I’ve been asked if I think that the stigma surrounding mental illness is real. I need only point to a recent example in my own life as a person living with schizophrenia to answer quite emphatically, “Yes. I do.”
New Year’s Day: I’m jogging the three mile circumference of a lake at a local park when another runner in the winter throng waves to me to stop. A friendly fellow festooned in Twelfth Man regalia, radiant team colors accompanying his smile. He says something about an officer or a sergeant, adds a quick “thank you”, and picks up his pace, disappearing down the track. I’m amused and a little baffled, but it’s a beautiful crisp morning, and smiles and salutations seem fitting on this most hopeful day of the year.
A couple of miles later I see him coming around a turn. We pause again to chat, this time at my request. The crowd around us has grown. Joggers, walkers, runners, and wheels are out in full force. The ebb and flow of happy faces is a joy to behold. It is a glorious morning indeed.
The Twelfth Man looks familiar to me. I ask him what he meant by “officer”. I wondered if he might have been one of the First Responders who helped save my life a year ago when I had an episode of psychosis in this very park. He shakes his head, says he’s not an officer himself, but that he mistook me in my Ray-Bans and raincoat for somebody else.
It’s an active morning. Folks are engaged, awake in their own worlds, enjoying the day. The Twelfth Man asks me about my diagnosis. His sincerity is palpable and genuine. While I answer his question, two women behind us stop dead in their tracks. As he turns to continue his run, one of the women demands that her friend call the police. I’m in the process of inserting my earbuds when I become aware of their conversation.
“Why should I call the cops?” asks the woman with the phone.
The other woman shouts, “Schizophrenic!” and points directly at me.
I stood there, dumbfounded. I almost wondered if she was pointing past me to some other incontestable hooligan, this apparent malefactor who’d done something heinous enough to warrant alerting the authorities. She said it again, this time more emphatically. “Schizophrenic guy!”
Whether her partner made the call or not didn’t matter to me. I was so shocked by the incident that I quickly returned to my exercise, intent on forgetting her. Confronting the woman, even in a kindly manner, would have invited complexities too numerous to deal with, exacerbating both her unwarranted – and clearly prejudiced – concerns, as well as my own anxieties. I was not in the mood to chase that rabbit. What she thinks of me is none of my business.
At the end of the track is a set of concrete bleachers. The view of the park is incredible from up there. I switch off my music, climb to the top, and listen to the wind in the trees. I hear the faint wail of a siren in the distance and wonder for a moment, “Is that for me?” I let it go. I’m safe in the knowledge that I do the right things. I follow my treatment plan. I keep in touch. Nevertheless, stigma is alive and well in the actions and attitudes of close-minded people. The challenge is in how to open those minds.
Sometimes advocacy needs to be more strident than others, but this was not that time. Being aggressive with an aggressive person only breeds more aggression. It’s that simple. The sirens faded, my anxiety over the event faded, and it’s likely that, while she may have had The Most Awesome Story Ever to tell her friends, it’ll fade, too. Chalk it up to another misinformed person who let selfishness and self-image get in the way of their own humanity. Ignorance is the result of a lack of education and experience. It is not cruelty, no matter how much it hurts.
Things could’ve gone another way. I could have gotten angry. Nothing would have been accomplished. Militancy will not reward us with respect. It will only invite criticism and ridicule. That woman in the park who overheard me sharing my story took it to places she had no business taking it. Sadly, this happens everywhere in our country, every day. It’s happening somewhere right now. Simultaneously, so is this – the reading and sharing among like-minded individuals. Switch off the noise, climb above the inequality, and listen to the soundtrack of your place in this world. Let’s make a difference through peaceful activism. Together we can bury stigma, one story at a time.
First of all, nice job on a well written description. You are emotionally heroic more so compared to most people I know. The funny thing is that I have been researching people with mental illnesses who are baseline and emotionally stable which could very well be more spiritual and self-awareness then a percentage of norm. Nothing proven but just interesting to me. I am especially interesting in learning more about the Native American tribal traditions of Holy men and woman who are not chastise for visionaries and healings. Its a whole new way of thinking of connecting the mind-body-spirit to heal. I am a Christian but I mix both nature+Jesus together.
I have a bipolar disorder and I am hoping to achieve in getting a support group together through NAMI and blending with them as an instructor to alleviate symptoms through horses. I will not have a social worker on site so it will be known as equine-assisted activities (fun) instead of therapy. We are people having fun!
That said, we-people must work at maintaining our behaviors & medications like diabetes. Support from family and friends are so important!!
People FEAR others of what they do not understand and obviously SHE feared you from societies stigma. Very sad. I would actually be afraid of her more for causing a scene and being inappropriate. I agree. You made the right choice. You never know because she could have lied and made up a whole different story to a police officer. Also, good job at staying fit. I lose weight and gain and its a endless cycle. I encourage you to be a public speaker to help others go towards their healing path.
Henry ~ Thank you for your story! Brilliant writer! Jennifer S. ~