The flower stand outside the grocery is awash in a sea of red. The bakery department is well stocked with heart-shaped sugar cookies and pink frosted cupcakes. Cupid’s big day is upon us and I’ve been a bachelor for quite some time. Undateable due to mental illness. I advocate for myself, and am comfortable with my diagnosis, but I’m reluctant to offer it up casually, being concerned that the stigma against it will hinder any success I might have had in making a new friend. I wish it were different, so I approach it as such. Most of the time. Self-stigma tends to be the one area where I falter. Unwittingly, I will derail my own train, partially due to an inherent shyness, and otherwise to a general discomfort in my own skin.
Over the past six months I’ve attended a gathering, ostensibly presented as an alternative to the dating scene, but actually focused on making connections. I enjoy it. It’s a safe environment and creative at its core, offering unconventional exercises and opportunities to explore one’s own social wish-list, perhaps to connect with someone for friendship or a future date, but there are no clear-cut expectations. It’s an enjoyable night out. I can be my shy self and not feel too uncomfortable about it because most of the participants are on a similar wavelength. Should a potential date be in the cards, the inevitable questions arise: what do you do, where are you from, what are your interests? If it feels like the date might lend itself to more in the future, my diagnosis is likely to come up. It’s a major part of my life, perhaps the biggest single thing about me, being that it defines my thinking process and my lifestyle. So I have to make a choice. What do I tell them and when do I say it?
When I started writing for Bring Change to Mind six years ago, I had business cards printed with my contact info on them. If I’m in conversation with someone who asks me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer and that I have a biweekly blog. They usually ask me what site I write for, and when I tell them, they often ask me what the focus of the concern is. I answer appropriately, and they usually find it intriguing enough to ask me about my diagnosis. It’s here where I need to be a good judge of character and circumstance. If the situation warrants it, I tell them that I live with schizophrenia. What usually happens is that they ask a lot of questions about the illness and how I deal with it. My experience with advocacy comes into play; it’s an opportunity for some stigma-busting. I’ve handed out nearly four-hundred cards and had an honest and engaging conversation almost every time. Which lets me know that people are interested in mental health, and appreciate talking to someone with lived experience. Frequently, they’ll share a story about a friend or a family member who struggles with a mental illness.
I’m not saying it’s easy. If I didn’t have the business cards and the practice behind the discussions they bring, I might still be stuck in that shyness bubble, afraid to let anyone in. It’s bad enough that I’m socially awkward and go there anyway. Medication and therapy help me deal with those problems, but they don’t make things perfect. Self-confidence is not my strong suit, and my thought patterns can still be spacy and disjointed. I really need to stick to the script, and not veer too far off topic. If I do, my social awkwardness takes off and I start slipping into self-stigma sabotage. Many of my one-sided conversations are about communicating with another person one-on-one. I sometimes practice what I might say when someone asks about mental health in general and schizophrenia in particular. I take cues from talks I’ve had with my therapist. I converse openly with my friends who know my situation. It’s good practice.
I’ve bought a ticket to the aforementioned single’s event that’s scheduled for the day after Valentine’s Day. The facilitator will no doubt have some friendly ways of approaching the day and its expectations. Liveliness and good humor will prevail. And if I meet that special someone, I will be prepared to answer the awkward questions. If I just make a few new friends, I’ll do my best to advocate. Stigma doesn’t have to dictate every social situation. I don’t need to be cowed by it. To the contrary, I need to rise up to meet the challenge, and start a conversation about mental health. It’s in my best interest, and it helps promote the cause to live in a stigma-free society.