Kicking the Closet Door

Sometimes I really wonder why I do this. I don’t like being so very public about my private life, and my schizophrenia really does not like this level of publicity either. But I guess for me, it is a form of coming out.

Like homosexuality, mental illness has been in the closet just about forever. I have been in the closet all my life. And as I have grown older, I have watched my GLBTQ friends come out. I have watched them begin to LIVE their lives, instead of living a lie. And I was envious. I was even envious when they did not get support from their friends and family. At least they were free to be themselves. At least they were free to find friendship and support for who they were.

Me, I stayed in my little box. It never dawned on me that there could be friendship or support if I admitted I was schizophrenic. Publicly admitting to having schizophrenia never crossed my mind. I never imagined a world where I could be myself and have my illness and be honest about it. So forgive me. The lies come easily, and the truth comes hard.

And my whole life was a lie until I was nearly forty years old.

When I was a kid, even a very small kid the lie was that we had a normal happy family. We were never to admit even the smallest truth of what a cesspit of abuse and dysfunction was there.(or ELSE!) I never told anyone about what went on at home, I was afraid to. Even now, I only give a sketch of how it was. I’m still afraid to tell. I have had no contact with my parents for years, and I feel ashamed of that, but not so ashamed as to jump back into the cesspool. I still obsessively search for an obituary for my father. In my mind, when he is dead, and I know he is dead, I will be able to live free of fear at last. (and I am aware that is not true; probably I will fear him till my dying day)

When I got older and began to exhibit psychiatric symptoms that required treatment, everyone was told I had ‘strep throat’ or ‘mono.’ I probably have the only case of strep throat in medical history that was cured by haldol. Even as a young adult, I got the distinct impression that I needed to keep my illness hidden. Every psych ward I was ever on went to great lengths to reassure me of their ‘total discretion.’

Art by Alice Rex
Art by Alice Rex

There are no great schizophrenic role models or mentors. If you hear the word schizophrenic on TV, it is probably on the news, and the news is probably not going to be good. Even going through the mental health systems for all these years, I never met another person on a psych ward who admitted to having schizophrenia. Not one. And in all my years of life, I have met one other person who admits to being schizophrenic. One. I’m sure I have met many other schizophrenics, I have met a lot of people in my life, and 1.1 percent of the US population suffer from schizophrenia, but the disease remains largely invisible, and its sufferers remain deeply secretive about it.

Somewhere around my fortieth birthday, I made a conscious choice to try to live more truthfully. I decided to be more open and honest about who I am and what I have. Honestly, I fail most days. Being who I am is often uncomfortable, and sometimes unbearable. But I am still struggling toward those goals of openness and honesty. I try to be patient with myself when I fall short.

So I write this. And I put it on the internet where anybody can see it. Not because I think I’m doing a particularly good job of it, but because someone has to. Someone has to start punching and kicking at those closet walls. Someone has to want to take a breath of air as a free person. And that someone seems to be me.

I have accepted that schizophrenia is as much a part of me as my spleen. I can deal with the reality of my illness, and try to learn better ways to live with it. But I don’t have to live in a box in the dark because of it.

I’m not deluding myself either. Schizophrenia DOES have a stigma attached to it in America in 2016, and some people won’t want anything to do with me. They have that right, and I’m not going to be judgmental about it. (I remain judgmental about racism or homophobia, though) Unlike Civil Rights or GLBTQ Rights, mental health advocacy in this country has had very little success in educating citizens that mental health patients are not dangerous. I think they are working on it, but I think they have a long difficult path to bring about those changes in perception.

The only thing I know for sure about beginning to live openly as a schizophrenic is that I am lucky to have some amazing, supportive, and tolerant people around me. Because of their myriad gracious deeds, I am still here struggling toward the light. I hope they know who they are.