Alien Nation

By Henry Boy Jenkins

The population of the United States is estimated at 322,583,006, equivalent to 4.45% of the world total, with a density of 68 people per mile, 83% of which is urban. That’s a party. If you’re having trouble sorting out some of the more colorful guests, here’s a handful of statistics from NAMI to put things into perspective:

Approximately 61.5 million Americans experience mental illness per year. That’s one in four adults. About 13.6 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder.

Approximately 18.1 percent of American adults – about 42 million people – live with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Approximately 6.7 percent of American adults – about 14.8 million people – live with major depression.

Approximately 2.6 percent of American adults – 6.1 million people – live with bipolar disorder.

Approximately 1.1 percent of American adults – about 2.4 million people – live with schizophrenia.

I kind of freaked out a little watching the digits dwindle as they wound their way down to my diagnosis. The odds of me ever meeting another schizophrenic seemed astronomically improbable, but there she was standing in front of me, bright-eyed and unabashedly colorful, like Andie Walsh from Pretty In Pink.

My friend Coach introduced us at a greasy spoon where my band used to head for a post-gig nosh. He’d met her there a while ago and took his time establishing trust before introducing us. The last thing he wanted was to appear disrespectful like the people who, though well-meaning I’m sure, go out of their way to find someone else wearing the same tattoo or tee shirt and chirp, “You two will get along famously – you have so much in common!” Sigh. Face-plant.

Coach has a big heart. He wanted two people with a unique commonality to grok for a New York Minute that the earth wasn’t flat and we wouldn’t sail off the edge no matter how many times the pundits cry fowl. As in chicken. Little sky. Lotta falling.

One percent of the country’s population. One individual every two kilometers. It’s taken five years since receiving my diagnosis to meet one other person with schizophrenia. Five years. Like the Bowie song, “What a surprise!” Or not. Considering the public perception of my tiny little tribe of two-and-a-half million, it’s not surprising at all. To them we’re the monsters at the edge of that flat earth, all snapping jaws and slather. Yet here we are, me in my secondhand sweater, she in her Southern Belle sweetness. Alien siblings from different motherships, a couple of scouts phoned home and found. Twin mirrors curious as to how far back the likenesses feed into the next nano-moment.

We were like two explorers sharing various trinkets from our travels on this foreign planet. I showed her my shiny silver pill fob. She carried something similar in her purse. We discussed medications and side effects. We compared symptoms, self care, and hospital visits. We talked about stigma, both social and internal. We agreed on the importance of therapy. We marveled at how challenging it can be to put ourselves out there to others, and how liberating and rewarding it is when we’re accepted for who we are.

As she put on her coat and caught up with her husband, I thought of the people I’d met whose diagnosis put them in their own category of Outsider. The laws of probability suggest that they’re more likely to meet a person with a shared diagnosis than we were. I know a number people with depression and anxiety. I’ve met quite a few with bipolar disorder. People with OCD and PTSD are in my immediate circle, too. A fellow artist I know lives with borderline personality disorder. I can relate to all of these people on some level, as my schizophrenia shares some of their symptoms. But meeting Andie was a unique experience. We were one another’s first Close Encounter; I hope we both have many more.

Taillights disappeared in the rain, and the memory of meeting her was momentarily gone. Coach grabbed his baseball cap and jacket, threw his arm around me and asked, “So, Henry, how did that go?” I blinked and wondered and thought and mused and finally said to the floor, “I guess I’m worried about tree frogs. The glass ones. South America. I don’t know how they’ll find enough to eat if we keep farming all the trees.”

Coach replied, “I know a place uptown where they serve an awesome baked macaroni and cheese. How does that sound?” It sounded good.

The older gentleman cleaning up the diner lifted his head and spoke softly, almost imperceptibly, in a tone reserved for sleepy-headed children when the bedtime story’s over. His words carried the weight of Closing Time. What he said with a smile was a friendly hand on my heart.

“Beautiful minds. Beautiful minds.”

I could have hid my tears in the rain, but I proudly lifted my face to the sky. Let them mingle. At the edge of the world. One-percent. One raindrop. Two.

Alien Nation photo

13 responses to “Alien Nation”

  1. Jeff M says:

    It was my pleasure, Henry. A good coach knows when to keep the playbook simple.

  2. Ashleigh says:

    Hello, thanks for the great post. Ashleigh, and support others with mental health challenges like myself. I’ve been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia several years ago. Please know that there are many times I felt alone and forgotten. Loneliness and having others judge and not care makes for sadness and the potential to harm oneself. You are not alone. There are many resources, love and compassion. Sometimes it’s quite challenging but never give up.

  3. Alex says:

    I was just thinking the same thing yesterday, where are all the other people with schizophrenia? We need an app for that!

  4. Debbie says:

    beautiful, touching, real, lovely, joy

  5. REBECCA says:

    We’ve met many schizophrenics here in our little area within the Pacific Northwest. You are definitely not alone.

  6. Sharon says:

    Henry Boy Jenkins

    If you haven’t already done so, I hope you will consider writing a book one day. You certainly have a talent for writing and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your short essay. Though my diagnosis is different, as someone with firsthand knowledge of the social and internal stigmas of mental illness, I would like to say thank you . . . and best wishes to you and Andie, going forward!

    Sincerely,
    Sharon

  7. Jody says:

    Beautiful story

  8. Larissa says:

    I’m still waiting for this moment, but so happy for you that you had it. Even in that fleeting moment, you felt a bit of the loneliness and lack of understanding melt away and I yearn for that sense of companionship born of mutual struggle more than many other things. Make sure to thank your friend with his own macaroni and cheese when he has a big moment in return!

  9. Laura says:

    I have read this over and over, and shared it on my Facebook status update. My 33 year old son has schizophrenia and though stable on meds for two years now, has not been able to establish any kind of life outside our home. Auditory hallucinations plague him and in all my research I can’t find anything to help that symptom. I long for him to meet others with his same struggle. This is a beautiful story!

  10. Gwendolyn says:

    I loved the read. My Mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She ended up homeless on the streets of Raleigh NC. I cannot tell you what it was like to be an 12 year old whose Father and Stepmother earned a combined income of 120,000 annual, and I wondered every night where my Mother was sleeping. She would rent an Efficiency Apt for the weekends we came to visit. Me and my three siblings. Dad and Kathy would drop us off. We had a blast visiting with her. She was 47 years old when she was hit by a car and killed on rain slick hillsborough street in Raleigh. My the stories I could tell. Beautiful ones. I busted my ass to grow up fast enough to take her into my own home….but I was too late. Someone left a big white bucket full of gladiolas on the spot where her body came to rest. They had written on it….”FOR CHRISTINE, WHO WAS SHE, WHO ARE WE, THE ANSWER IS THE SAME.” I am compelled to make that the title of the book I am writing. (Everything is beautiful, and everyone is valuable.) I love you all.

  11. Martha says:

    You have such a powerful and amazing talent Henry! Your words give identity, emotions, empathy, trust, and Hope to ALL who live with mental illness.
    Hey Henry, You’ve got a friend in me:)

    (In reply to an earlier comment:)Dear Gwendolyn, may God bless you, and may you know and feel how proud your Mom has always been of you, and each of her children. With prayers and hope, and most of all your Love for your Mom, I know good change is happening! Many will be strengthened and supported by friends and loved ones, who have been enlightened by the stories we share to end the stigma.

  12. Tiffany V says:

    Feeling that connection where you don’t know this person from Adam, then looking into their eyes and just knowing you have found someone who knows what you go through. All of this in a few seconds. One of the greatest feelings in the world and hadn’t experienced it since my diagnosis. Now that I have had this experience almost three years after my diagnosis I know I am not alone in this daily struggle. Thank you Henry.

  13. Paul says:

    Henry,
    I know hundreds of schizophrenics. I work in the field. I’ll tell you truthfully, I hate schizophrenia. Not schizophrenics. Schizophrenia. Terrible disease when it’s not treated. So hard to watch the trauma it can bring. Terrible disease…

    But, a disease none-the-less. With treatment, and I mean medications and therapy, it can be treated like any other disease. People live meaningful, happy lives with schizophrenia. People live with schizophrenia.

    The awareness I hear in you, and others on this site, in my opinion, is key. You have to treat your disease or, like any other disease, it will take it’s toll.

    I sometimes tell the folks I work with that I believe they are very fortunate. They live in a time when real treatment is available. The first anti-psychotics were only discovered in the last century. So much is being learned. So many really care.

    Trust your caregivers. Listen to your families. Take good care of yourselves.

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