It is late, the winter air is clear. The sky above is cloudless. There are no silver linings.
Over six dozen packing boxes line my apartment. For nine years I’ve walked a trail from this chair to the bed, from the kitchen to the laundry. At annual inspections the Fire Marshall scolds me for hoarding, and hands me a reminder to clear out my stuff. I throw his citations in the trash. I’m tidy, I’m clean, I know where everything is. My possessions give me comfort. They punctuate my life’s sentence. They afford me a place in time.
Last month, at random, I opened my first box. It was filled with Christmas cards I’d kept since college. Living with untreated schizophrenia until six short years ago has created some unique challenges. Upon opening that box, I had a few questions. For example, why would the dead send me greeting cards? How did they get my address? There used to be a badger in this box, but I had to let him go. I sense that none of this is confirmable, but I question it regardless. My neurological system is following its natural course of erosion. Repeated bouts of psychosis can damage the body’s neural pathways. And here I am. Ragtag little limbic system. Unhappy prefrontal cortex.
Without regular contact with the outside world, people vanish unforeseen. Our realities separate us. Two sides of the street. I have to live my life based on society’s terms; I am not welcomed on my own. To maintain the status quo, it is suggested one accepts the stigma that comes with the label “crazy”. Ours may be the final push for equal rights and recognition. These are our growing pains. These are our unpacked boxes.
Should I consider myself blessed by the Zen of not knowing where I am on the map of time? My hands quiver like a dog in the rain, a telltale sign of the physicality of this seemingly invisible illness. Another giveaway is my gait, gingerly stepping over the cracks of my mother’s broken back, pausing in the grocery aisle to consider how many colors have the same thoughts as fish. Trauma takes away the clock. Not the isolated events per se, but the linear trauma wrought by the fears and anxieties of living this schizophrenic life.
The cards are moved to a box marked SHRED, along with love letters, cancelled checks, and junk mail. A lifetime of mementos become filler in a compost heap.
Today is New Year’s Eve. I will not be going to the masquerade ball, even though I have a splendid Lone Ranger mask. Fitting I suppose, what with the isolation and such. Still, I could be someone’s hero on a white horse, but I’ll never know because we’ll never meet. Another midnight kiss over Auld Lang Syne, missed by the width of a cloudless winter sky.
In five months my lease will be up. I still have not unpacked. I want to move in, but the complexity of doing so baffles me. I cherish my independence and appreciate the proximity of my resources. Regardless, my belongings need to be sorted into three distinct piles – keep, donate, and throw away – in preparation for a monumental change, one that comes too quickly on the heels of the impact of these past three months. During that time I lost my state-appointed caseworker, had my therapy sessions reduced, and my health benefits and monthly disability income “redistributed”. I find myself becoming untethered as the support system I’ve worked so hard to build is systematically dismantled by the natural flow of events outside my control.
For three years I have kept my head above water by maintaining a close watch on my finances, allowing me to pursue my art and advocacy without undue frustration or worry. Until now. Because my mental illness interferes with my ability to sustain a tangible grasp of the workaday world, I am considered unfit for any standard employment. My nonprofit work satisfies my soul, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I hope that I have given something to our community, an attitude of empowerment and encouragement through education and conversation. As I look to the promise of the new year, what I see for myself is the very real possibility that I am unpacking the past to find a present that sets a course for a likely future of desperation and homelessness. I am not a man of means. I am a poet in a time without miracles. I have a mind that changes itself without warning.
A few hours from now, when the fireworks are finished, I will scan the clouds of smoke they leave behind. The city lights might be reflected on the fringe. My prayer is that I find a silver lining.
Beautifully written, Henry… You are indeed a poet. I very much hope you caught a glimpse of silver in the smoke.
Thank you, Jen. Poets paint with words, and that’s what I hope to achieve – to paint a clear picture that others might see the world of mental illness through the frame of another’s experience, both the cloudless skies and the silver linings. It’s what we can all do to help change the public perception and awareness of mental illness and health, a way to get and keep the conversation going. Thanks again.
Beautifully written, our passion brings happiness and satisfaction in our lives. just keep it going. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Lynne – I agree. Sharing our stories helps satisfy the basic tenets of advocacy, and about that I am most passionate. Writing and making art are terrific ways for people with mental health issues (and folks who support them) to get and keep the conversation going. Cheers!
PEOPLE WHO ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO NOT EXPERIENCE DEPRESSION OR SCHIZOPHRENIA OR ANY OTHER MENTAL ILLNESS, CAN NOT POSSIBLY KNOW HOW PAINFUL IT CAN BE. I LOVED READING WHAT YOU WROTE. I’VE LIVED WITH DEPRESSION SINCE I WAS 14yrs OLD AFTER MY FIRST PANIC ATTACK. I REMEMBER FEELINGS OF DEPRESSION BEFORE THAT BUT IT WOULD GO AWAY. THEN IT CAME TO STAY YEARS LATER. SINCE MY MAMA DIED IN 2009 I HAVE NO MORE FAMILY. IT IS HARD…I FEEL LOST. YOU ARE AN INSPIRATION TO SO MANY OTHERS.
You have such a way with words. Like what they have all said, very beautifully written. Sharing your story makes it easier for us to understand and at the same time learn from it in order to help others.