What truly tests a man’s integrity? Author Steve Colori reflects on the moment he revealed his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder to his friends.
Editor’s Note: Steve Colori, author of “Experiencing and Overcoming Schizoaffective Disorder” recently brought his voice to The Good Men Project in hopes of raising awareness about living with mental illness. The following is a continuation of his journey. Read more of Steve’s work at SteveColori.com.
“There was a guy passing a psych hospital and he heard everyone behind the fence yelling, “Thirteen! Thirteen,” my friend Dan said.
He always told long story-jokes. Sometimes they were funny and other times I just sat through them.
After hearing “psych hospital’ I tensed up. I’ve been hospitalized twice. It’s nothing new for me to hear mental illness jokes. Some are funny and others I don’t care for. It’s more so a matter of controlling my reactions to them so people don’t know I have schizoaffective disorder. There are some really funny things I did from my episodes so I guess that’s why I don’t mind some of them but at the same time I know they create stigma. I know as well as anyone that when I’m not feeling well I think and say some strange things but I’ve learned to find humor in my actions. A spade’s a spade.
“And, the guy wanted to find out what they were yelling about so he put his face up to a hole in the fence. He got punched in the nose and they yelled,”Fourteen, Fourteen,” Dan and the other guys at the poker game laughed hysterically. Some of them pounded the table and others were doubled over. I’ve never felt a greater desire to hit someone, which I’ve never done, but I forced a small laugh.
“If I don’t laugh at his joke he’s going to know something is up,” I thought. “I know he’s just joking but it’s still tough to gauge his stance on mental illness. There’s also the rest of the group to worry about and I unfortunately can’t imagine everyone here is understanding and open-minded. I don’t feel like creating an awkward situation or dealing with any judgement. My illness doesn’t affect me much anymore. Even when it has it doesn’t create any problems for anyone.”
I got home that night and I did some pushups, some sit ups, and I ran two miles on the treadmill.
“What can I do?” I asked myself. “If he knew I had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder it would probably change his stance to some degree. Maybe not though. Maybe it would cause everyone to treat me differently and/or avoid me. That’s happened before. I just don’t see it. Do they think I’m malicious or something? I’ve never harmed anyone. Not even during my episodes. This doesn’t make much sense. I get why they joke but they’re completely misinformed.”
“If I tell Dan I have a mental illness working together at the office is going to be really awkward. I guess I have to just let it go. The guy’s my friend and he probably wouldn’t say anything if he knew I had an illness. It’s all about the humor. I could be taking this stuff too personally. Everyone gets made fun of in good humor. That makes me feel better but I still don’t know for certain where I would stand being open about having schizoaffective. There’s still stigma which causes people to sometimes treat me differently.”
“I was just with the crazies,” said a friend of mine who works in mental health. We were talking in a group at a party. I looked towards the ground and then over my shoulder. A swirl of emotions welled up within me but I’ve grown accustomed to controlling them. I was a tempest internally but cold as ice on the outside.
“She’s talking about me and she doesn’t know it. Control your emotions, compose yourself. Not only do I have to hide my emotions but I also have to look like I’m on board with the rest of the group. Composure and reticence are two things I’ve at least gained from having to put up with several years of this.”
“They are so ridiculous, they drive me crazy. I’m going to become one of them if I keep trying to help them,” she said. Our friends laughed and once again I joined in. I wasn’t happy this time either.
“If I can’t trust a mental health professional to at least help with stigma who can I rely on?”
“Should I say anything in my defense? I could but what good would it do? I’d probably get a response that she was just kidding and obviously didn’t mean it or she’d just keep going. I’m not really interested in talking to her. I think I’ll go outside.”
The room was stuffy and I turned away slowly and went out for a breath of fresh air.
I slept over at my friends’ house that night and took my medication behind a closed door. I usually have a thirty minute window before the medication takes effect and puts me to sleep.
“It’s probably going to be quite a few years until I can just openly say that I have schizoaffective disorder. Most people don’t understand what schizophrenia really is. The movies are dead wrong and that’s how a good amount of people draw their perception of me. Do people know having bipolar doesn’t mean I’m angry or violent or I lash out or anything? I’ve been called the nicest person in the world a million times, including by this mental health professional.”
“What can I do? Everyone wants to be the insider looking out. It makes them feel like they’re a part of the group. She just wants to act like she’s intelligent and is one of the sanest people in the room. Ironically, I’m usually the sanest person in the room. Insecurity causes issues.”
“My mom is so annoying. Oh my God. She just keeps calling me when I’m at work and when I’m doing things and she doesn’t even make any sense.”
“She’s your mom, though,” I said.
“I know, but you don’t understand what having a parent with schizophrenia is like. I’m always the one taking care of her.”
“I completely understand. More so than you’ll ever know,” I thought.
I was sitting with my two best friends in their living room and we were the only ones in the house. “If anyone would understand it would be her. But she seems to be really frustrated with her mom. What if they don’t like me because of my illness? I really hate being alone. That’s the absolute worst part of mental illness other than psychosis. Before I met these guys I was alone for four years. Loneliness is brutal. It’s pretty painful and it follows you everywhere. I never want to be alone again. What good can come out of telling these friends I have schizoaffective disorder? Maybe I can help my friend who doesn’t understand her mom. She probably has a million questions.”
She had been talking about her mom the entire time. “I just have no clue what I’m going to do. Yesterday, she tried to give away a ton of money to my Uncle and he turned it down. She just says really strange things sometimes and I have no idea what to say to her,” my friend said.
“She probably just spends too much time alone,” I said to her.
“Should I just tell them? They’re probably two of the nicest people I know and they’re my friends and they care about me. They’re my friends. Are they my friends? We’ve hung out for two years. I guess they’re my friends. They know who I am, right? They’re not going to leave me, are they? I’ve told people before though and they’ve left me. I also wasn’t as healthy then but they still left me. Damnit. What should I do?”
The anxiety was mounting. My breathing stymied, my heart rate was picking up, and my senses were dulled. Thinking became increasingly more difficult. I was afraid to think certain things. Their voices became fainter and the delineation of the room was becoming fuzzier in my mind’s eye.
“I have schizophrenia,” I said.
“What?” she asked. “That isn’t even funny.”
“I really do.” After using all the courage I could muster I was waiting to get crushed to the ground by a bullet train.
“You really do? You really have schizophrenia?”
I nodded yes.
“I never would have guessed that. Oh my God.”
There was a pause and the news settled in. Deafening silence hit my ears. I was tense and nervous and it felt like an eternity before she spoke. “You don’t like hate me because of what I was just saying do you?”
“No, I don’t.” The anxiety was subsiding but was still present. “I just thought I could help you better understand your mom,” I said.
We talked about schizophrenia for at least an hour and I had anxiety the entire time. As it turns out her mom has schizoaffective disorder just as I do. Both my friends were okay with my telling them so. I’ve noticed after telling them I have schizoaffective we’ve actually grown closer and hang out far more now than we did before.
It’s nice being able to share with people but I still don’t share with everyone. I’m glad some of my friends know but not all of them do and I don’t think they ever will. They just don’t need to know and I just don’t need them to know. I can talk to my closest friends about anything. What a relief.
So what can I do about all this? There’s a lot of stigma and a great deal of people are judgmental. Every time someone gets to know me and then learns I have schizophrenia I’m doing something to help. Every time I lecture I’m helping too. But I don’t want everyone knowing. It’s not socially acceptable yet. I’ll keep writing.
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