Did you hear the one about the two mentally ill people who went out for coffee together? They shared a sandwich and a cookie and talked for three hours about things they had in common; this strengthened their friendship and they had a lovely time. Maybe not quite the punchline you were expecting, but it gets the point across—just because we’re mentally ill doesn’t mean we aren’t human.
The people in the above paragraph are myself and my friend Nika. She lives with bipolar disorder. I am a paranoid schizophrenic. We met in the psych ward last winter. We discuss things we have in common: theater, movies, people watching and poetry. We speak openly with one another about our diagnoses, sharing the moments which punctuate our lives in the ways that only living with a mental illness can.
We talk about the side effects of our medications. We highlight the weirder things we’ve experienced when symptomatic. We do this because it gives us an opportunity that we don’t have anywhere else: a time-out from living with the normal world, where we get to share the aspects of our lives which make us feel like outsiders. While most folks might talk about how well their kids are doing in school, how their vacation plans are shaping up, or how grueling their recent tax audit was, we share stories about therapy, medication tremors, and drooling. And we find humor in it. Because we can. Because it takes out the sting. We find a commonality that we can’t share with the general population, not even our psychiatrists or therapists.
We’re like two kids at camp reading our comicbooks with a flashlight. By sharing our secrets we form a healthy bond, a fellowship.
Discussions include topics like self-care, coping strategies, and how stigma and bullying affect us. As could be expected, the subject of loneliness takes a big chunk of our time. Neither of us have love interests, and we’re not involved in that dynamic together. Rather, we console one another. The theme runs the gamut from sadness for how lonely being mentally ill and single is, to laughing about our individual mishaps in the arena of romance. It does the heart good to have someone to talk to.
Nika is an actor. I’m a writer. We can discus art for hours and often do. We’ve been to the zoo together, gone spelunking through the curio shops, paced ourselves on a lap around the park, and joined fifteen-hundred other like-minded individuals on the annual NAMI Walk.
It occurs to me how, through discussing our mental illnesses, many of us can blend into the tapestry of everyday life, feeling comfortable in our own skin. That comfort level, I am fairly certain, can only exist between fellow travelers. I’ve put that theory to the test by trying to discuss my symptoms and perceptions with non-mentally ill people, and I just can’t seem to catch the same buzz. Too often there’s a disconnect, likely due to how unfathomable a life of symptomatic experience can be. Not that normal people don’t try, it’s just outside their reach—and that’s all right. I respect that. Expectations would only cause frustration for both parties; counterproductive when the aim is open communication.
Sometimes I wish I could indulge in divulgence, but I recognize that it’s probably for the better that I don’t. People tend to get confused when they try to comprehend the world of the mentally ill. Nothing says they have to— that they’re willing to listen is, in itself, enough. Empathy is a good thing, even if it’s fleeting. Challenges can arise when, due to symptoms, the mentally ill speaker is perceived to be self-absorbed. A thought disorder often makes tracking very difficult. Hyper-communication is not always my best friend.
Staying in the conversation is key. Avoid listening ahead or speaking behind. Your turn will come.
Maybe mentally ill people give one another a wider berth when they’re sharing because they’re accustomed to the rhythm from talk therapy. They pick up on the subtleties because they’re more in the moment than they’re given credit for. Sharing their stories with another, be it a lay person or a mentally ill peer, is paramount to sound mental health. Not only does it bypass stigma and discrimination, but it allows the person space to breath, to find their own pace, to feel safe.
We pay our tab like every other patron in the coffee shop and head out to catch the bus. It’s a crisp late-summer afternoon. We are the only people wearing mismatched prints, ultra-bright clothing, and laughing at our own whimsy in the face of the odds. In a sea of hipster black we stand out, separate but equal. Connected.