If you care for a person living with a mental illness, how can you help? Begin by listening without judgement, as you would to anyone else. Refrain from attempting to correct the convergence of ideas that their neural pathways create. Just listen. Is there an urgency to the message? You can sense that. Are they showing an emotion you can recognize, despite the nature of the words, the cadence of their speech? Listen actively, without reason. Bring your shared history with you. Bring love.
Our cognitive abilities are what set us apart from the rest of the life forms on this big, blue marble. The schizophrenic with their cognitive dysfunctions might seem less human to other bipeds at the shopping mall. On the surface. Peel away the stigma and we’re just like the rest of the shoppers experiencing the holiday music wafting through the stores, the gentle ring of Santa’s bell by the charity basket, the muted waves of conversation washing up on the shores of the gift wrapping station.
In ancient civilizations the people who behaved like those we now label schizophrenic were regarded as visionaries. Shamans. A circle was drawn around them in which they could live, respected, within the existing society to which they weren’t suited. A circle. Nick has a red diamond on his right wrist, covering his suicide scar. A tattoo over a scar. But isn’t the white line of the scar really just a tattoo as well?
It begins with the culture that surrounds us, the pervasive misconceptions regarding schizophrenia forming the bedrock of stigma against the individuals who live with the disorder. For example, when society tells you that every schizophrenic is violent by nature, it tends to color your impression of yourself even when statistics show the opposite is true.
My folded hands are pointing heavenward and my head is bowed in prayer. A scrumptious meal is spread out before me: cranberry sauce, a basket of rolls, a plateful of mashed potatoes and peas. In the center of the table is a golden, glazed turkey. I am five years old in this photograph. Everything about the dinner is fake. Everything but the prayer. I was praying for real food.
I am in the community mental health center again. Waiting room. Nick is outside, smoking, I am holding a chair to make sure he isn’t overlooked. It’s the story of my life, these days. Across the room in a corner, a father and teenage girl huddle, speaking quietly to each other.
The therapist is as important to the mind as the doctor is to the body. They both work with the patient to establish a baseline of good health, mental and physical, appropriate to the client’s individuality. The key is to take that first step in trusting your experienced caregiver. Sometimes that trust is hard won. Making the effort to contribute self-knowledge with as much clarity as possible to help your doctor or therapist get to know you better is paramount. Being open, honest, and willing can be keys to success.
The culture has made some progress in the understanding and acceptance of others, but in matters of mental illness it lags behind. There still aren’t enough beds, still isn’t enough training, affordable medication and therapy, to help the many schizophrenics lost to the streets and left to fend off the demons in their minds on their own. I know this firsthand, so I talk about it.
If someone has a genuine interest in knowing what it’s like to live with schizophrenia, I feel obligated to share my personal experience. The truth might make them uncomfortable, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Change cannot happen if we live in a bubble.