I’ve been asked outright what it’s like to hallucinate, what the voices say to me, and if I’ve ever become completely unhinged. I try to answer those questions as honestly as I can, shying away from over-exaggeration, thereby inadvertently feeding into the misinformation delivered through newscasts and tabloid journalism. It’s not always easy.
I worry about things like spontaneous combustion. I also worry that the laws of gravity might be randomly suspended and I’ll suddenly find myself hurtling through space. These are real fears, fears that strangle my thoughts in the middle of the day when I’m doing something as mundane as sorting the recycle.
I yearn for equality and yet, in private moments, I still repeat to myself, “I am mentally ill. I will always be mentally ill,” and I deride myself for being so. I struggle to like myself, worried that others won’t. Because of my genetic makeup. Because of my thought processes and resultant impenetrable responses. Because mentally ill people are an easy target for bullies.
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.