There’s a newspaper photo of me, age ten, in a makeshift astronaut’s outfit: a Tinkertoy antennae glued to a plastic fishbowl helmet, and a cereal box “jet pack” pony-harnessed to my shoulders. In my hand is a letter from one of NASA’s bravest. We’d corresponded; the paper smelled a story. My dad told the reporter, “Henry might take off for space any day now,” an insight I wouldn’t possess until therapy helped me reframe it.
Six years ago this week, I received my diagnosis. I have schizophrenia. I lived my life untreated until recently—and every day of that life, I tried to blend in. All I ever wanted was to be like normal people.
I don’t feel that way today. I’d rather be accepted by the people I tried to be like because of who I am, not in spite of it. Attempting to blend is living a lie, and lying just won’t do. Rigorous honesty is better. Not easier, better.
Honesty doesn’t mean that I can say, “Your hat is ugly.” If I don’t find your hat to be the most appealing chapeau ever worn, it doesn’t matter. A hat’s a hat. If you like your hat, if you feel good when you wear it, then hold your head high. It’s your relationship to your hat that matters, not my opinion. Our preferences may differ. That’s not the issue. No one has the right to tell you that your taste in haberdashery sucks. “Your hat is ugly” is not an honest statement. It’s a lie. What is true is that your hat is your hat, capisce? Your hat, my opinion of it—not the same thing.
To address the Hat Issue from a position of honesty would be to recognize that clothing choices are a unique expression of self. Addressing that fact is the only place from which I can honestly speak. Not speak my mind speak, but open my mouth. If I don’t believe it’s a nice hat, I’m lying if I say I do. However, saying “That hat suits you,” acknowledges that you’ve made a choice integral to the person that you are. That’s the truth. Now we’re simpatico. No one gets hurt, everyone wins. This is the way honesty works.
As a person living with schizophrenia, making friends comes with a distinct set of challenges. There’s plenty of psych data to back that up. Is it alogia— my symptom defined by brief, empty replies—or flat affect, when my body language goes offline and emotional expression is absent or forgotten? I don’t have a clue. Ask the professionals. I just wanna connect.
It’s in the symptomatic nature of my disorder that I find myself wondering why isolation feels like safety to me, when intimacy is the experience which I crave the most. The contradiction is infuriating. How can I move when I’m painted onto myself? The simple answer? Just speak. But it’s not that easy. The brain and the heart are in two different countries, and neither of them have an app to translate the riddle. I brought a Marshall stack to Lilith Fair, so I’ll wing it unplugged. A cappella. Sotto voce. Quiet. Alone. Houston? I’m freezing up here.
It’s not worth the effort to keep up the lie.
I wear a necktie better than most. I keep myself physically fit. I can look in the mirror and say, “Hello, handsome,” but when I step out the door everything changes. My heart-rate skyrockets. I lock and unlock my door three times. I go back into my apartment—to the kitchen, the bedroom, stop, check the heater, the oven, the first of two locks, then the second. I turn counterclockwise on my way out the door, the micro-dance acting as confirmation that my place is secure, I can leave now, the Going Out Ritual is complete.
I walk a mile to the cafe, avoiding every house with a dog. The industrial area is scary, and I pray that my feet keep moving. Voices warn me of the dangers ahead, pausing only to sideswipe my confidence. When I’ve passed through the gauntlet to the parking lot maze to the front door to the counter with the menu and cookies, “Henry—good morning! What can I get you?” is my cue. Am I a blended drink, or an honest cuppa joe?
It’s the smile from my new friend that makes the monkeys stop. They can’t get in the door behind me, winged or not. There’s a stronger voice, a more stylish hat, and a handsomer image in the mirror of that smile: acceptance without self-stigma. It’s not a second-skin-comfortable jet pack yet, but I’ll grow into it.