At least, that was the plan. Then The Author walked in.
She's a member of the writer's group at The Clubhouse next door. It's a safe place where those dealing with mental illness can have a cup of coffee, play a game of cards, read a book, learn a skill, take a class. Cafe 54 is run as a Clubhouse project staffed by members; the customers are an eclectic mix of jurors on lunch break and downtown office workers and students and those involved in Clubhouse programs. It looks like very other busy Tucson cafe at lunch time; the difference is evident only in the fact that you pay no tax at a not-for-profit venture. It's a guided step back into the real world for those whose illness has given them a time out.
The Author was a college student when she became ill; that intellectually curious woman is at the core of who she is right now. The woman she is right now speaks openly and candidly about schizophrenia. She laughs about the voices in her head as she tells us that her autobiography began as an answer to their comments. Walt Whitman and Paul Theroux and involuntary commitment.... our conversation was wide ranging and profound.
No one wants to have a public meltdown, she informed us. The stigmatization felt internally by those with her diagnosis is matched by the concomitant worry of public exposure. Waiting in line in the cafeteria, having an episode, The Author was startled and then comforted by a friend's hand on her shoulder and his Okay, now.... in her ear.
Overtly, she rejected his help. Inside, back at the person who defines her, she could see the love.
The rejection of help is the symptom. Helpers should not be put off by protestations. "I'm fine," she told us, is the self-protective cocoon of the illness itself.
At her core she knows this. It's not easy to mirror it on the outside when your mind is creating incongruencies. It's an isolating existence, this combination of being constantly on guard and feeling judged for behaviors over which your control is limited. It feels safer, easier, more comfortable, to shrink your world.
That fixes the outside, but, again, at the core she knows something is missing.
No one wants to feel alone.
You do feel the comfort inside, even if you're rejecting it on the outside.The conversation began with Santa Barbara, an event of which she was unaware. As she considered the similarities to Tucson, I wondered how she would tread the line between public safety and individual rights. What would that system look like? How do we protect innocents from incarceration....
.... and then she began to talk.
When she is dealing well with the world, she recognizes that some of her previous behaviors had been bizarre, that she had truly deviated from the norm, that something was not right. When she is having an episode, that reality check is missing. Asking her if she wants help is beside the point; she's not dealing with that right now. Helpers should not forget that she feels their love even when her behavior says otherwise.
Reframe the conversation, she suggested. The hospital is a safe place. They understand and accept the experience. You can have symptoms without judgment.
She was tired of people telling her to pull herself out of it.... and the person who tired her the most was herself. Going to the hospital is pulling yourself out of it. It is not admitting defeat, it is recognizing a pathway to the other side.
She wasn't presenting a locked ward. She was presenting a comforting place to have your meltdown. She was occupying the present moment, speaking to the issues which define her experience: isolation and stigmatization, first cousins to mental illness.
Her solution to the problem of young white men with untreated mental illnesses is early intervention. She is able to see the hospital as a refuge, and has taken herself in for the occasional tune up over the years. She and The Editor will be going over the first draft of her autobiography in the Fall, talking back to the voices by telling her story.
There was so much passion and raw emotion and absolute silliness in our conversation. We teared up and laughed uproariously and agreed that others should hear her point of view. Stay tuned to hear updates on our plans for A Salon at Cafe 54.
The message is simple
It's hard to try to find the person on the other side, but it's worth the effort.
And, on that other side, she is able to see the love.