Allies have a habit of showing up at precisely the moment one needs them. The key to noticing support is being open to the possibility that it exists. This challenges the self-stigma many of us find ourselves caught up in, unwittingly or through influence. So we set aside our preconceptions and learn to trust, even when it seems impossible.
It’s easier to accept kindness when it catches me off-guard. Too often I find myself at odds with the brand of self-loathing that only comes from a mental disorder. Overriding that dysfunction requires trusting another person. Receiving their gift of compassion is problematic when you can’t distinguish the difference between fiction and reality. At that point it becomes a matter of faith.
My friend Eric has a background in chemical engineering. I weigh a buck- forty soaking wet, he’s a foot taller than me. In the corner of the cafe, we’d be mistaken for Gandalf and Bilbo, save for the robes and hairy feet. His is a strong voice, filled with conviction; mine is a jazz riff, de Kooning on Jell- O. Our conversations are dotted with science, poetry, laughter, and prayer. We have personal challenges that we’ve learned to manage, just like anyone else. What distinguishes us from them is the unique nature of our conditions: he deals with vision and hearing issues, I live with mental illness. In a certain way we are two of a kind, and this aids in our communication. We can be honest with one another which leads to mutual respect.
Eric was in an inquisitive frame of mind and genuinely wanted to help. He’d been reading my blogs and picked up on how seemingly inconsolable I’d become. He asked the core question, “What’s it like to have schizophrenia?” I described my symptoms as I’ve come to know them through years of therapy and education.
I started by describing psychosis, the disruption of my mind’s awareness of itself and the world around it. I talked about anhedonia, a characteristic of mental illness which hijacks enjoyment of pleasure. I tried to explain avolition – the inability to comprehend that I have this disorder – a symptom with its own survival mechanism: it lies to me to camouflage itself. I struggle with this daily, sometimes moment-to-moment, the fact that my brain is my brain is not.
When I spoke of anxiety and the role it plays in my psychotic episodes, Eric offered a fitting illustration. “I picture your mind as the boiler room in a chemical plant. All the compounds are separate and functioning normally – until the release valve gets stuck. The pressure builds up, the pipes burst, and there’s a fusion of components interacting uncontrollably. A flood of volatile compounds, possibly unstable, even unpredictable. I can see how this would be difficult for you.”
I tell him about dissociation, feeling profoundly disconnected from myself and those around me, about how this leads to isolation, increasing the inherent loneliness of my illness. I lose track of what’s real until it’s brought to my attention. It’s embarrassing, and my shame only serves to exacerbate the uncertainty of the experience. My head is not in the clouds. I don’t choose to be abstruse. I’m not vying for attention. I am afraid of everything outside my apartment – and it’s no safe haven there, either.
Sometimes dead people live in my room. I might not see them, but I know they’re there, like one might sense the household pet. Sometimes people steal my thoughts. They conspire against me ’cause I don’t fit in. I dress like a cartoon and talk like a Mad Lib. Sometimes the newscaster knows what I’m thinking. Sometimes the world just wants to be loud.
I tell Eric that my Voices are right to dismiss me with every derogatory term they can find. He listens patiently as I deliver the conclusion I’m convinced is a fixed and immutable fact: I am not a real person and I don’t deserve to live.
He reaches across the table, breaking my pattern of disparagement. Maybe I was trying to distract myself from the pain of my diagnosis. Perhaps I was afraid of losing another friend because I was mentally ill. Either way, Eric offered empathy. When he spoke, it was gentle and direct.
“I want to remind you of something you told me once. You said: ‘God loves me and wants me to be happy’.”
I walked home from the cafe with a fuller heart because someone had listened without judgement. I shared my story and in return rediscovered the universal truth that we all matter and we all affect each other’s lives. Our differences are just spots and stripes. Our similarities make us human.