No map, no vehicle, no highway signs or roadside diners, yet here I am in a hedge-maze for the huddled masses. One more strip-mall office lined with cookie-cutter paintings and industrial furniture mathematically placed to achieve Maximum Calm. I am anything but.
The familiar sensation of being outside of my body is amplified by a lack of dimension typically assigned to my everyday surroundings. I am here, but I don’t know where “here” is. Significance is not. I am being interviewed by an anonymous psychiatrist who will determine my eligibility for financial assistance by asking a series of standardized questions – questions drafted by people who likely never sat in my chair, never had to endure their unending list of calculated queries – designed to take my mind apart like a child in the basement with a Daddy longlegs and a tweezers.
It was over before it began, eighty-odd minutes longer than the weeks of sleepless nights I would’ve walked across hot coals to avoid. The exit door was a trompe l’oeil painting, the chairs constructed for Minimum Comfort. The lighting was set for mood-ring distortion. All of the weapons were pointed at me. Do you hear voices? Do you hear them now? What do they tell you? Do you do what they say? Were you ever abused? Do you know today’s date? Who is the president? How often do you bathe? How much do you sleep? What do you eat? Do you see things we don’t? What do you see? Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why you’re here?
I walked out of the office and into the washroom. I locked the door. Leaning against the mirror, I started to cry. I turned my face to the wall and beat my forehead against it. I slumped to the floor and curled up in a ball. Ashamed and afraid, but mostly ashamed. All I felt was alone. Profoundly alone. Do you hear voices? Are you hearing them now?
How could I be this person, this mentally ill person, this “non-person” who answers calculated questions conceived to assist the gatekeeper in deciding who goes to Heaven and who gets to eat dinner? Where’s the lollipop after the haircut, the Band-Aid after the scrape? Does the lab coat make the doctor omniscient? Does the sterility of the room reflect the purity of their thinking? Does this so-called sentinel possess the knowledge and experience sufficient to see past the coping mechanisms to the core of the person living with the illness? Can she see me without judgement, without prejudice, without assuming that her training gives her permission to accept or reject me based on a crab-net criteria that somehow magically separates the mollusk from the seaweed, the dinner from shoe leather, saint from sinner, sane from unsound?
Was that appointment a microcosm of the internal stigma I come up against every time I read or overhear words like certifiable, psycho, demented, or nuts? Was it my paranoid symptoms, or was the doctor already predisposed to dismissing me on a personal level? Was I just another contract job, an interruption in an otherwise predictable morning? Or was this the way it always is: one person talking, the other one listening? And how like this experience is our meeting for the first time?
Do I approach you with arms outstretched? Do you respond in kind? Knowing in advance that my thoughts can be disordered, will you hasten to don your Kryptonite lab coat? Does my being borderless and unfiltered prompt you to pick up your pad and pen? And me – can I get past my awkwardness and shame, or should I start scouting the exits? Who determines the next step, and which of us goes first? Can we be friends without the fears and look forward to discovering that – as in our grade school picture puzzles – “one of these things is not like the other?” Or has the world taken a coffee break and left us to figure out tomorrow on our own?
Questions are not weapons. Breathe in. Curiosity killed nothing. Breathe out. Pause for a moment…
…and take it all in. The furnishings, the paintings, the carpet, drapes, and sunlight. It is only a gate. What is waiting on the other side – either side – is more of an adventure than you or I could know. Until we learn to trust that the keeper just keeps, that the path is just a path, and the future is untold, our dreams cannot be met. We know why we are here. Together we know. Open your heart. Open the gate. I am right here, across the hot coals.
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 courage work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.