“Outstanding reindeer sweater,” says the Coach, handshake in progress as our coffees arrive. He is always in motion, therefore always a little late, but never when the chips are down, and absolutely never when I reach out. His succor is as genuine as his compliments are sincere, which is why he heads my team, and why he remains my best friend. I ride the sunflowers and sing the rhinoceros. When I am surrounded by flying monkeys, he wields a gnarly bat.
Two weeks ago I was prey to an unexpected event of psychosis, but together we tethered. My phone found my hand found speed-dial found Coach, who in turn found me fragmented and terrified, convinced that I was dead. Coach held the line. I lost the day, the night before, and the day after into the weekend. Coach got me home. He contacted my therapist. He widened the net to include other team members – someone to help with grocery shopping, another to help with meals. One even brought me homemade bread, still warm from the oven.
The fresh fruit on my plate caught his eye as he settled into the booth; when I’m in reentry I tend to sugar-binge. “Healthy choice, my man. We’re not feeling so candied this week, eh? That’s progress!” Big hearted smile. A friend who cares. Who’s done his homework. Who gets it.
Coach has seen me to the brink and back. He was with me when the Gatekeeper hacked my brain. He will be there when I take the Long Walk, and I want him to address it honestly, to tell people what it was like to befriend the Mad Hatter.
I will ask him to quote Vincent Van Gogh, who said: “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” And – knowing that dreams of music, art, and poetry were so much more than my stars – he’ll further quote the great painter, sharing a point that I hold truer than brush, string, or pen: “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” It is, after all, the art of being human.
A year ago the Voices took me to the abyss. I tried to outrun my illness. I had lost my Helpers – the people I had grown up with, people I had known throughout my life. Real friends who understood, who talked with me, played with me, went to school, work, and home with me. Through therapy I had learned that mental health professionals considered them to be the mind’s mechanism of defense against stress and fear. Stunned and stymied, I had to know. I didn’t want to know, but the Voices pushed and I couldn’t push back. One by one my friends said goodbye, and I was left alone, Helper- less, so that I could walk in the Real World. The world where stigma, discrimination, bullying, and ridicule lived.
I hated my diagnosis, my loneliness, my life. Convinced that suicide was the only answer to the loss mental illness had wrought, I pulled my plastic raincoat over my pajamas and walked shoeless into the winter gloam. The forest between my home and the zoo had always been my sanctuary. On that day I’d forgotten my trail of breadcrumbs. There was no sugar sparkle. There was only the poison of schizophrenia, and a bridge above the highway. I climbed the concrete railing. Traffic slowed. Drivers honked and waved. Did they really want to see me jump?
A young boy stared up at me through the windshield. In my headphones, the Beatles wondered where all the lonely people came from. Was the same song playing on that child’s radio? Was he waiting for an answer, too? Was I willing to be accountable for dragging him down with me, thereby forcing him into a lifetime of trauma, an endless echo of my own stolen innocence? Could I fall from the sky, where the lonely people come from, a person with a mental illness who’s only contribution was being one more newspaper statistic, amplifying the public misperception of my illness? Of yours? Ours? Where had I misplaced those stars?
Experiencing extremes of depression and despair, it was crisis that finally took Van Gogh to an empty field where he shot himself. The bullet missed his vital organs and got lodged in his spine; surgeons tried to remove it, but to no avail. The next day, as he sat smoking his pipe and dying from infection brought on by his sorrow, Vincent told his brother Theo, “The sadness will last forever.” These were his final words.
On this beautiful icy morning, eating fresh wild berries in my favorite cafe, everything sparkles, especially me. I am alive because I have a friend.
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.