There’s a joke that goes, “You’re never alone with a schizophrenic,” based on the mistaken belief that having schizophrenia is the same as having a split personality. It’s not. That would be dissociative identity disorder, a rare psychological condition defined by distinct and recurring alternating personality states which control one’s behavior. To clarify: schizophrenia is a chronic and debilitating mental disorder characterized by a breakdown in thinking which significantly impairs an individual’s thought processes. The ability to assess one’s surroundings and to interact with others becomes distorted. Isolation gets to be run-of-the-mill. This is not by choice. This is the illness. It is a lonely place.
Two months ago I attempted suicide. I suffered through a psychotic break, resulting in emergency medical intervention. I’d hoped that my symptoms had abated, but they seem to have left a vapor trail. Residual audio and visual hallucinations persist. I find myself preoccupied with them. I feel ashamed for not recovering sooner. I’m confused and haunted. When questioned, I act as if nothing ever happened. It’s not denial, it’s more like a memory wipe. In psychiatric terms, I am experiencing post-psychotic depression. With an unusual side-effect: I came to believe that I had no friends.
I approached the idea in much the same way that one might act on the notion of Spring Cleaning. I removed numbers from my phone, and I purged my friends list. I was getting things done and it felt good because getting things done always feels good. There’s that sense of completion and renewal. By actively eliminating all those names, I believed I was getting mentally fit. These were just names, after all, and how can a name be a friend? It’s random letters strung together. Meaningless. Without caller ID my phone was a brick. My newsfeed cruised without memes and cat pics. Cleaned out, like the closet. No mismatched socks or tatty jeans. Orderly. Like the hospital.
Days passed. The phone would ring and I would ignore it. A jumble of unfamiliar numbers. A text from the Twilight Zone. I could exercise or write or play guitar or paint, and nothing and no one was there to bother me. Something felt off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I started not sleeping again. I skipped my therapy sessions. I found myself living in a ghost town. I only jogged on days when it was pouring down rain to avoid seeing people at the track. The Brother From Another Planet had become The Boy In The Bubble. I wondered if I was lonely, but I knew that wasn’t possible.
Because you’re never alone with a schizophrenic.
If there’s an art to living with a mental illness it’s learning to ignore the dismissive paint-by-number forgeries hung by ignorance and prejudice as truth. Like in that movie where everyone laughs at the quiet girl with her Goth tapes and black lipstick. At the anorexic geek with his comic books and action figures. At the stressed-out veteran experiencing flashbacks. The bag-lady talking to shadows. Depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis. You laugh along with the audience because you want to blend in, but it hits too close to home. It’s wrong to laugh, and you know it. You know it because it hurts. Something needs to change. That change begins with you.
It starts with an honest conversation. It continues with active listening. Speak to the words between the words, and to the ones tucked in behind them. Listen to the words that no one will dance with, to the words that never get a goodnight kiss. It really is a two-way street. This is how the conversation starts, and this is where the healing begins. A glass pressed up to the adjacent wall, listening intently for signs of life. Who is in there, and how do we get to know them better? Our words are the trail of breadcrumbs we follow to get out of the forest of loneliness.
It’s up to us to speak our truths and become a part of something bigger. We need to be seen and we want to be heard. We are not ciphers, cute off-the- wall characters in a situation comedy, or newspaper buzzwords when reporters get hasty. We are not punchlines. Mental illness is no laughing matter.
Confronting the stigma head-on, it would be more accurate to say, “You are always alone if you have schizophrenia.” But I tell you what: I am resolved to make – and keep – every friend that I can, no matter how many times I need to humble myself and surrender to the fact that I live a life in a world that no one else can understand. That is, until I start the conversation.
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.