I’d been obsessed with Frankenstein for years. I studied every photo I could find of Karloff’s classic incarnation and read every article about make-up artist Jack Pierce’s design. I hadn’t seen the movie, mind you, but Dad said we could watch it together on the midnight Creature Feature. A rite of passage. I was eleven.
I spent weeks working on my costume. I bought an ill-fitting suit coat from the secondhand store and buried it in the backyard. Dad took a styrofoam insert from a packing box and sculpted it to fit my head. He drew the pattern of my tiny feet on a 2×4 and cemented the soles to my waffle-stompers. We made balsa wood neck bolts and stuck ‘em on with spirit gum. Ladles of grease paint and face putty later, I was the spitting image of Mary Shelley’s creation, all towering five feet of me, boots to cross-stitched brow.
I aped the creature’s movements as I’d seen on the playground: knees locked tight, arms outstretched, back arrow-straight like an ironed somnambulist. I heard he couldn’t speak, that he only grunted, so I found a grumpy dog noise in my throat and growled. Not one “Trick or Treat!” uttered at the neighborhood porches – they got 100% method acting genius. I couldn’t think about candy anyway. I was counting down the minutes ‘til midnight, when the network host in the Dracula cape would greet nocturnal newbies like me, welcoming us to James Whale’s 1932 masterpiece. Tonight was mine. I would finally be a real boy.
Our jack-o-lantern flickered in the corner, and the kids were nestled snug in their beds. Dad made us popcorn and root beers. The living room was our cathode cathedral. My heart raced. I couldn’t sit still. But as the first scenes unfolded, profound feelings of anxiety and emptiness began to creep in, followed by shortness of breath, pain in my chest, and the overwhelming terror that I knew too well. It wasn’t the grave robbers. It was the unspeakable private horror show that I had lived in since I was four.
The room melted into blackness, the sound of the TV grew faint below my heartbeat. I was frantic. I couldn’t find my name. I couldn’t find my dad.
“Papa? Papa?!” I tore at my bathrobe. I hit my face. I couldn’t stop hitting. “Papa! Help me!”
I was losing myself, my sense of self, the person I was, me. Orphaned in a cavern of dissociation, unable to tell him what was wrong. He couldn’t help. He didn’t know. About the teenager in the garage. The mother in the nightgown. The stranger at the motel when the grownups were out for drinks. Real monsters.
Data regarding the relationship between childhood trauma and the development of psychosis shows that victims are three times more likely to develop schizophrenia than children who have not been abused, and up to fifty times greater in cases of severe traumatization. There can be a direct correlation between the type of trauma experienced and specific symptoms triggered. Paranoia, for example, would be associated with neglect, depression with abandonment, and hallucinations with childhood sexual trauma.
Pediatric schizophrenia is rare, appearing only in about 4% of total cases of children under age fifteen, and about 1% in those under ten. The stigma attached to schizophrenia, especially in children, prevents most families from having their child diagnosed when behaviors of hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance arise. Early-onset schizophrenia can be difficult to diagnose, to distinguish from typical play and imagination. But alarming symptoms like complete social withdrawal, bizarre hygiene rituals, or a pronounced lack of impulse control, should be apparent. Learning to differentiate between normal and deteriorating behaviors could save a life.
I wear a mask, even today. It’s safer under the paint and the wig and the bolts. I am a composite of symptoms and strategies. The words that fall out of my mouth can be awkward. I walk like a broken robot. I stare at the world through blank eyes, a reanimated man, someone who died a long time ago, resurrected below the electrical secrets of Heaven, reborn in a storm of Tesla coils and lightning.
Wiping the tears from my eyes and wrapping his arms around me, my Papa pulled me to him and helped me find my way back. He saved me from the boogey man that night, but not from my own future. Because I never talked about it. He died never knowing my dark secrets. I wish that I had been brave enough to share my story with him. Please, share yours with someone you trust. Don’t let the monsters under the bed keep you from sleeping. You are worth every treat that this life has to offer.
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.