There is no cheat-code for advocacy. Winning the fight against stigma and discrimination requires patience, courage, and authenticity. Nothing puts me into Super Effective Booster Mode quicker than a negative stereotype.
In his 1927 short story, The Tissue-Culture King, science-fiction author Julian Huxley’s characters wear “caps made of metal foil” to reduce the harmful telepathic effects of a menacing mental current. Fast-forward to the present day, and we find popular media ridiculing people who live with schizophrenia by depicting them as psychotic paranoids in “tinfoil hats” — a derisive term embedded in our culture, assumed by most to be a justifiable insult. While the dictionary defines it as “a hat made from tinfoil, worn with the belief that such a hat protects the wearer from mind control, surveillance, or similar types of threat,” I just call it bullying. It’s not funny. It’s dismissive and indefensible.
In very early childhood we become aware of physical aspects of identity such as hair color, skin color, and gender differences. Before we are entrained into stigmatizing behaviors and biases, we begin our lives as curious, balanced beings. We organize our concepts of self based on physical characteristics and innocent observation. We define ourselves by our emerging skills.
Preschool crayons give us eight basic colors, and we match our world to that seemingly unlimited rainbow. It takes adult intervention and fear to melt our wax cornucopia into an ill-defined muck. So we try as a culture to reforge those precious and distinct hues back to their original purpose: appreciation of one another, and acceptance of the individual. Until another grownup gets scared. Until the Möbius strip starts unraveling. Until the man on the bus starts talking to himself, or the woman at the market begins sobbing uncontrollably. Then we shield our children’s eyes, turn them away from the nuisance, and color very strictly inside the lines with that undefinable shade of Ugly Thought: Bag Lady. Psycho. Tinfoil Hat.
As an artist I’ve had to make ends meet. I worked in retail until I could no longer pretend that I was blending in, or that my symptoms were going unnoticed. I couldn’t retain the information necessary to sell our goods. I worried that our customers cast no shadows, that our baristas were poisoning my coffee. I knew that my coworkers were stealing my thoughts and relaying them to management. They typed secret messages into the cash registers, clearly intending to get me fired. When I rode the bus home, the other commuters would read my mind. If I chose to walk instead, unmarked trucks with blacked-out windows stalked me through the neighborhoods.
Eventually this terror would pass. Symptoms brought on by anxiety and stress would subside. Yet, in those dark and threatening moments, my private reality was as tangible and as genuine as the commonly accepted variety.
I was alone. I needed strength. I needed a cape and a cowl.
I wore my sunglasses and black wool beanie around the clock. They protected me from harm, allowing me to walk undetected among the demons. One winter’s evening I met with friends for our weekly coffee klatch. I wore my hat and shades inside because the cafe was unfamiliar. Annoyed, a fellow artist chastised me and attempted to tear off my glasses. I recoiled, hands to my temples, obviously frightened. A friend intervened, assuring her, and said: “Henry has his reasons”. While he had no way of understanding what I was going through, he knew it to be important to my survival in the moment. He saw the “crayon” that defined my coping skills, the creative solution that freed me to fill the empty page. I was not a crazy. I was not a freak. I was a man with a mental illness handling a difficult situation with the tools at his disposal. Coloring outside the lines, where the moxie meets the mojo.
Every athlete, healer, laborer, teacher, artisan, scientist, and sage has their own unique superstition and belief, and a corresponding talisman to go with it. Spanning human history and culture, our symbols and artifacts have played a significant role in creating and sustaining our sense of safety and good fortune. From the wishbone of 15th-century Europe to the Native American dreamcatcher, from the gris-gris of Ghana to the takrut of Thailand, our totems and charms have afforded us necessary comfort in times of need, something to believe in when all else failed.
Everybody wears a tinfoil hat, and wherever we hang our hat is home. Because home is where the heart is. And that heart? It’s Super Effective!
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.