The Elephant in the Room

By September 18, 2014Blog

When I disclose my diagnosis of schizophrenia to someone, they invariably ask me this question: “What’s it like?”

I consider suggesting mental health sites, the public library, or a local bookstore for that information, but experience has taught me that people aren’t as interested in learning about the symptoms of this debilitating illness, or the impact it has on a person’s life, as they are in hearing anecdotes that correspond to the social stereotype. That says more about media over-saturation than it does about the person asking the question. I believe that people are inherently good.

If someone has a genuine interest in knowing what it’s like to live with schizophrenia, I feel obligated to share my personal experience. The truth might make them uncomfortable, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Change cannot happen if we live in a bubble.

When I received my diagnosis, I dedicated myself to education and advocacy – the tools of survival. Surrender was my greatest asset. Not defeat, but willingness. It was time to seek out solutions to problems that I didn’t know I had.

Along with my diagnosis came the classification of being disabled. The processes involved in public assistance programs are nothing short of discouraging, but they have to be done to avoid being impoverished or worse. To be mentally ill and homeless is to live below the bottom of the food chain. Farther down than dog-eat-dog, it’s the pet cemetery. My short stay there still haunts me. The loss of self esteem as I stood in line at a church basement, waiting patiently for stale bread, random canned goods, and past-the-pull-date frozen foods, left me crying the whole afternoon. It was Thanksgiving.

Except for the morbid similarity to staring at a traffic accident, nobody’s curious about the humiliation of losing your job to a psychotic event. Yet at some point in their lives, one in four citizens will experience a mental illness. Only one percent of the world’s population will be diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s a lottery no one wants to win. Like the unfortunate jumble in the rearview mirror.

Understandably, no one’s eager to know about a psych-eval, how it feels to answer questions designed to induce psychosis while a government psychologist documents the severity of your illness for legal purposes. Having that report read back to you is like drinking syrup of ipecac so the waiter who served your order can tell you what you ate.

How attractive is your disability income to the dating pool? Can you even consider dipping your toes in the water? Setting aside any apprehension, you ponder joining the psychiatric services clubhouse in the hope of meeting a fellow Misfit Toy, a person who won’t judge your worth by your pocketbook, let alone your diagnosis. It always works in the movies. There’s always a silver lining. And there’s always the question “What’s it like?” to which there is only one answer.

It’s lonely.

Not the cheerless corner of the uninvited, or the desolate path of the broken heart, but an entirely different brand of loneliness, one defined by loss. Profound loss. A loss you can’t grieve because it has no end. This is schizophrenia. This is what it’s like.

Imagine that your family and your home were never real, that your memories were shadows in the dark. The moments that you cherished, only whispers on the moon; a lifetime of experience, vapor. Your best friend. Your first kiss. All of it – gone. More than gone, never was.

Imagine learning that your illness is responsible for depriving you of the life you thought you’d led. Try to understand the permanence of this condition while the culture ostracizes you, blaming you for this intimate devastation. Who can you trust? The professionals providing you with this unwanted piece of the puzzle? You are a traveller without a country. The tools of survival are moot. Surrender becomes your greatest liability when everything you know is wrong.

I share the contents of Pandora’s Box not as myth, but proof of life. As real as the elephant in the room, stigma discourages us from asking those questions which might afford insight into one another’s healing, providing answers and acceptance for future generations of people coming to terms with mental illness.

Treatment plans and mental health look different for every individual because each diagnosis is unique. If you are willing to ask the question “What’s it like?”, don’t shy away from the answers you receive, or the responsibility you feel when they come. There is no loss in kindness, only gain.  Imagine that.


  • Ms. Anita says:

    Mr. Henry,

    I am so impressed with your writing skills and great insight to your illness. My son is twenty five and unfortunately is not at your level and has the same diagnosis. Sometimes I don’t want to feel his pain or lonliness but I do especially being someone who is very sensitive make it very hard for me emotionally every day but I try not to make it about me. My son does not want to take his meds so most of the time he is in his own world. The positive side to this is that I do not see the physical side affects from the antisychotic drugs. Even with the meds he was still delusional….a little more clear sometimes…. but anyway when I read stories like yours it touches my heart deeply and helps me to realize that there is hope! your story reminded me that my son has purpose and everyone is here for a reason!! Jesus has truly blessed you with such inspiring writing skills!! Keep it up! I love that there are angels everywhere and your one just because you can share so heartfelt and honest is such a blessing to others!!!!!!

  • Howard says:


    I can personally identify with much of what you address here in this particular piece,…especially the [dating] issue.
    I also have written about this seemingly “invisible” issue (dating) on my blog.
    Although my original diagnosis in 1991 was erroneously schizophrenia,…several decades later I was diagnosed with PTSD and treated with EMDR in 2005. The Eye-Movement-Desensitization; Reprocessing treatments have [helped] me tremendously even though I still have much work to do within my recovery as I continue to reprogram my attitude toward myself and my perspective of the world around me. A perspective that had been and still is to some degree,…based on an out of control central nervous system & brain connection.

  • Henry Boy says:

    Thank you both for your comments and support – it means a lot to hear from people who read my blogs. So thank you!

    @Ms. Anita:
    I understand and sympathize with you and your son on the issue of medications; they can present a challenge for some, like myself. My body chemistry does not respond well to many of them, so I have only one that I use. Finding a treatment plan that works is definitely key to surviving any mental illness. There’s a lot of data and more research being done worldwide with respect to antipsychotics and their usefulness/side effects, etc. Conversations are definitely happening around that subject. Here’s a link to get you started if you wish:
    For me there’s no one “magic bullet” that makes me feel “normal”, so I’m willing to live with my different symptoms when they arise and discuss them with my support team: my therapist, doctor, and friends – my “angels”. You are one for your son, I truly believe that. Thank you, again.

    I, too, have suffered trauma and the anxiety attacks can leave me feeling pretty helpless (and too often put me in the ER); I totally hear you on that score. It’s good to hear that the EMDR treatments are working for you and it sounds like you have found some hope and strength in that work you’re doing. Kudos! Dealing with PTSD takes more courage than many give due credit for. And on that subject of feeling like The Invisible Man…I have a friend who said to me “The Universe loves me and wants me to be happy” which blew me away when I took it in on my own terms. I have been working really hard this year in therapy to overcome that hurdle of isolation and my emotional blankness, stuff I don’t understand completely yet, but am willing to. Maybe I’ll find that secret and write about it in a future blog. Thanks for writing. Cheers!

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