Because I am an advocate, I am willing to address my self-stigma and the harm that it does me. It’s not easy, and I won’t pretend that it is. A day does not go by that I don’t feel ashamed of being a person living with schizophrenia. I am not as often willing to address the issue of social stigma, because to call attention to it is to feed into its ignominy. Therein lies the rub.
When I talk to myself in the grocery aisle, or make the March Hare proud at Starbucks, how am I any different from my immigrant Irish grandmother, stumbling through American slang with a mouthful of malapropisms? The easy answer: her brogue is charmingly quaint, where my schizophasia is disarming. The box-boy helps Gramma get her groceries to the car. I get Sherlock following me like a trail of cheap perfume.
Living in a culture where the mentally ill are believed to be dangerous, violent, and unpredictable, is not merely difficult, it’s dehumanizing. Our society refuses to acknowledge its shortcomings in this area. To do so would be tantamount to losing their scapegoat, thereby sacrificing the convenience of discriminatory blame. Sensationalism fuels the media, advertisers tally their profits, and people living with a mental illness become so much collateral damage. Is it any wonder that we resist disclosing our diagnoses?
Most of us would rather hide than face those feelings of discontent and shame. The experience of being continually dismissed teaches us to lie, to hide our illnesses, and to adopt the behaviors of the emotionally camouflaged. It is easier to not speak up, and safer to blend in. But we don’t blend well, and it’s as obvious to us as it is to our detractors. Before long, we find ourselves participating in the oppression of our peers by remaining inactive and silent.
Eventually the mask has to come off, if for no other reason than to reclaim our dignity. If we can pretend to be Ordinary People successfully enough to walk among them, then we can certainly be honest enough in our hearts and minds to accept who we are. The obstacles we have to overcome every day will never be understood by the general public unless we take it upon ourselves to illuminate. We are the experts of our illnesses. It is vital to our mental wellness to express how we feel. When we share the knowledge we have about ourselves, we cause a necessary change to occur. This is the only clear path to eliminating the stigma and discrimination that surround mental illness. It won’t happen without us. Because it’s about us.
We are on the receiving end of the misconceptions and the bullying, not only from without, but from within. To reverse this, it is imperative that we speak up, not act out. First, we need to understand who we are and what our disorders mean to the quality of our lives. The next step is to address the misconceptions responsible for public prejudice. This begins with education, not hearsay. Caricatures of the mentally ill are the shorthand of the weak.
Schizophrenia was once thought to be the result of bad parenting, but so was demonic possession. Stress-vulnerability was considered for a while, as was environmental susceptibility. Whatever the course of the illness, its origins were discovered in a chromosomal anomaly similar to those found in autism. The mutation’s importance in the disorder presents a compelling argument for schizophrenia being more akin to a condition than an illness, the exception being those individuals who came to their symptoms through substance abuse. Their psychosis is drug induced, not genetically based. No less debilitating, mind you, still maligned and stigmatized, but more a custom job than a factory install.
I have heterochromia (one eye is green, the other brown). My hair is naturally red. There is no gene for purple hair, to the chagrin of my punk rock friends. Comic book superhero Wolverine has an indestructible, medically enhanced, metal skeleton; his X-Men comrade, Nightcrawler, has teleportation powers which were there from birth. When I was but a twinkling zygote, the micro-duplications of a single chromosome made certain that my premature little self would be born with schizophrenia, just as surely as my Gramma’s Emerald Isle heritage would ensure my bonnie freckles and crimson curls.
Does my hair color make me a societal threat? How could it? It’s just hair. Should I feel ashamed for being elfin? Why? I’m physically fit. Is it fair for our culture to make me the target of ridicule and fear because of one maverick chromosome? No. It is not. It is unjustifiable. I was born this way, mutant and proud. Being my authentic self is the only thing that matters.
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.