I am taking a creative nonfiction class online from UCLA. One of the students in the class wrote an essay about himself and a relative or friend of his, whose name is, Richard. I loved the way the author of the story described Richard – wearing a helmet, slapping his hands to his head, wringing his hands, excited hoots and hollers. By the way that the author described Richard it was obvious to the reader that Richard had a disability of some kind, but the author never labels Richard, and he never discloses the disability. Richard is just a person with unique characteristics.
This made me think about my illness. How would another writer describe me, letting the reader know that I have a disability, but never naming the disability? What would be written? What could a writer say about my behavior that might help a reader guess that I have schizophrenia without spelling it out?
Of course, the writer could make it easy, and say that I was talking to voices that no one else could see, but that wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of my everyday life.
The writer could also tell the readers that I believe some elaborate conspiracy theory about aliens, or a secret government agency, but again, that wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of my everyday life.
In order to be true to my real experience. The author would have to know me very well, or be a very keen observer, in order to detect my symptoms and describe them accurately to a reader.
This imaginary writer, who is writing about me, without labeling me, but wanting the reader to know I have a disability, would probably start out by having me eating a meal. S/he could say that I thought my food tasted funny and have me end up either pushing my food around my plate pretending to eat a little bit of it, or changing my plate of food for whatever my husband may have ordered.
The writer could have my husband and I traveling on an airplane. I might be visibly agitated. My husband trying to do everything to distract and comfort me. I may end up taking a pill and later calming down enough to play hangman with my husband or read an article.
The writer might have me at a conference, or with a group of people and then follow me home, where I can’t get comfortable. I walk between my bedroom and my living room. I curl up on my bed for a few minutes and then get up and go to the computer to check my e-mail. Nothing I do seems to make me happy. I am agitated. I may end up taking a pill and going to sleep for half of an hour. I wake up and I no longer need to move from room to room.
No matter how the writer described me, if s/he was true to my daily experiences, then it is doubtful that the reader would guess that my disability is schizophrenia.
I find both joy and sorrow in this reality. I find joy knowing that my illness isn’t easily identifiable, I find sorrow knowing that the stereotypes are so ingrained in our culture that few if any could recognize a severe mental illness if they had a description of symptoms described to them.
Like Richard, I am just a unique character, that needs no label. I hope a writer would handle me with so much affection, compassion, and care.