I make the mistake of trusting people to be unbiased in their thinking about schizophrenia. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I still approach social interaction as if the playing field were level. I trust that people will show me the same courtesy they would a person without a mental illness.
As a rule, I don’t withhold information when people ask me how I’m feeling. I shouldn’t have to. Yet even with friends who know that I have this disorder, the conventional media-imposed image of schizophrenics trumps any transparency that I might offer in confidence. If I default to that hackneyed answer of “Fine, thanks,” it tells them nothing. Instead, it affords a polite, illusory protection from dealing with the socially uncomfortable fact that I have a brain disorder. In this age of ubiquitous information, there’s no valid reason for that.
One in four people worldwide will be affected by mental illness. Through various campaigns and education, public awareness of the difficulties faced by people living with mental health disorders is increasing. The grassroots movement to eradicate the discrimination and stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly, but certainly, establishing a foothold. Those one-in-four can rest assured that the days of justifying their diagnosis to anyone for any reason is on the wane. Not overnight, mind you, but steadily, one healthier moment to the next, and eventually on to that more level playing field.
It could be that because the natural schematic of the human brain contains the capacity for interpreting the basic states of joy, sadness, anger, fear, trust, disgust, surprise, and anticipation, society can more readily accept that when brain chemistry is imbalanced, the stability of the individual is at risk. These scientific truths form a sympathetic bond.
We learn from experience. Fire is hot – we don’t touch it a second time. Traffic cones indicate a detour – we agree that the bridge is out. When any of us feel overcome with fear, panic, sorrow, or uncertainty, we know instinctively that we need help. In no way would we want to experience those conditions alone. With rare exception, compassion is ingrained in each of us; we share a chemical continuity. Because the fire will burn us, because we need to cross that river, we learn to work together. We depend on one another to extend a helping heart and hand. This is the essence of being human.
The commonality of our general physical and mental health allows us to comprehend what another might be going through – unless we’re addressing the one percent of the world’s population who live with schizophrenia. A more uncommon ground you’re not likely to find. This is where the sympathetic bonds hold no sway, where uninformed opinion and stereotypes prevail.
That level playing field? The one our advocates and followers are working so diligently to resow? It’s coming together fine for the team of eight basic emotions, their chemical balancing, and the tolerance and kindness of others. Deservedly so. Future games of Life depend on it. But when the question of how I’m feeling is answered with the honest, albeit occasionally surreal, illustrations of a disordered thought process, the sometimes alarming nature of my responses cut the brake lines of the conversation and send it careening headlong into the Fitch Barrier of dismissiveness and cruel judgement.
For all the hope and dignity that I champion for every individual affected by mental illness – client, provider, family, or friend – when it comes time to show myself the same consideration, too often I flinch. I buy into the humiliating conventional images of schizophrenia and ignore the life I deserve, so deeply ingrained is the hurt.
Upon receiving my diagnosis I hid the news in shame. Yet not long afterwards, I took a cue from other human rights advocates, and came out with full disclosure. Why not share who I am and what I learn at every turn? The answer became clear once I put myself out there. The stigma surrounding schizophrenia is more pronounced than for any other mental illness or disorder, not because those disorders are any less disruptive or challenging, but because they have an understandable context to which mentally “normal” people can relate. Schizophrenia does not.
Don’t get me wrong. I will stand side-by-side with anyone struggling with their diagnosis because I believe that every one of us deserves the respect that any person living with any illness receives. Our government, the public programs, and the educational system all need to be as on board and accessible for mental health parity as they are for every other disability, bar none.
At the core it begins with acceptance and understanding, starting right here within our small community. We need to be a unified voice to be heard and taken seriously, so that the next time someone asks you how you are, you can feel comfortable knowing that the culture has shifted to a practice of active listening and patient response. Because nobody, and I do mean nobody, wants to open their heart to someone else only to be told that they “should know better.” That “it’s not real.”
Make no mistake. It may not be their reality, but for me, it’s as real it gets.