I wear ten rubber bands on each wrist to keep my hands from disappearing. I keep an even number of napkins in my left coat pocket. I have an empty floss container which I click open and shut as I walk, like those tin frog toys from childhood. It’s a rhythm, a tiny plastic heartbeat in my hand, chirping along as I navigate the uncharted waters of the grocery aisles, lanes that can still seem unfamiliar when the Voices get through and start commenting on my inability to focus on nutrition when I know full well that an anxiety attack in the frozen foods section is not the answer to the question “How much cholesterol is in these toaster waffles?” I simply click away until the answer comes. I make it fun. I write my shopping lists on neon note cards: lime-green for victuals, fuchsia for sundries. The list is my North Star. The sea of breakfast choices will not end in cookies. I am spelunking for food. Food is not a chore. Food is fuel. I am a healthy machine.
It wasn’t always this way. For example: a year ago, at my place of employment, I was experiencing paranoid delusions and hallucinations on the sales floor. It was uncontrollable enough that I had to leave my job. I had to admit to myself what I disliked most about myself: that once again I’d lost the connection which the rest of the world took for granted. That the unspoken, agreed-upon version of reality that got most folks through another twenty-four was something that I had failed to keep track of. Work was the one place I had come to depend on for that sense of normalcy, of being a part of the culture, a worker among workers. And I was. But for that brief moment where the curtain’s drawn back and the magician is just a man. A man with a mental illness responding to his own self- stigmatization.
Yet this particular episode turned out to be a godsend. I learned that day that the Human Resources director was a friend. She had assisted other employees who had had to deal with their own mental illness complications and challenges in the workplace. She was an advocate for us, someone versed in the proper channels, the routes to take to find our way back to work or home, calm and help. I went on family medical leave. I found my center again. I worked daily with my therapist to stabilize myself, ground myself, reacquaint myself with myself. We worked out a plan.
I have a list of people that I trust who I can call when I am feeling alone, afraid, or confused. I have learned to be unwaveringly honest about what is happening in my internal world, to speak my truth even when it doesn’t sound “right”. If I need to talk about distortions, fears, and anxieties, I just do. I’ve asked my friends for permission to speak freely, and they’ve granted it. They want to help. They want to see me be the best that I can be. They have seen me when I’m confused, wobbly, and unstable. They have listened while I freely associated. They’ve understood that it’s symptomatic when I feel I can’t trust them at all. When I’ve gone into isolation, they text or call or come over. They have been there for me all along, even when I had no comprehension of what it meant to have them have my back. Even when my thought disorder tells me they don’t care, they stand by me. They read information online and at the library. They watch interviews, talk to one another, their doctors, my family. They want to help. Because they love me.
I was diagnosed in 2010, but I have lived with this mental illness all my life. What is different is that I have a name for it now, and professional help and information to assist me in managing my life. If a neon note card can assure me that I’ll have a healthy breakfast tomorrow, then a post-it note to call my sister can certainly insure that a voice attached to mine at the genetic level will respond with love and keep me tethered to the world. The phone is my compass. The sea of soul connections will not end in empty calories. I am spelunking for fuel. Love is not a choice. Love is essential. I am an honesty machine. I am surviving because I have learned to ask for help. I am an advocate for myself.
Pleased to meet you. My name is Henry. I live with schizophrenia.
Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle artist, writer, and musician living with schizophrenia. He received his diagnosis in 2010 and has been managing his illness with a passion ever since. He is currently writing a memoir chronicling his experiences with schizophrenia and trauma in the hope that people living with a mental illness – as well as those who love and care for them – will find something in his story that compels them to share their own. Publicly open in his advocacy for awareness and change, Henry focuses on education and communication as the most effective tools in any superhero’s utility belt. Honesty and humor work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.