The population of the United States is estimated at 322,583,006, equivalent to 4.45% of the world total, with a density of 68 people per mile, 83% of which is urban. That’s a party. If you’re having trouble sorting out some of the more colorful guests, here’s a handful of statistics from NAMI to put things into perspective:
Approximately 61.5 million Americans experience mental illness per year. That’s one in four adults. About 13.6 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder.
Approximately 18.1 percent of American adults – about 42 million people – live with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Approximately 6.7 percent of American adults – about 14.8 million people – live with major depression.
Approximately 2.6 percent of American adults – 6.1 million people – live with bipolar disorder.
Approximately 1.1 percent of American adults – about 2.4 million people – live with schizophrenia.
I kind of freaked out a little watching the digits dwindle as they wound their way down to my diagnosis. The odds of me ever meeting another schizophrenic seemed astronomically improbable, but there she was standing in front of me, bright-eyed and unabashedly colorful, like Andie Walsh from Pretty In Pink.
My friend Coach introduced us at a greasy spoon where my band used to head for a post-gig nosh. He’d met her there a while ago and took his time establishing trust before introducing us. The last thing he wanted was to appear disrespectful like the people who, though well-meaning I’m sure, go out of their way to find someone else wearing the same tattoo or tee shirt and chirp, “You two will get along famously – you have so much in common!” Sigh. Face-plant.
Coach has a big heart. He wanted two people with a unique commonality to grok for a New York Minute that the earth wasn’t flat and we wouldn’t sail off the edge no matter how many times the pundits cry fowl. As in chicken. Little sky. Lotta falling.
One percent of the country’s population. One individual every two kilometers. It’s taken five years since receiving my diagnosis to meet one other person with schizophrenia. Five years. Like the Bowie song, “What a surprise!” Or not. Considering the public perception of my tiny little tribe of two-and-a-half million, it’s not surprising at all. To them we’re the monsters at the edge of that flat earth, all snapping jaws and slather. Yet here we are, me in my secondhand sweater, she in her Southern Belle sweetness. Alien siblings from different motherships, a couple of scouts phoned home and found. Twin mirrors curious as to how far back the likenesses feed into the next nano-moment.
We were like two explorers sharing various trinkets from our travels on this foreign planet. I showed her my shiny silver pill fob. She carried something similar in her purse. We discussed medications and side effects. We compared symptoms, self care, and hospital visits. We talked about stigma, both social and internal. We agreed on the importance of therapy. We marveled at how challenging it can be to put ourselves out there to others, and how liberating and rewarding it is when we’re accepted for who we are.
As she put on her coat and caught up with her husband, I thought of the people I’d met whose diagnosis put them in their own category of Outsider. The laws of probability suggest that they’re more likely to meet a person with a shared diagnosis than we were. I know a number people with depression and anxiety. I’ve met quite a few with bipolar disorder. People with OCD and PTSD are in my immediate circle, too. A fellow artist I know lives with borderline personality disorder. I can relate to all of these people on some level, as my schizophrenia shares some of their symptoms. But meeting Andie was a unique experience. We were one another’s first Close Encounter; I hope we both have many more.
Taillights disappeared in the rain, and the memory of meeting her was momentarily gone. Coach grabbed his baseball cap and jacket, threw his arm around me and asked, “So, Henry, how did that go?” I blinked and wondered and thought and mused and finally said to the floor, “I guess I’m worried about tree frogs. The glass ones. South America. I don’t know how they’ll find enough to eat if we keep farming all the trees.”
Coach replied, “I know a place uptown where they serve an awesome baked macaroni and cheese. How does that sound?” It sounded good.
The older gentleman cleaning up the diner lifted his head and spoke softly, almost imperceptibly, in a tone reserved for sleepy-headed children when the bedtime story’s over. His words carried the weight of Closing Time. What he said with a smile was a friendly hand on my heart.
“Beautiful minds. Beautiful minds.”
I could have hid my tears in the rain, but I proudly lifted my face to the sky. Let them mingle. At the edge of the world. One-percent. One raindrop. Two.