Lately, I’ve been noticing how stressful it is to talk about mental health topics with friends who know about my diagnosis of schizophrenia but don’t know how to talk about mental health. This has been an ongoing struggle to engage with friends around this topic.
In particular, I was at a brunch with some friends who I’ve known for the majority of my life. My friend’s neighbor had set his own house on fire accidentally and this was due to his behavior being off. The group was afraid of him, which I felt was understandable, but there was of course the side of me that knew he was struggling with a mental health condition and I had all the empathy in the world for him.
Although he was causing them a great deal of distress, it reminded me of my own mental health episodes. I thought about how much distress I caused for so many people around me and how frustrating it must have been for them. It was painful to hear the way my friends talked about their neighbor as I was wondering if this was how people had talked about me during my two episodes of psychosis. There were many pejorative terms being used such as “being crazy, being off his rocker, being psycho” and these were painful to hear. There wasn’t any desire to humanize this individual and to be understanding or empathetic towards him, rather, it was just a bunch of ranting and venting. My friends were laughing and hoping he’d have to move away whereas I felt bad that the guy had just lost his entire house.
I mentioned how I could see how this guy was really struggling and hopefully he got the help he needed but that was countered with “I’m not his therapist and I don’t want to be”. Hearing these things were painful as I knew my friends just didn’t understand what it’s like to go through a mental health condition. They didn’t have the understanding that when you’re in psychosis your rationality and grounding in reality can leave you and that this is usually a result of traumatic life events people have gone through. Of course, within the conversation I couldn’t explain all this, although I did try but there just wasn’t a safe space to chat more about it. Listening to the conversation and wondering whether my friends would ever understand everything I had been through was incredibly painful, and my thoughts are that they might not.
Another side to this as well is that I’m projecting that something was off about their neighbor, which it most likely was, but I’m still uncertain about that. The things he was saying and doing indicated he was struggling in some way mental health wise from my vantage point, but I’m still uncertain. This being cast aside, I feel like many people don’t have a good context to be understanding of someone when they are struggling with a mental health condition. Unless the exact details of how mental health conditions manifest are specifically described and labeled, it seemed like my friends weren’t able to identify that this is exactly what it looks like to be in a mental health episode. I think overall it’s a failure of pop culture and of other mediums to have not accurately painted a picture of what a mental health condition can look like. It was easier for them to judge this individual and see his behavior as a shortcoming of character rather than entertaining the possibility that maybe there were genuinely valid reasons why he had reached this juncture in his life.
This in particular was distressing to me as I think of the number of anomalous and negative behaviors I exhibited during my episodes. It makes me think that people just thought I was a terrible person and that I wasn’t suffering from trauma and other detriments that were impeding me at the time and causing these things to happen. They assumed their neighbor fully had control over the decisions he was making and the things he was doing, which from my vantage point is an uncertainty. However, when I think of how precarious my own mental health episodes were and the lack of control I had over all the outlandish and angry things I was saying and doing, I tend to think their neighbor might not have either and it makes me empathetic towards him.
Simultaneously, while this story was being discussed over pastries and mimosas, I thought about how distant my mental health episodes and years of lived experience were from everyone in the room. Everyone was talking about the neighbor in a pejorative way, not realizing just ten years prior I had gone through a psychotic episode where I struggled tremendously and in ways that sounded similar to what their neighbor was going through and in ways that were much worse too. I still struggle mental health wise from time to time and this might not be something they can see or be aware of from their vantage point but it still feels frustrating for my friends to seemingly not have any awareness about this. There was a conversational air that I’m not allowed to mention my condition and that they weren’t going to recognize it, simply because they didn’t want to have that conversation or entertain those thoughts.
I think at times people try to think of me as not having had a mental health condition at all, because I’m doing so well, and this feels infuriating given how intensely I have struggled with schizoaffective disorder for over sixteen years, which for me is schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I of course, still want to be treated equally to everyone else but I still want recognition for the years of hardship I’ve gone through and still go through. Maybe they mean well by not wanting to mention it but it just feels invalidating to have everyone around me pretend like I don’t have a mental health condition and that I never have simply because they just don’t know how to talk about it. It also made me wonder what they truly thought about all the things I had been through if they weren’t able to show their neighbor empathy.
I in fact, don’t like being labeled as someone who doesn’t have a mental health condition when people fully realize that I do. I think everyone in the room felt like I was within their group of people in the world, which I wasn’t, and this also felt insulting. It put me at a crossroads where I was friends with everyone and in some ways we are connected but within this conversation I definitely wasn’t siding with them. However, there wasn’t space to express this either which was even more painful.
There is a part to me that understands how stressful and exhausting the situation with their neighbor must have been. It’s normal to want to vent and decompress from stressful situations. However, I simultaneously wondered what that would look like if they were doing so in a way that was not disparaging towards their neighbor? I wondered if there was a way where they could vent and get their emotions out but not be hateful, disparaging, and diminishing towards someone who was struggling with a condition that he most likely did not have control over. I wonder what it would look like to be frustrated and angry at his actions but to still have empathy and compassion towards him as a person. When they were being disparaging and diminishing towards this individual I felt those same sentiments being directed at myself because I’ve been through the same kinds of things as their neighbor was going through. This has been a tremendously commonplace occurrence for me and one that I frequently have to navigate in my work as a peer specialist and in my personal life.
I tend to think I am projecting a lot here in stating he may or may not have had a mental health condition but it brings me to another conclusion. For someone to struggle as much as he was behaviorally, I feel like there must have been things he had gone through or struggled with that caused him to get to this point regardless of whether he had a condition. Even if these were autonomous decisions, is there not a way to have empathy for someone who struggles to say and do good things regardless of where they are at? I can see how sometimes it’s just easier for people to be angry at others but I also wonder if it’s sometimes easier to just understand people and hope the best for them. In regard to my friends, I was glad the neighbor had eventually moved away for their well being and safety. However, I still had hopes that the neighbor would be okay and that there would be a positive resolution to the situation for him.