There was a time when sleeping on the floor in an empty attic, writing songs by day and performing them at night, seemed incredibly romantic. Drinking excessively to control voices and visions was a daily requirement of any artist worth his anorexic weight in royalty checks. Meals were cigarettes and coffee, providing all the necessary nutrients to maintain creative output. Girlfriends came and went, but more often than not, they just went. I have been single, sober, and celibate for seven years this month. The rockstar life is behind me, but that empty garret with a cardboard bed is bafflingly ever-present.
Therapy set me on a course of cognition; a recovery program helped solve the drink problem. One evening our group topic was relationships. Most of the men were married or dating. Sobriety had helped them create meaningful connections. I shared about my awkwardness in talking with women, how the wild-pitch verbal aspect of my schizophrenia was tantamount to sneakers clunking away in the dryer. The men listened. They nodded. And one guy, one of those classically handsome, confident types, quipped: “Face it, dude. Your mental illness is not attractive!”
Dismissive? Undeniably. But he did have a point. Being mentally ill is not appealing. There is nothing sexy or inviting about us when we’re trapped in the crazy. Our symptoms betray us, but we need to remember that we are not defined by our illness. We need to express that. Too often, people fear what they don’t understand – therein lies the challenge for us all. We have a duty to share our experience, so we educate. We have the capacity to be honest, so we advocate. We need to be transparent to reach out from within. To make a connection. And to be truly healthy.
Human touch. Science says we need it, that we were designed for it. Our hands contain almost 100,000 nerves each, in groups of about twenty: a dozen for stimuli, and eight for motor function. Our fingertips alone have more than 3,000 receptors. The tongue, lips, and fingertips are the most touch-sensitive parts of our bodies, yet many still view physical intimacy with Victorian restraint. Unfounded fears and shackled opinions inform social codes of conduct, running counterproductive to what the body was built to do: communicate. A sizable hurdle when you live with a mental illness.
Because of my thought disorder, perceiving and interpreting social cues can be an inscrutability. When it comes to processing social information, benign, even irrelevant signals can be seen as threatening. Paranoia and delusion replace social interaction, and I withdraw. Social adaptation becomes difficult, isolation its panacea. Asociality might hinder my forming a personal bond or impede my need for attachment. Avolition – the “poverty of will” – leaves me wondering “How do I make the connection? What means ‘connection’?” On tenterhooks, I power down, a Wendy-less Pan with an absentee shadow.
Touch reduces the anxiety and tension in our daily lives. We feel connected to others, less apprehensive, more secure. With touch we feel grounded, safe, and bonded to those we love. Cynicism melts away, leaving optimism room to flourish. Our physical, mental, and emotional well-being improves, opening the door to trust. Human beings crave sensory input. It is essential to survival that we touch and be touched.
What then to do about stigma and discrimination in the dating pool? There’s no after school special for tips ‘n’ tricks, no cartoon pamphlet “Guide To Dating For The Modern Schizophrenic”. There is only one way to break the cycle, and it’s up to the individual who lives with the mental illness. A tall order, but where better to begin?
We are born into the same culture of prejudice and misinformation as our prospective dates. We learn to adapt by taking on – and unfortunately believing in – the very stigmas we struggle against. We are raised to fear the mentally ill, and we do…until we realize that we ostracize ourselves. To quote Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy – and he is us.”
Sometimes I look in the mirror and see the most undesirable creature alive. I view myself as “less than” and loath myself for thinking it. My illness wants to convince me that this self-discrimination is an immutable Truth. Should my illness win, to lose is to die. My voice, therefore, is my lifeline.
I need to polish my heart so that it only reflects that which is presented to it. I need to stare deeper into that reflection until all I see is the man I know myself to be: a healthy person living with a mental illness. Hidden behind my self-stigmatization stands a caring, creative man – a man working toward, and deserving of, love, affection, and respect.
What do you see?
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.