You walk into the old basement gymnasium. The silence is only relieved by the crawling ticks of cheap lighting and the desperate whine of a fly that followed you in from the cold. Lucky for you the fly leaves you alone and heads for the tiny snack table that’s covered with stale donuts and smells of burnt coffee.
There’s no movement as you reach the dimly lit circle of chairs. You move around to the side and pick a chair, the green one, and settle into the smooth, cool plastic.
“I always used to pick the green one, too…”
My voice startles you as I make my way across the room. I walk directly across from you, pause, and then grab the ugly mustard yellow chair from where it sits and switch it for the only other green chair in the room and take my seat.
I look down for a moment, silent. I take a few ragged, nervous breathes that sound like paper being torn to shreds. Finally, I stand up.
“Don’t worry,” I begin. “There’s no one else coming. I figured if I’m going to be comfortable doing this I’d do it best in a setting that’s familiar. Hence, the overly clichéd group therapy meeting room.”
I go quiet again. But this time it’s only for a moment as my hand makes it way to my face, slowly stroking my beard as I collect my thoughts.
“I don’t even know where to begin… I’m not a writer, by trade. I’m actually an illustrator. I guess in that case, let me start by drawing you a picture….”
I’m fifteen years old. I’m on the floor of my room, curled into a ball, like a hand becoming a fist. The corded phone dangles in front of my face but I can’t see it for the tears that cloud my vision before falling in random patterns down my face.
I’d just found out that the first person I’d ever learned to love, Lydia, had been killed on her walk home by a drunk driver. It was a path I’d forced her to walk that night, refusing to let her stay at my home where my mom would discover she’d been all day. I was selfish and she paid the price.
Alone and lost, I stay on the ground as my world crumbles around me. I feel a chill like I’m stepping into dark, freezing waters that slowly makes its way up my body to my ribs, stopping my breath.
I feel like a grub growing all wrong in a cocoon and I imagine this must be what going mad feels like.
But I’m not mad.
What happened next, happened quickly. I fell into a bad crowd, feeding the dark seed that had been planted into my soul, allowing it to grow and flourish. I hurt people. It wasn’t fair that so many others got to love and laugh together while I was left to suffer alone. I kept my rage and pain a secret from those closest to me and it fueled me on my quest to punish others through violence and manipulation. Those years seemed weird, revved up like the strip teasing mannequins and quick change furniture from The Time Machine.
This is where my paranoia was born. I gave fake names, lied about where I lived and kept the good-kid mask on when I was home. My illness hadn’t sprouted yet but it had begun to seep into the folds in my brain like oil.
Soon enough, this life caught up to me and the moment I’d always silently prayed for was coming. I was going to die. I was going to see Lydia again.
But there was a problem. I couldn’t remember what she looked like.
I was horrified with myself. Like Sweeney Todd, my rage had become more potent than the love that first kindled it.
And then, by fate or happenstance, I survived my brush with death. But I was left with an overwhelming guilt and pain that wouldn’t subside.
What would Lydia think of all I’ve done? Of what I’ve become?
My mind had become lost in a storm, like Dorothy being swept up in a tornado.
And, sure enough, when I landed, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The final layers of my old self were shed and new ones took their place. My lust for vengeance was replaced with an obsession for justice and redemption. My paranoia in full swing, hiding everything from everyone. I was on a mission.
I was convinced I was special and that I wasn’t an emotionally scarred young man, addicted to an endless cycle of self-annihilating violence. After all, stranger things have happened.
And I wasn’t alone, a man who’d once worked for the FBI but was now a private investigator had been watching me and knew my potential. He wanted to help me. It worked out so perfectly it HAD to be fate.
This went on longer than it should have. But no one knew what was going on. I didn’t let anyone in close enough. Until two people, a close friend and a new girlfriend started to dig through the walls I’d set in place so many years ago. Walls that were meant to protect me but ended up becoming my cage.
The truth began to break through my stories like the light from bullet holes on a western wall at sunset. They confronted me but I stood my ground, adamant that they didn’t know what they were talking about. But each excuse that fell from lips dissolved like sugar in coffee. The cops and gangbangers who always followed me were absent, my private investigator ally wasn’t real, the notes I’d receive were missing…
The Wizard of OZ had been exposed and all I was left with was a sad, lonely man behind a stained curtain.
I spent an evening in the local psych ward for evaluation. It was terrifying. I can’t imagine a place like that being conducive to anyone’s mental health. The doctor said I was a Paranoid Schizophrenic. I agreed to take medication and go to therapy, anything to get out of that place.
I kept my word and began to put my life back together. But it was like fixing a broken clay pot in the dark. I did a reasonable enough job to be weaned off the medication and even got married. But marriage turned out to be too much for me to handle. The stress quickly sent back into another episode and I resolved to take medication in secret, worrying that it would make me appear weak in front of my wife, having to rely on meds to keep control.
Looking back, it’s obvious that the relationship was far from healthy and it eventually collapsed under its own weight. Yet again, I was left with a pile of broken pieces that used to be my life.
But this time was different. This time I knew my triggers and my pitfalls. I’d travelled down this broken road alone and in the dark many times and wasn’t about to falter again. I kept good people close to me, I went to therapy, got into shape and even began to volunteer my time. Anything to keep me from losing control again.
All my losses had lead me to this moment where I was able to build a man that I could say was a worthwhile human being. All the voices that used to vie for control had choked off one by one and amidst the storm I was able to find a light and make my way safely to shore.
Realizing I’d gone silent, you look up from the cracked piece of tile you’ve been staring at, wondering if that’s the end of the story, only to realize a small smile plays at my lips.
“That’s not the end of the story,” I say, and you wonder if I’ve somehow read your mind. “While volunteering I met the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known, fell madly in love and got married. About a year later we bought a house. Between buying the house, moving, car problems and a family issue, the stress began to pile up. I could practically smell the illness trying to sneak its way back to the forefront, like a fairy fart under a cellar door.
“My wife, Laura, being the wonderful woman that she is, was patient and understanding. We took some time to ourselves and she made sure I had what I needed to get my balance again.”
I stop talking again and look around the room at all the empty chairs. You follow my eyes and realize where this is going.
“So why,” I begin again, “After all I’ve been through, are we here, alone? Because the life I’ve lead has taught me not to trust people. Time and time again I’ve been betrayed and hurt whenever I’ve opened up about even the tiniest of things. And this…. This is one of my biggest weakness of all. Or so I thought….”
I look down for a moment, ashamed. For the first time, you stand up and make your way over to me and the words rise in your throat, “What happened?”
I look back up, my eyes wet with tears. “My wife spoke five words to me…. ‘You’re gonna be a Daddy….’ I knew that schizophrenia was genetic and I was terrified of my child growing up the way I did or being ashamed or embarrassed of me. I wasn’t about to allow that to happen. It was time I embraced who I was and accept whatever came my way for it. No matter what happens, I’d been through worse. But more than that….”
Suddenly, the dimly lit room brightened and there, in the shadows, were dozens of others listening and smiling.
“I wasn’t alone.”
Those that had been hidden make their way to the seats, some stop and shake your hand or pat you on the back.
“There’s a whole culture of people just like us out there, waiting to be supportive and helpful, reminding us that we’re not alone in our struggles. Ever. I drew something special to tell the world about my illness and while there were some who faltered, ignored or denied, the majority of my friends, family and even people I hardly knew came out with positivity and love. And that is a world I’m happy to live and raise my children in….”
Photo Credit: Kevin Nordstrom/Kevin Nordstrom Art
This article was originally featured on Stigma Fighters.