SCHIZOPHRENIA is the word engraved on the front of my medical alert bracelet. On the back are the words SEE WALLET CARD.
My college bandmate had diabetes. He wore a med-alert bracelet. I saw the usefulness of it on one occasion. He’d gone into shock and we called for assistance. The nurse read his tag and went into action. He spent a while in the hospital and missed a few gigs. We camped at his bedside to cheer him up. I dyed my hair green and sang all his solos. We changed our name to The Incredible Hulk. He paid better attention to his physical health, and learned how to manage his symptoms.
I wasn’t so lucky with schizophrenia. I took the ten-ticket thrill ride through its house of horrors for years, never questioning why all hell’d broken loose. When I finally summoned the courage to ask, the answers I got were devastating.
The stigma against mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, had been part of society’s tapestry throughout my life. I was mired in self-loathing. It’s an understandable position that many of us take when we first receive our diagnosis. How can a person be expected to accept that their mind is lying to them, that they have no control over their thought processes? It is literally unthinkable. It is also a fact, medical and treatable. Manageable.
I’ve been through the humiliation of breaking down in public, cried in desperation as delusion swallowed me whole. I’ve struggled to find the right words at the wrong time to say nothing useful to someone who won’t listen.
I’ve lain curled in the fetal position on a busy sidewalk, frozen with fear and at a loss for words. With the name of my diagnosis printed on a tag, that loss can be averted. In a moment when expediency is warranted, it can save time and avoid confusion for both myself and a service provider.
During a panic attack or a psychotic episode my worst enemy is my inability to convey to another human being the exact nature of my situation. Unless they’ve been trained to decipher the complex coding of word salad, we’re both at a disadvantage. Valuable time is lost. I go deeper into the woods, and they don’t have a trail to follow. The tag would provide them with a map.
Having taken steps to improve my wellbeing through therapy and medication, the purchase of a medical bracelet and wallet card felt like the next appropriate move. I doubt that few will notice the eighth-inch high font at my wrist, but to a person trained to look for it, those thirteen letters engraved to the right of the Rod of Asclepius just might save my life.
To the professional whose focus is to see me stabile and out of harm’s way, the single word on my bracelet is not associated with ridicule or shame. It defines a medical condition that they are responding to. That tag is as direct a communication as is humanly possible. One word. Thirteen letters. My lucky number when madness gambles with my life.
An EMT will know to flip the bracelet over and read the information on the back. They anticipate this, and they’re prepared to follow through. In the past I have relied on a friend or my therapist to handle those details, but when I’m experiencing psychosis it’s a frustrating task for all parties concerned. The outcome is as unpredictable as my state of mind.
When I need immediate aid, voicemail is useless. Text messages might go unanswered. If communicating my needs becomes too challenging, I run the risk of being perceived as aggressive. This could lead to everything I hate and nothing I want to go through. Letting my bracelet do the talking, I have a better chance of avoiding the restraints and the heavy duty meds. For the price of a card in my wallet.
Concise information. Not the jagged run-on sentences of anxiety or the stunted bluntness of trauma. Ten minutes with a Sharpie, simple and rote, all the puzzle pieces in all the right places. Name, address, phone. Doctor, family, friend. Diagnosis, medical history, current meds and allergies. A snapshot of who I am and what I’m dealing with. Available to the person administering emergency services before we get to the hospital, a tip-sheet of my needs for when we arrive. By filling out this tiny card I am acting in my best interest. I am letting them know how to care for me. I am letting them know that I care about myself.
I’ll do anything I can today to help myself tomorrow. When the time comes, I’m willing to let the stainless steel tag do its job.