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On Sunday, I went to church. It was the first time in weeks that I have been there. I don’t know why but in the last year, I have frequently had a panic attack during church, so the fear of that and the fact that the singing bothers me has kept me from going.

I love going to church, though. Where else can you go (for free) where someone will tell you wonderful stories that contain great ideas about how to live your life? I often find church inspirational; there are stories of feeding the poor, about healings, loving your neighbor, etc.

A man sat three seats down from me, and then after a few minutes got up and moved to the empty seat to my right. During the whole service, he was talking and gesturing with his hands. I leaned over to my husband and said, “I think the man next to me has schizophrenia.”

I started to cry. My heart broke for the man. I can imagine what it is like to live day in and day out listening to voices. It is a horrible way to try and function. I don’t know how the man got himself to church or managed to sit there listening to voices in his head, the pastor, and all that singing. I think I would have run from the church trying to find some peace and quiet.

I was hyper-aware of the man sitting next to me because I didn’t trust him completely. I know that the majority of people with a mental illness are harmless, but I don’t trust people who are actively psychotic. During the service, I listened to him talking back to the voices and tried to determine if the voices were hostile or benign. I wanted to make sure that the man was safe.

If I, as a person with schizophrenia, felt uncomfortable with someone actively hearing voices, I can imagine that for someone who has no experience with schizophrenia that being around someone hearing voices can be scary, intimidating, or unnerving.

Remembering that we are all just people, I eventually turned to the man, smiled and said, hello.

He smiled back and said a few things to me that I couldn’t understand.

As with most people who are mentally ill, he was suffering from symptoms, but he wasn’t a danger to me or anyone else.

I understand the fear that can arise from seeing someone talk to people that aren’t there. If you find yourself in a similar situation, may I suggest a nice smile and a warm greeting? It will probably make you, and the person with symptoms, a lot more comfortable with one another. People who suffer from a mental illness can be uncomfortable or nervous around you, too.