Did you hear the one about the two mentally ill people who went out for coffee together? They shared a sandwich and a cookie and talked for three hours about things they had in common; this strengthened their friendship and they had a lovely time. Maybe not quite the punchline you were expecting, but it gets the point across—just because we’re mentally ill doesn’t mean we aren’t human.
The people in the above paragraph are myself and my friend Nika. She lives with bipolar disorder. I am a paranoid schizophrenic. We met in the psych ward last winter. We discuss things we have in common: theater, movies, people watching and poetry. We speak openly with one another about our diagnoses, sharing the moments which punctuate our lives in the ways that only living with a mental illness can.
We talk about the side effects of our medications. We highlight the weirder things we’ve experienced when symptomatic. We do this because it gives us an opportunity that we don’t have anywhere else: a time-out from living with the normal world, where we get to share the aspects of our lives which make us feel like outsiders. While most folks might talk about how well their kids are doing in school, how their vacation plans are shaping up, or how grueling their recent tax audit was, we share stories about therapy, medication tremors, and drooling. And we find humor in it. Because we can. Because it takes out the sting. We find a commonality that we can’t share with the general population, not even our psychiatrists or therapists.
We’re like two kids at camp reading our comicbooks with a flashlight. By sharing our secrets we form a healthy bond, a fellowship.
Discussions include topics like self-care, coping strategies, and how stigma and bullying affect us. As could be expected, the subject of loneliness takes a big chunk of our time. Neither of us have love interests, and we’re not involved in that dynamic together. Rather, we console one another. The theme runs the gamut from sadness for how lonely being mentally ill and single is, to laughing about our individual mishaps in the arena of romance. It does the heart good to have someone to talk to.
Nika is an actor. I’m a writer. We can discus art for hours and often do. We’ve been to the zoo together, gone spelunking through the curio shops, paced ourselves on a lap around the park, and joined fifteen-hundred other like-minded individuals on the annual NAMI Walk.
It occurs to me how, through discussing our mental illnesses, many of us can blend into the tapestry of everyday life, feeling comfortable in our own skin. That comfort level, I am fairly certain, can only exist between fellow travelers. I’ve put that theory to the test by trying to discuss my symptoms and perceptions with non-mentally ill people, and I just can’t seem to catch the same buzz. Too often there’s a disconnect, likely due to how unfathomable a life of symptomatic experience can be. Not that normal people don’t try, it’s just outside their reach—and that’s all right. I respect that. Expectations would only cause frustration for both parties; counterproductive when the aim is open communication.
Sometimes I wish I could indulge in divulgence, but I recognize that it’s probably for the better that I don’t. People tend to get confused when they try to comprehend the world of the mentally ill. Nothing says they have to— that they’re willing to listen is, in itself, enough. Empathy is a good thing, even if it’s fleeting. Challenges can arise when, due to symptoms, the mentally ill speaker is perceived to be self-absorbed. A thought disorder often makes tracking very difficult. Hyper-communication is not always my best friend.
Staying in the conversation is key. Avoid listening ahead or speaking behind. Your turn will come.
Maybe mentally ill people give one another a wider berth when they’re sharing because they’re accustomed to the rhythm from talk therapy. They pick up on the subtleties because they’re more in the moment than they’re given credit for. Sharing their stories with another, be it a lay person or a mentally ill peer, is paramount to sound mental health. Not only does it bypass stigma and discrimination, but it allows the person space to breath, to find their own pace, to feel safe.
We pay our tab like every other patron in the coffee shop and head out to catch the bus. It’s a crisp late-summer afternoon. We are the only people wearing mismatched prints, ultra-bright clothing, and laughing at our own whimsy in the face of the odds. In a sea of hipster black we stand out, separate but equal. Connected.
Thanks for writing this and sharing it. I especially love this paragraph. You really captured it.
“We’re like two kids at camp reading our comicbooks with a flashlight. By sharing our secrets we form a healthy bond, a fellowship.”
Thanks, Margery. Fellowship is really important to good mental health, and for some, not an easy thing to acquire. I cherish the few friendships that I do have, and nurture them. I’ve learned that it helps us both, and that’s always a good thing. Cheers!
Nice work. Illuminating as always.
I love this! My son is 33 diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17~has been doing fairly well with conversation the last year but recently did some street drug and has had a bit of a rough month. We are here for him as parents but I pray he can find a friend. That would be helpful~ most friends just manipulate him. Not really friends I appreciate your blog.
I hope your son finds some good friends, too, Cathy – the ones who manipulate him are not really friends, as you say. Sorry to hear that he’d had a rough month; I hope things clear up for him. Thank you for writing in. It is always good to hear from family members.
I get the theme of your piece on so many levels and I am such a huge fan of your authenticity, as I’ve shared before. What strikes me more than even the content of your blog however, is your wonderful way of communicating these thoughts in words. You truly are a fine writer and it is evident in the manner you deliver your expressed experiences. Thank you for this delicate view into your and Nika’s lives. She sounds like a great friend!!! Really happy for you that you have each other in this relationship. Many people do not have such an enriching relationship in their lives; with or without a mental illness. My only concern, and maybe it’s not mine to even comment on; but I wish you would describe your illness for what it is; something outside of you that’s impacting you and needs management/treatment. In this regard, one could define themselves as having this illness, this diagnosis; but NOT being this illness or allowing it to be one’s identity. That’s all. You are way more than a man with a serious mental illness; that is for sure!!!
Thanks for commenting, Marc. Always good to hear from you.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, or if you’ve elected to check it out on your own, but our blogs are all listed in a digest from elsewhere on the site. I think that your desire to read about how I see my illness would be addressed in some of my previous blogs. Like a lot of folks with a thought disorder, I tend to vacillate between seeing my “self” as separate from the illness, and other times experience the intertwining. Sometimes in the blog I define myself as “a schizophrenic” in order to put the reader in the right frame of reference (as opposed to leaving it up to their imagination). I’m not a “labels” kind of guy, but sometimes the shorthand works well. I know it’s a touchy subject. I guess that shows me how much farther we have to go before it’s not.
Thanks again for commenting, Marc. Food for thought. And thanks for the encouragement – it means a lot!
You’re very welcome Henry. I must admit, I have not explored and read any of your blogs….yet….from previous times within the 3+ years which you’ve been graciously lending your support and love for this critical cause/need for society to “get comfortable” with discussing mental illness/mental well-being. I do fully understand your rationale for the use of the term and I’m sure it’s been more effective than not. I’m happy that this is NOT how you view yourself. We do have a ways to go but the ball is rolling and I think that the nation is ripe for this extremely long-overdue discussion. This is due to larger events that impact us all with violence and mental illness ( most often misunderstood and not-effectively handled) , the numbers of soldiers who continue to return with significant/suicidal ideation via PTSD, and the reality that these illnesses from clinical depression and anxiety to schizophrenia are occurring in more homes than folks wish or feel comfortable to talk about……yet….because it hasn’t felt safe for them- free of a sense of being stigmatized as a person or family!!!
I believe our challenge/task is to assist in helping to disempower the factors that keep people silent or their thoughts and feelings tucked away. I’m proud to have joined forces with the likes of Glen and Jessie, but certainly, with you my friend, as well. I will research the earlier blogs. Be well!
Human beings are only able to know themselves through their lived experiences – made up of sensations, thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and perceptions. To the extent these mental illnesses affect our experience of ourselves and the world, we are in some sense “one” with them. I take issue somewhat to Mark’s assertion that mental illness is outside of me.. It is not so anymore than diabetes or cancer is outside someone who has those conditions. Living with any illness over a period of time impacts the person’s sense of self, sense of the world, and sense of self-in-the-world.
I live very successfully with illness. I think this is due in large part to the fact that I allow the illness a very focal place in my awareness. Its centricity is not a negative. Its centricity has compelled me to reshape my lifestyle into one that maximizes emotional wellness, periods of spiritual contemplation, and physical fitness, while curtailing unnecessary stress and pressure.
I hold the view that my illness has much to teach me about what I need to thrive. When I make the right decisions, my symptoms remain quiet and unobtrusive. Poor choices elicit the opposite effect. But it is by befriending the illness I can learn from it. It is a part of me and like the Dalai Lama would suggest, I respond to it with curiosity and nonjudgement, acceptance and tolerance.