Sometimes I don’t know how to relate to the real world. I watch other people go about their day and it makes no sense to me. How do they manage to do it so effortlessly? It baffles me. Maybe that’s because I’m on the inside looking out. By inside I mean “in my head”. It’s crowded in there. Out here, I’m just blank. And there’s the rub. I watch and I learn, but I feel like I’m only parroting.
My housemates gather around the TV and watch sports. They understand the games because they play them as well. I admire the athleticism involved, but somehow I miss the gestalt of it all. I’ll ask if they had a good game, but I have no tangible grasp of the sport or the workings of inclusiveness—and inclusiveness is what matters most to me. I stand on the outside, inside, and wonder.
Families get together for outings, social gatherings, family time. Everyone has a chance to share their story, their anecdotes about work or the kids. I understand how they organize the event. What I can’t seem to comprehend is the process once everyone’s together. I can’t make that connection. As a result, I feel like I just don’t fit in.
Formal occasion or backyard barbecue, fancy dress or Pikachu shirt, regardless, I feel out of place. I can pretend that I know what’s going on, and often do just to blend in. Over the years, I’ve learned how to mimic gregariousness, or at least I like to think I’ve got that covered. For all I know, I stick out like a sore thumb.
I can chalk it up to the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, like flat affect (diminished emotional expression) and alogia (poverty of speech) for instance. Or the positive symptoms of paranoia and its delusions which appear when I least expect them. My disorganized thinking doesn’t help matters either. Dissociation can be a problem. Memory loss plays a role. Even medicated, symptoms crop up unexpectedly, and the world appears artificial and superimposed. I feel derealized and depersonalized, making it all the harder to connect.
To some I might seem reserved or introverted. In my mind, I’m a regular guy, convivial and outgoing, or so I would like to think. But when I can’t plug in properly, or I embarrassingly stumble over my thoughts and actions, the distinction’s made patently clear: something’s amiss. Stranger in a strange land, fish out of water. That sort of thing. I feel like I have no identity for others to connect with, or identifying aspects to break the ice.
On occasion, I’ve been cajoled into joining by well-meaning friends who might gently goad me into teaming up when I feel like an alien. I’m not a wallflower by choice but by nature, informed through my mental illness and compounded by stigma, self- and otherwise. I’m not antisocial. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m intrigued. Still, I stand on the sidelines and wonder, “Why can’t I join in?” I don’t feel sorry for myself. It’s nothing like that. Like I said, I’m just baffled.
One percent of the population lives with schizophrenia. That’s one in every hundred, which means that, when I’m in a group any smaller, odds are that I’m in it alone, self-conscious, and, depending on the company I’m in, stigmatized. Is it any wonder in that instance that I find it difficult to relate when I’m in the mental health minority? That’s the elephant in the room, the pretense of normality.
I want to believe that by being transparent I am inviting people into my world, and that I’m breaking down stereotypes and allowing others to experience the real me, the person beyond the mental illness. Whether I can relate to the world around me or not is up to the day and my symptoms. When those symptoms are being managed, I can sense a way into the sea of people I watch in wonder. Still, I’ve learned that, under stress, symptoms can and will show up. While my treatment plan is sound, schizophrenia is unpredictable. I can disappear deep within myself and not come out for a while. I can watch the world go by and wonder why it does. Or watch blankly and respond to nothing with nothing.
Sometimes I don’t know how to relate to the real world. I take my medicine, talk with my therapist, work with my case manager, and see my psychiatrist —these things help a lot—but perspective is entirely up to me. When I’m functioning well, objectivity comes easy; the world is there to interface with. When my symptoms are active it’s more of a challenge. I embrace the better days. The ones where it feels like I’ve connected with another human being.