For a number of years I just didn’t have the social skills to broach difficult subjects with friends. I used to let things go for fear of putting stress on the dynamic. I strongly valued my friendships during the harder years of having schizophrenia because it has been really difficult to make friends with this condition at times. I was dependent upon the people who were in my life and I was far too afraid to make any waves. One of the most difficult parts of having psychosis over the years has been the social component. It’s been tremendously difficult to be able to figure out what to do and say in social contexts until more recently where I’m starting to feel more like my self prior to my psychotic episodes where social situations came naturally to me and made better sense.
For years I thought my friend Anna had been telling her romantic partners about my diagnosis. I was incredibly distressed by this but I had never touched base with her to talk about it. We’ve been friends for about ten years and she’s been a really close ally. She had a parent who also had schizophrenia and she’s always been really understanding of what I’ve gone through and she’s been especially understanding when I’ve been struggling at times. Over the years it’s felt like she’s been able to intervene on my behalf when I was struggling socially and people couldn’t understand my vantage point. This being said, this was an especially valuable friendship and I didn’t want to strain the dynamic at all and definitely not by asking her why she would tell her romantic partners about my diagnosis.
I was strongly convinced this was happening as it seemed like every one of her romantic partners knew something was off about me and they were accepting of it. I felt infuriated by this, but simultaneously there was comfort. It felt relaxing to be with people who knew about my diagnosis and it helped me to let my guard down when I hung out with my friend group that Anna was the point person for.
There were also a number of friends within the group whom she had grown up with who I thought knew about my diagnosis. It was awkward for me trying to figure out who knew or didn’t know and it was something that shaded my relationships over the years. I reached a point of assuming that everyone within the group knew about my diagnosis and this felt somewhat relieving because I knew they were going to be nice to me, especially when I struggled socially.
However, it wasn’t an assumption I fully internalized as I still strongly guarded information about my mental health condition and around anything that could lead to someone knowing about it. I used up a lot of mental and emotional resources over the years guarding information about myself or at least trying to figure out who did or didn’t know about the condition.
Recently, I was driving with my friend Jen to meet up with another friend group Anna is a part of to get drinks at an art gallery. It was night time and I had a vision of a barrel being in the road when it wasn’t there. Jen had been dating Anna for about three years so I assumed she had known about my diagnosis. I told her how I thought there was a barrel in the road and it wasn’t there anymore.
”What do you mean?” She asked. “There’s nothing in the road.” I turned to her and mentioned how I get visions of things that aren’t there as a reminder of the condition she obviously knew about.
“You mean hallucinations?” She asked in surprise. There was a brief pause with a strong silence that felt painful to my ears.
“I mean, I don’t call them that but, yeah I just call them visions.” She didn’t respond to this part and this was alarming. She didn’t know about my mental health diagnosis. The next day I touched base with Anna to have the disclosure conversation we should have had years ago.
“No, I don’t tell anyone about your diagnosis. There’s a ton of stigma and I dealt with that as a kid having a mom with schizophrenia. I don’t tell anyone, Steve.”
I was shocked for a number of reasons. The entire time I had hung out with Jen I thought she knew about everything I had been going through. I had even sent her links to articles I had written but I’m guessing she had never read them as she is notoriously terrible at answering her phone. This situation told me a number of things about myself that I could no longer refute.
For years, I had felt like people were just being nice to me because they knew about my diagnosis. I assumed their kindness was stigma in some ways whereas in other ways they were just nice people. Over the years I’ve been consistently told by people how no one knows I have schizophrenia, which I finally realized was true. When I heard people tell me this I assumed no one also knew I had a mental health condition, and that they saw me as being similar to everyone else around me.
However, in retrospect, people knew something was off about me, and remembering many conversations I’ve had, people were definitely interacting with me differently than with others. Remembering my own behaviors and my ways of interacting and socializing, I was definitely different from the people around me. Looking back it would be pretty hard for people to have not known I was struggling in some way even if they did not know that it was a manifestation of schizophrenia.
So, there was an element of my condition that was visible, however no one was ever able to pinpoint that on being a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Along with this I had spent a number of years hiding my diagnosis and using a ton of mental and emotional resources in doing so. James Baldwin mentions “The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters.” People didn’t have a label for the condition affecting me but they were able to figure out that I was being affected by something. Even more importantly, they had all these realizations and could see pretty clearly how different I was and they were all still friends with me and they all still liked me for who I am. I’ve usually found different reasons why people were being nice to me, or why they were getting along with me, but none of which were attributed to me just being a likable person and that people just genuinely appreciated me.
Over the years this has been one of the most difficult things for me to comprehend, as I’ve been through a number of social traumas where people had just been using me such as in middle school, pledging a fraternity, and then losing about 10k gambling to people whom I thought were my friends after my second episode of psychosis when I was still struggling tremendously. I was blinded by trauma, and it took a number of years to see that there are a number of people who do genuinely like me for who I am, even if I wasn’t able to when I was struggling.