Eating out of the garbage can is never a good thing, but it didn’t register as an unhealthy choice. Scraps are scraps. If they’d have been paper, I could’ve made a collage; cloth, and I might have sewn a quilt. Instead, I get to embarrass myself. In perpetuity. Because I just told you that I ate from the trash.
That was nine years ago. I’d been homeless for four months. Those days are behind me now; I work hard to keep it that way. I have schizophrenia, and I do something each day to manage it. That’s probably not what you expected to read after seeing the words homeless, eating garbage, and schizophrenia in these opening paragraphs, but I’m an advocate for mental health. Honesty is my bedrock. Breaking clichés is my jam.
Still, there are times when the stereotype fits. My emotions are more synesthetic than instinctive. I walk without awareness of my body. I talk to myself, and I see things you don’t. None of that matters. I take care of myself. I pay the rent on time. I buy the groceries and take my meds. But when my symptoms are active, the mistakes I can make place me smack in the middle of a paradox I like to avoid: am I my illness or not?
I’ve accepted a truth which challenges my sensibilities. It is empirical, and I’d be a fool to deny it. While it’s obvious that I am not my diagnosis – that’s metaphysically absurd – I live with schizophrenia, the result of a mutation in my DNA. I didn’t get schizophrenia. It’s not acquired. It exists before birth.
A person doesn’t come down with schizophrenia. It’s not the flu. Yet confusion surrounds this concept of contagion, due in part to the romanticized incidences of temporary psychosis caused by the abuse of controlled substances. Pop culture’s obsession with instant consciousness expansion has lead to a false impression of what it’s actually like to live with an organically disordered mind. The belief that choice plays into the equation because a celebrity got high and “heard the colors of the music” denigrates every individual struggling to survive the adverse effects of a living in a neurominority.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that addiction is a serious social and mental health concern. Numerous factors contribute to the experience of substance abuse and dependency, but for the one percent of the world’s population born with schizophrenia, we had no more choice in the matter than we did our eye color.
Society appears to ignore this dichotomy. In the eyes of the law, criminal activities associated with addiction are prejudicially equated with mental illness. People born with schizophrenia are routinely lumped together with addicts and alcoholics for the convenience of our policy makers. The dismissal of either group creates more conflict than it does resolution, inadvertently discouraging treatment while encouraging discrimination.
Adapting to a cultural stigma running counter to the creed of this country – a doctrine which promises that “all men are created equal” – means I am expected to exist outside those liberties, without those rights, and beyond the love of a Creator who fashioned me – same as they – but for the genetic anomaly which led to this life I have, the one where garbage is a gift and loneliness a privilege.
I have a disabled pass for the bus. When I take a seat in the designated section, the vets and grandparents scowl at me and tell me to go sit in the back. My illness isn’t any more apparent to them than it is to the representatives putting the squeeze on public assistance. So I take a beat, then share my story with respect. They listen and share. We unify because we have something in common.
I speak across age, race, gender, and disability, because the culture we share treats us disparagingly, eventually pitting us against one another if we let it. And for what? So we can live below the poverty levels established by the entitled few? So that those of us overwhelmed by the red tape of social health services, or too impoverished or stigmatized to buy and take our meds, can be considered less than human?
I think not.
The pen is still mightier than the sword, even when that sword is cutting public programs to ribbons. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses that the Statue of Liberty claims as her own: that’s us, “yearning to breathe free,” writing, reading, and talking nonstop about the injustice our clumsy buccaneer will never know. Eventually our stories will have turned the tide, and future generations won’t have to feel the sting of that blade. Because it will be thrown out. Tossed in the trash. Where no one has to dig for supper ever again.