It was intended to be a letter to my family. I’d been sick, and was compelled to connect. Obsessively so. The phone was a foreign artifact, something other people used to order take-out pizza. In the haze, I had changed my cell number and neglected to tell anyone. I chanced upon my reflection in a shop window: greatcoat, wool hat, wraparound shades. Superheros do their best work under cover of darkness. It was midnight. In July.
Camouflaged in plain sight, I could create the connection. Safe, secure, protected, vigilant. Not the corpse in the empty room, not the lone light bulb stuttering out. I was not preparing for The Long Walk. I am fine, I thought. I’m healthy. It’s the doctors who are confused.
This would work. I would look directly into the camera and explain to everyone: it’s just something that happens to artists. I’ll be alright. People like Philip K. Dick, Zelda Fitzgerald, Vaclav Nijinsky, and Brian Wilson all lived with schizophrenia. I would be fine, if not famous, as long as people stopped stealing my thoughts. This message would set me free. But first I had to climb the back stairs of my building. I had to leave my apartment. Had to leave. Had to.
WHAT and IF – two words when combined by the thought disordered mind mean “everything is of equal value”. Everything. The weight of the wheat beneath the color of the wind in the tall grass over the scent of the sunset sounds the same as the taste of the kiss on the silver screen. But what if I can’t get to the roof? What if the building collapses? What if I send this message and the bottle capsizes in the vast ocean of I Have No Family? What then?
Highway traffic rumbled in the background, crows gathered and gawked at the guy on the rooftop, rats scampered along the banisters, harvesting barbecue leftovers and cigarette butts. I’d picked out a clean shirt, put on a tie, and set my camera up on its tripod. I spoke in a confident manner, looking directly into the lens as if speaking to a dear friend over dinner, listening to the waiter offer the daily specials, ordering wine and desert. Like real people. Normal people.
“What’s normal?” someone will inevitably ask, dismissing my having just explained the concept of What If, and that I can’t differentiate between the Common Reality and my Private World. This isn’t a simple distinction between night and day. It’s more like the difference between π and chicken Tyvek. Impenetrable.
“Who’s to say what’s ‘real’ anyway?” delivered with a blitheness meant to somehow comfort. It doesn’t. It’s trite. But I understand that they’re trying. After all, they’ve just been told that the person they thought they knew is one of Those People – the unpredictable ones that the media claims are singularly responsible for all manner of unspeakable chaos. People like guitarist Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. Nobel laureate John Nash. Soccer superstar Andy Goram. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Well, they’re right. I AM one of Those People. I am one percent of the world population. One percent who live every day, every hour, with a debilitating and degenerative thought disorder, as difficult to tie down as it is to spell.
My brain lies to itself. The brain that I rely on for answers can’t always distinguish between the perception and the experience, the here-and-now and the “what ifs”. It cannot be fooled into believing what I tell it, because, as a mind, it has made up its own. A smile cannot turn a frown upside down. A positive attitude is no more a cure than is a sportswear slogan – “just doing it” doesn’t do it. My recovery depends upon communication. At all costs. That’s a lot to ask from a person who might be brunching with a bestie who isn’t in the booth and never was.
Days passed before I saw the playback. I love watching movies. I can see an actor applying their craft like I listen to my band members nailing a solo. The man in my message had bagatelle eyes that spoke truth even when they went Frankenstein. His voice broke when he talked about Van Gogh’s rhinoceros. He cried as he described his shoes melting, and the meals that he ate from the garbage.
It’s been a long time since that video. I never showed it to anyone. But I kept it as a reminder of those darker days, to reinforce the belief that, even at my worst, I am still in here. This is my blueprint. My job is to communicate without prejudice. To be braver than the bravest of men. I will always be one of Those People. I am proud to represent.
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.