“Someone forgot to take their meds!” the man shouted to the riders on the bus. “Happens every time!” he laughed.
I felt a sickening jolt in the pit of my stomach and wondered briefly, “Is it me?” but it couldn’t have been. I have a note stuck to the fridge which I put in my empty cereal bowl the night before, like I do most every evening, to remind myself to take my medicine. One of the most common downsides of living with schizophrenia is having to deal with working-memory loss, those immediate short-term memories that help us navigate the day. I still have little-to-no retention, even medicated, hence the drawer full of Sharpies and three-by-five notes pads. It pays to be prepared. I had nothing to worry about, but the boisterous comedian concerned me for a moment.
The passenger he was referring to was a non-English speaking individual riding the bus with her dog for what appeared to be the first time. She didn’t seem to understand the instructions regarding fare payment, or the rule of not allowing pets to ride on the seats. And for this, the comic cracked wise. I felt compassion for the woman. It wasn’t that long ago that learning new bus routes was an ordeal for me, too.
I was on my way downtown for an appointment at the state courthouse. This was a big deal, turning in my paperwork early for a case. That I managed to fill out all of the forms correctly made me feel like a real person and not the schizophrenic that I am sometimes ashamed to be. I say ashamed because I want my mental faculties to operate at maximum efficiency and not at a slower pace than another, non-mentally ill person. I want to be able to focus, to compartmentalize. My medications help with that, but it’s a process that I constantly need to review and renew. I’m never entirely out of the woods. Where I used to freely associate I now slog along like a tortoise, so I let self-stigma influence my self-image. I’m not proud of that, it’s just true. Accomplishing something challenging makes all the difference in the world. I walked into the courthouse with a little pride in my step. I’d managed to do something others take for granted. That felt good. However, the feeling didn’t last.
The security guard at the gate treated me like an outcast. Maybe it was my clothing or my stride, but, for whatever reason, he regarded me with a certain amount of disdain that he hadn’t shown to the other people entering the building. I kept my composure and followed the rules. Belt off, wallet and phone out, keys in the tray, coat on the conveyor belt. Standard operating procedure. When he invaded my personal space in an attempt to move me along, I tried to neutralize the tension by asking him a question. I showed him my stainless steal medical ID bracelet and asked why it didn’t set off the alarm. When he read the word “schizophrenia” printed across the band, he abruptly backed away from me. The name of my illness caused a disturbance. It was an uncomfortable moment.
I stepped out of the queue to put myself back together, and headed for the elevator. The staff in the office I was visiting were pleasant, reaffirming my belief that people are basically good. On my way out of the building I smiled to the security guard and said that I’d see him next week. He nodded but didn’t smile. The other officers did. Perhaps he was having a bad day. Maybe he didn’t like my looks. Or it could’ve been that the word “schizophrenia” startled him. It didn’t need to affect me either way. Still, I found it troubling that I’d had to encounter two types of stigma in one morning, from the man on the bus and the guard at the door. Two instances where I questioned my self worth because of someone else’s agenda.
The comedian was clearly making fun of the new rider, but nobody laughed at his jokes. He was the only person who thought he was funny. Of all the things he could have said, why did it have to be a slight towards mentally ill people and their necessary regimen of self care? His air of superiority showed the kind of person that he was—condescending and assuming. The security guard’s recoil when he read my bracelet gave me pause to wonder—was he taken aback and feeling wrong for riding me, or did it fortify his position that I was an undesirable person? I’ll never know. It just made me think.
Sometimes that’s what it’s all about, this life where I work hard to overcome my mental health challenges and blend into the fabric of life. This is where I need to remember that I can advocate for myself as well as others, that we all can, and that the future of how we’re perceived rests solely on our will to be understood and accepted on equal ground.