Schizophrenia in and of itself is a terrifying word. It conjures up ideas of murderous intent, lack of control, psychosis and a host of other scary things.
I live with this word though, I am the word and the word is me. There are movements in the mental health community not to let your diagnosis define you but believing that is lying not only to yourself but to the world. I am schizophrenic and I’m proud of it. It’s like a long deep scar across my face that gives me immensely strong character and a resilience that you’d be hard pressed to find in the vast majority of people who don’t have the faintest idea what living with a major mental illness is like.
Words fail when describing both the gift and the curse of it.
The fear surrounding the word though is barely ignorable. It’s huge and it’s not something you can just shrug off if uttered. Using the word can make a conversation with those who want to listen and it can break an opportunity if used among the ignorant. In that sense, it’s a tool, it’s a responsibility to carry around the word. Those who’ve lived with it long enough know this. I’ll admit I’ve used it before simply for the sake of killing a conversation and making someone I don’t want to talk to go away. I’ve also used it as a vulnerability tactic for someone I trust that I’d like to form a deeper relationship with.
It’s not a word you can just drop into a conversation and follow with “It’s not a big deal though.” The stigma behind it is too deep. People may say it doesn’t bother them but they will go home that day and they will have second thoughts.
I’m no stranger to the date or the job interview that has suspiciously ended not ten minutes after the word was dropped, unskillfully terminated by the receiving party after a faux change of subject. I’m also no stranger to the hours long conversations that come after the word with people that are truly willing to listen.
The truth of it is that we live in a world where we need a reason for senseless acts of violence, all too often that reason is placed on the fact that the perpetrator was a quiet man with a history of mental instability that liked to keep to himself. Or at least, that’s the narrative so many media outlets rely on. There’s a sickness in these people, there’s an evil and all too often it just happens to be a coincidence that they’ve been through the mental health system, a system that all the while doesn’t have the biggest clue what they are doing and desperately tries to nail diagnoses on people that have something inside themselves that can’t be diagnosed.
It also hasn’t helped that so many horror films make a hobby out of portraying an unstable killer that commits gruesome acts simply for the fun of it. At some point in these films there will be talk of an escape at an insane asylum.
The reason people are afraid of mental illness isn’t just because of the media portrayal either. The reason people are afraid of mental illness is because inherent in these illnesses is unpredictability. When people don’t understand what’s happening the first response is fear.
People like definitions, they like knowing what’s going to happen and they like certainty. Mental illness is, in and of itself, uncertainty in the greatest sense of the word. People are afraid of that.
Consider though, the chaos that’s happening in the head of someone who’s suffering. Consider not being able to trust your own thoughts because they’ve betrayed you. It’s much scarier being a person living with mental illness than any notions a normal person may have of encountering a person with mental illness.
Consider the fact that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. I think I speak for the mental illness community when I say that we’re suffering, not just with our symptoms but with society’s perception of us.
As much as I want to equate mental illness to something like cancer or diabetes, actual physical illnesses, it’s an entirely different beast. It doesn’t have cut and dry symptoms like high blood sugar, it relies on the ephemeral fluid of thoughts, feelings and behavior. We aren’t even entirely sure what exactly the best drugs we have for mental illness actually do aside from the magic of numbing and sedating the person that takes them to the point where the things they feel aren’t such a huge deal.
To put it lightly, people like me are having a tough time with all of this, we could use some slack.
Overall, changing the perception of mental illness takes advocates and it takes examples. It takes spokespeople in the public eye that have lived with mental illness to change the perception from one of dangerous unpredictability to one of quiet everyday suffering.
We’re sick, the last thing we need is to feel like we don’t belong.
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