Monday, February 16, 2015

The Guy With The Purple Goatee

I had an appointment to get my hair done last week and I was in a rather crowded salon. As I sat down, there was a man next to me just twirling around in his chair. I ignored him by looking absentmindedly at my phone but he would occasionally try to say something to me about whatever his mind produced in the moment. I tried a couple of times to entertain his interruptions but he'd make a comment, wait for me to answer and then say very little and go back to twirling around in his chair. Even my hairdresser was annoyed by this man who just couldn't keep out of our business.

At one point Thomas came up in my conversation with my hairstylist. We talk about him every time I see her because she has a sister with schizophrenia and she also cuts Thomas's hair. She has seen Thomas go through every stage of his illness and she has been there for me every step of the way. Recently she cut his hair and I had previously told her how well he was doing so when she saw him she was very excited about the changes she saw in him.

We talked a bit about what he's been dealing with lately and then the subject of his SSI came up. I explained to her that we had completed another step of it and were waiting for more information. This topic of discussion was of utmost importance to my middle aged seatmate with a purple goatee and a knack for getting into my personal business. He shared his story about disability (something to do with his back, I think) and then he asked THE QUESTION,

"What is wrong with your son?"

I paused. Yes, I'll admit that I paused for a minute because I had to size this guy up to see how my revelation about Thomas having schizophrenia would be received. Certainly we've all done this when it comes to revealing the truth about our loved ones with schizophrenia. You take a split second to decide whether or not this person will react the way you hope they will. My hairstylist stopped what she was doing and stood there (I found out later she was ready to come to my defense were I to falter) and I looked at this rather annoying man who couldn't seem to stay out of my business and I said,

"My son has schizophrenia."

Dead silence.

Followed by a blank look and a visible squirm in his chair.

Yes, mister, my son is a "schizo", I thought to myself.

That is what I saw in this man as I revealed to him Thomas's diagnosis. He was ready with his crass judgments but sized up the situation there with my hairstylist and myself burning holes in him with our stern expression and he squirmed again, said nothing, stared at us for a minute and then began twirling in his chair again. Not a word was spoken.

Of course. Smart move on his part I imagine. Either he knew what that word meant or he didn't but if he did I wouldn't have been surprised if he had something disparaging to say. Here was this man who couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut about my business talking about how I was glued to my phone among other things. In one fell swoop, however, I managed to shut the guy up. In that situation I didn't feel like this guy wanted to know one more thing about my son because "schizophrenia" is one scary sounding word and if common society reacts the way they do when the press prints that ill-fated word in conjunction with a recent murder then I imagine that man was having the same reaction. Certainly he had heard the word before and in my small town of gun toting, jacked up pickup driving, sometimes back woods, often very loudly expressive about those that don't necessarily fit into society, he was just another person like that who dug too deep a hole with two women with loved ones with schizophrenia. Both my hairstylist and I were on alert for any comment this guy might toss our direction but in the end he surprisingly took the smart way out and began twirling in his chair again.

That experience left quite an impression on me because I live in my bubble here where all of you know me and Thomas and you accept every facet of our lives (for the most part, I think). I write almost daily now about what it's like to live with schizophrenia and love someone with schizophrenia and I begin to see my world as a utopia of sorts where people understand that the word "schizophrenia" is not synonymous with the worst possible characterizations and that despite that scary word we are pretty much just like the rest of the world except for we have this nasty illness touch our lives daily in one form or another. Ultimately we want the same things everyone else wants. Ultimately we go through our days doing what everyone else does. Ultimately we are human beings pulled to the planet by gravity like everyone else and we, like everyone else, have a challenge in our lives that we try to overcome. Yes, despite that scary word, despite the media characterizations of the mentally ill, we are human beings.

Within minutes of my exchange with my seatmate, my hairstylist whisked him off to wash the purple dye out of his goatee. I sat there in the silence and I pondered how I could have handled the situation differently. Perhaps launching into a condensed explanation of the illness might have helped but later it was my hairstylist's contention that that man wasn't going to take even one more minute with me, the woman with a son with schizophrenia. He had made his decision not to pursue further education by his stunned expression and immediate twirl of his chair away from me.

There it was, on an unassuming Friday the 13th in 2 chairs side by side in a small town hair salon. Two people from different worlds collided and instead of finding enlightenment, one found the quickest way to escape and the other, me, learned yet again that my world is not that utopia I imagine it to be. In reality it is a world full of people with ready-at-hand judgments who are more willing to turn away then to learn about something and become someone who better understands a facet of society.

Schizophrenia is not scary. The word alone won't strike you down and the illness, in its best form, creates the strongest fighters you will ever know. As a loved one of someone with schizophrenia we all have the strength to educate and defend our loved ones if need be and as someone living with schizophrenia we live a day of challenges yet find amazing strength to get through a day, day after day, heroes of the finest kind because we not only fight our demons but we fight a society that would rather turn away then see us as human beings and get to know us and accept us in spite of the scary label attached to us in some medical record locked away in a doctor's filing cabinet.

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