It might’ve gone either way. I could have thrown my coffee at the oncoming traffic, screaming like the Elephant Man, or dragged my leaden feet across the intersection, praying that the universe would stop disintegrating before I reached the curb. It did, I didn’t. That’s how the morning started.
My therapist’s office used to be in the heart of the financial district. When I’d walk through the lobby from the cafe to the stairwell, the security guard always stopped me. I’d shown him the key his employers issued to me, but he remained suspicious. He’d been informed that I had a mental illness, which seemed to exacerbate his prejudicial tendencies.
His successor was more understanding. She only stopped me once. I explained that claustrophobia made elevator rides unendurable. I gave her my business card and talked about BringChange2Mind. For the following nine months we had weekly conversations about mental wellness. Turns out she had an anxiety disorder. We’d found a commonality.
Last winter my therapist’s practice moved to a location closer to the city’s Department of Social and Health Services. The bus I take travels from the palliative care hospitals to the county jail, and the majority of its riders are often on one end of that spectrum or the other.
I am not a wealthy man. I live below the national poverty level. I receive disability compensation because schizophrenia has undermined my capacity for standard employment. Regardless of the social stigma these circumstances carry with them, I find hope in interaction with others. No mean feat, considering my fear of people.
I survive by rote. I have medicine and therapy. I educate myself. I talk to professionals and peers alike. Had I been diagnosed when my symptoms first appeared, life might have turned out differently. Challenges might have been lessened, opportunities more available. I’ll never know. This is how it is now, and I work towards accepting that. It’s a lonely struggle, one the public doesn’t see.
I found a cafe near the DSHS bus stop. I made coffee house friends with the employees. The cashier is a design student, bursting with enthusiasm. His coworker, the barista, plans to marry her girlfriend this summer. Our conversations revolve around activism, art, and health. A welcome respite from the cacophony of the urban circus. A little downtime before my weekly therapy session.
I took the last seat in the shop, four feet from the barista’s station. She was chatting with a customer about the denizens of the surrounding neighborhood, that desperate acre of individuals at odds with survival and hope. The two women broke into gales of laughter when the shot-puller pointed out the window and said, “I like to play a game I call ‘Count The Schizos’. Ooh, look – there’s one! Ha ha! Look’s like he’s off his meds! Better call 9-1-1! Ha ha ha!”
Although she was miming her hunting technique, she appeared to be pointing at me. Had it been noisier I might’ve missed her remark, but it was one of those moments from the movies where the soundtrack drops out and the only thing you hear is what the director wants you to.
I reached for my wallet to hand them both a card. I wanted to start a conversation about celebrating differences, highlighting the diligence of Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King, two activists I admire for their belief in kindness when advocating for social change. Instead, I bailed. Heart racing, Voices unleashed, dissociative symptoms pulling me apart.
I am not sure that I understand what it feels like to hurt, but I absolutely know what it is to be singled out and ridiculed. The stigma of having schizophrenia, and being reduced to a Whac-A-Mole caricature in the eyes of an acquaintance, whether she was aware of her insensitivity or not, set off an internal chain reaction of panic and shame that I could not control.
I needed to anchor myself to the one person I trusted to help me crawl out of that cave. I had to cross the street before the terror could overtake me and turn the crosswalk into quicksand or my cup into a guided missile. Six blocks to therapy, fifteen flights of stairs. Joseph Merrick’s aching heart roared up within my own: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
I won’t let this become another missed opportunity. If I don’t at least try to interact with her – with kindness, not with guilt or blame – then years from now, when she and her wife are nonchalantly playing Count The Schizos with their child, my inaction might be partially responsible for that young person never knowing the negative impact of stigma perpetuated by unthinking people. We owe it to ourselves to be accountable for the way we’re perceived today, and to coming generations for the way they’re received tomorrow.