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How to Support Someone With Schizophrenia in a Stigma-Free Way

Even though I’d had symptoms of mental illness most of my life, I was not diagnosed with schizophrenia (which later changed to schizoaffective disorder, then bipolar, then major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder) until I was 37. Schizophrenia is a lot to serve up on anyone’s plate, especially when they are wearing a blindfold and you don’t tell them the ingredients. I had no idea what the diagnosis meant, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak. I had to self-educate via internet. What followed was an encyclopedia of mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, anxiolytics, and much more. Due to both the diagnosis and the medications, my attitude toward myself changed. Before, I had seen myself as whole, with some difficulties others didn’t seem to have. But I had an excellent job at a major medical center, a husband of 13 years, a new house I had designed, creative outlets, and my family of origin and friends. With a diagnosis in hand, I felt defective and “not good enough.”

Today, decades later, I no longer have any of that except for creative pursuits. I have stigmatized myself at times. Heavily. I have started relationships off with something like, “Hi! My name is Donna and I have schizophrenia!” I figure if they don’t instantly turn and head in the other direction, there is hope. But it also unnecessarily burdens initial conversations. Casual friends wouldn’t need to know. Ideally, close friends would see me, not a diagnosis. I have even used the diagnosis to discourage a man who was stalking me. It didn’t faze him one bit. I have more often used it to justify pulling away from people I am uncomfortable around. Or as an excuse for needing solitude, for taking a break to stabilize, for avoiding family holiday gatherings. I know no one needs an excuse to simply do what is best for their mental and physical health. That’s my job and your job, after all, to take care of ourselves as individuals. That is reason enough.

But as I grow older (63 now), I have grown tired of trying to appear “normal” when I don’t feel normal and know my thinking isn’t normal. At least, it is not what is typically considered normal in my culture. I hang back, don’t like to go places, and won’t eat out with them. But what others don’t know doesn’t stigmatize me. Generally, though, I am not around enough people for anyone to notice or comment or care. In fact, when I do have difficulty in friendships that is due to my own mental illness, and I trust the other person enough to excuse myself politely with a brief explanation, they are usually surprised. “No, not you! You have to be kidding — there is nothing wrong with you!”

And that is the trouble I am having now. Since the pandemic has worked its way into every crevice of our lives, it is natural that levels of worry and depression and anxiety have skyrocketed. Everyone knows that. I have put up a good front for years and kept a tight lid on any noticeable symptoms. Now, it is impossible to do so. Financial problems, living conditions have changed, necessary social precautions, acquaintances who have died from COVID-19, new mutations and variants to consider. And more. And the stress added on top of the depression and anxiety, and needing medication changes, dealing with the side effects of new medications, trying to find behavioral healthcare when it is flooded with extra patients — it is impossible to “keep up appearances.”

Family is either saying, “You are already well from all that. You have been fine. Keep your chin up.” Or they are prodding me for information like, “Are you taking your meds like you’re supposed to? You know what happens when you don’t! And you must come for holidays. Don’t isolate yourself — you know it isn’t good for you.” One even called the police to do a wellness check when I didn’t answer her call. I have not had serious symptoms for years.

So what is a friend to do, you might ask. How should family show concern? Is it possible to just listen? I am not asking to be fixed. I am not begging for attention. I don’t need “special treatment.” Nor am I exaggerating or “falling back into old patterns.” To listen without an agenda — that would be great. We all want to be heard sometimes. The worst is, “I wish you hadn’t told me that. I would rather not know.” That feels like rejection and lack of compassion. And stigma, too.

What I ask is this: let me be me, and let me talk to you about how it is to be me. And in turn, I will listen to your stories about how it is to be you. At least that is a starting place.

Getty image by SolStock

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