window and said, “I like to play a game I call ‘Count The Schizos’. Ooh, look – there’s one! Ha ha! Look’s like he’s off his meds! Better call 9-1-1! Ha ha ha!”

Although she was miming her hunting technique, she appeared to be pointing at me. Had it been noisier I might’ve missed her remark, but it was one of those moments from the movies where the soundtrack drops out and the only thing you hear is what the director wants you to.

I reached for my wallet to hand them both a card. I wanted to start a conversation about celebrating differences, highlighting the diligence of Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King, two activists I admire for their belief in kindness when advocating for social change. Instead, I bailed. Heart racing, Voices unleashed, dissociative symptoms pulling me apart.

I am not sure that I understand what it feels like to hurt, but I absolutely know what it is to be singled out and ridiculed. The stigma of having schizophrenia, and being reduced to a Whac-A-Mole caricature in the eyes of an acquaintance, whether she was aware of her insensitivity or not, set off an internal chain reaction of panic and shame that I could not control.

I needed to anchor myself to the one person I trusted to help me crawl out of that cave. I had to cross the street before the terror could overtake me and turn the crosswalk into quicksand or my cup into a guided missile. Six blocks to therapy, fifteen flights of stairs. Joseph Merrick’s aching heart roared up within my own: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

I won’t let this become another missed opportunity. If I don’t at least try to interact with her – with kindness, not with guilt or blame – then years from now, when she and her wife are nonchalantly playing Count The Schizos with their child, my inaction might be partially responsible for that young person never knowing the negative impact of stigma perpetuated by unthinking people. We owe it to ourselves to be accountable for the way we’re perceived today, and to coming generations for the way they’re received tomorrow.

Count The Schizos

18 Comments

  • Mindy Sue says:

    I’m so sorry this happened. I can relate. When I’m in situations similar to this I can only comfort myself and remain calm by assuming the person is ignorant, not thinking mindfully and it’s not about me. It does sting though…

  • Henry Boy says:

    Thanks, Mindy Sue. You’re correct – it is important to remember that when others are acting out of ignorance they often are not thinking of anyone but themselves. That’s why I take the position that it’s up to me, as a person living with a mental illness, to remember this and act accordingly. Stigma stings, to be sure, and as long as we don’t internalize that stigma we’re living healthier lives. That’s a good day!

  • julie says:

    I am so very proud of your efforts to educate people and help them see mental illness is nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of.
    I can only imagine you daily struggles. Your article was encouraging and very well articulated.
    http://www.notadaypromised.com : we lost a son to suicide and have a website to educate others about mental illness.
    Blessings.

  • Brigid says:

    i am so very sorry that this horribly hurtful incident happened to you.
    I wish that people would think before acting in such a vile manner.
    The stigma of mental illness is a horrible fact and until people understand that it is an illness, as is cancer and others, there reactions will not change. Again, my heart goes out to you.

  • Kate O says:

    Amen. Bravo!

  • robin says:

    Hi Henry,
    How eloquent your writing is and your compassion and understanding of ignorant people.
    My son (24) has multiple diagnoses under the Autism Umbrella and mild schizophrenia. I go through periods of anger because of how people perceive him, including family.
    I try spreading the word and educate people as much as I can and you inspire me.

  • Matt H says:

    You are not alone, my friend. We are all human beings, whether suffering from GAD, OCD, or in my case, SZA. We all deserve respect regardless of the mental illness we deal with. One thing that helps me is to remember that anyone who feels the need to pick on someone with a brain disorder, has their own set of problems and insecurities. Stand strong, keep up this excellent work. And, do not stop writing! – Matt

  • Paula C says:

    When similar things have happened to me, I have used my sense of humor to get me through it. I am bi-polar and I joke about illness subtly. It helps especially when run into someone who really gets it.

  • Carrie Lea says:

    Such a daunting position to find one’s self in. I empathize; I try to do my best to inform people of the importance of language and of being mindful of the struggles that those around them may be facing, despite appearances, but it’s hard. Especially to feel singled out like that, I am so sorry to hear this happened to you. The stigma is alive and well. I, too, suffer from schizophrenia and it’s very scary to share that with people, even people we’re close to. Hopefully, they took that card and were intrigued enough to look it up. You did what you could in that situation, while many of us would have just stayed silent and stewed in our shame. I commend you. Thank you for actively fighting the stigma.

  • Carl G says:

    The gestures of the jesters are their shaky relief that the condition
    does not straddle their psyche. Less cruel than fearing their own
    nightmares of lost control. Hurtful by ignorance. Your mission is
    unending, as was Mother Teresa’s. Believe in yourself.

  • Tara M says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Beautifully written.

  • Simon says:

    I have been there many times with anxiety my friend. You explain it so well. I hear people all the time making fun of people who have mental health issues. You now have given me the power to stand up and say somthing… Thank you !!!

  • Karla D says:

    I feel your pain. I am bipolar and because of the way I have seen my fellow teacher colleagues, I was even more determined to keep my illness as a secret. I have made some mistakes and been in some situations that I wish I could just tell the person; if you say she isn’t on her meds to me one more time, I will scream. Here I am standing next to her and I am on meds and I work so hard to be ‘normal”. I present normal as I perceive it, but since both my parents were bipolar, both my sons, and my ex husband, I still hide it. I am going to retire in 50 days and it is time for me to maybe write a blog or tell my story about the stigma of being mentally ill. I fear the shame and humiliation so much that I have lived a lifetime of pain and sadness. I would like to do my part as i enter the last years of my life to end the stigma. How can i do that in a meaningful way? I am searching for the answer to that question. I am so proud of your bravery and how you faced your illness head on and pushed through and are doing well. i want one of the last stigmas to be dismantled. I will finish 35 years of working with special needs students. I did disability awareness for them and advocated for them. Yet, I could not do the same for myself. I am ready and your story has inspired me.

  • Stacey says:

    Uneducated is societies worst downfall whether it is about politics, laws, history, etc. However, as a mother of a son with mental illnesses, I am finding myself withdraw from everyone around and want to take my son away from it all. I research, go to therapists with him, and read everything I can to help him understand and to help me but everyone else calls him stupid, immature, retarded, crazy, etc. I try and talk to them about him and try to explain some of his diagnosis’s but they won’t listen. To them he looks normal so he must just be a bad seed. It is heartbreaking but I won’t give up on him or on educating the world that surrounds him.

  • Tamela says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! I am not good at explaining or articulating my stuff. I hate that it bothers me so much worrying what others think I’m going through or what’s wrong with me. Bye

  • Ilene F says:

    Thank you so much for he courage to speak out. You are helping others in ways you cannot imagine.

    Go back to the coffee shop. Keep going back. You probably have more friends than you realize. Ignore the haters.

    As I told someone who was bullied, it is feelings of inadequacy that drives people to ridicule others. It makes them feel better. They are to be pitied for their shallow souls.

  • Rosa says:

    Thank you. I have a brother with schizophrenia and I try to educate people all the time. He is very lonely most of the time and has settled for less because of this disease. I will continue to help him in all the ways I can. Thanks again

  • Kitt O' says:

    Thank you, Henry, for your incredibly well-crafted piece and this powerful and personal story of how stigma directly and devastatingly affects us. I love your conclusion: “We owe it to ourselves to be accountable for the way we’re perceived today, and to coming generations for the way they’re received tomorrow.” I have faith in you, in us, to educate with that barista and others like her.

Leave a Reply to Kitt O' Cancel Reply