I walk into the waiting room, check in with the receptionist who acts as if taking care of the schedule is the last thing she wants to do that day and is busy looking in a cabinet at the right side of her desk. I catch the tail end of a conversation that she is having on the phone and learn she is tearing apart her office space looking for instant coffee. I write down my name on a clipboard she pushed in my direction; without looking at me, she says, “Take a seat. Your doctor will call you.”
I walk over to a chair against the far wall and sit down. There are red and blue and yellow plastic and wooden toys scattered on the floor and table for those patients who have kids. It doesn’t smell sterile like a medical clinic, but it smells stale: no windows and no natural air ventilation. Old issues of People, Woman’s Day, and Outdoor Magazine are on a table next to my chair.
The door to the doctors’ offices is locked, and from this side, the one I am on, someone must buzz me in. Doctor safety. That locked door reminds me that I am sitting in the space of the unpredictable, the unruly, the unsafe, the dangerous and we must have a locked door between them and us. I am them. I have been them since I was in my twenties, and before that, I passed as us. Us, what? I don’t know. Us not crazy I guess. My mind wanders back to a few years ago when I was at the midnight service on Christmas Eve.
The pastor of the church I attended was well connected and very powerful politically in our community, and he was loved by the congregation. Before and after each of his sermons, all the congregants vied for his attention. That night, while I was sitting in the balcony with my family on my favorite Christian holiday of the year, I listened as he read out the community events. He announced a rummage sale in January; a potluck put on by the Methodist Women’s Group. Bible study, and so on. Then as he was finishing up, he told a joke, “What songs do those who are bipolar sing at Christmas?” I didn’t hear his answer because I was fighting back the tears. “What songs do the schizophrenics sing at Christmas? Do You Hear What I Hear?” He went on, but the rest of the service was a blur to me. I can’t quite accept that the pastor of the largest church in town where we were living made fun of the mentally ill.
The psychiatrist, Katie, comes through the door and motions me in. I step into her small office and take the chair near the large window that takes up most of the back wall. She says, “Just one minute.” She leaves me sitting there to take in her workspace. There are no pictures of children or partners – a scarcity of personal items I have come to expect from therapists’ and psychiatrists’ offices – at least those who keep up good boundaries with their clients. Katie has mentioned being married but never mentioned children although she is more than visibly pregnant at least seven months. She walks back in and says, “I have bad news.” My mind floats away for a moment:
It could be any night of the week in any city or town in the United States. The television is on; it’s the nightly news. Text scrolls across the screen, BREAKING NEWS. There has been another shooting, and before any information is confirmed the anchor starts to speculate about the shooter’s mental health. They may not say it now, but during the evening, someone will say the words mentally ill. You could bet your paycheck on it. The only way this scenario gets avoided is if the shooter is from the Middle East. In that case, people will still speculate about mental health, but there will be more of a focus on terrorism. Every mass shooting is terrorism, like it or not. But it’s not all mental illness. It rarely is.
The pause is over, but before she says what the bad news is, she begins questioning me about my history. “When were you diagnosed, bipolar?” Katie asks. “When I was twenty-eight,” I say. “You are how old now?” she asks. “I am forty-one.” “Well, that is a long time to live with an incorrect diagnosis. At first, we thought you had schizoaffective disorder, but you don’t, you have paranoid schizophrenia. I’m sorry.” And that is it. That is the end of our session. I say thank you, although I’m not sure that is appropriate. I say I’ll make an appointment in a few weeks. She stands up, reaches for the doorknob, and walks me to the locked door, but when I am on this side, it easily opens. It is that other side, to which I am returning to with this new information that has me worried.
While I pass the waiting room, my mind races about all of the years I read about the famous people with bipolar disorder. All the years I believed my mental illness was tied to heightened creativity. All the things I have read about the successful people living with the same diagnosis as me. Bipolar was a part of my identity. I related to it. I owned it. I accepted it. I shared it with close friends. After the pastor told his jokes in church, I even went up to him after we sang Silent Night in the courtyard holding candles and said, “Your joke about the mentally ill; I have bipolar disorder. If the statistics are correct, I am not the only one in the church who has it. If we aren’t welcome here, where are we welcome?” He stared at me and gave me a smile that came across not as an “I’m sorry” it was more like pure pity.
I step outside into the Southern California sunlight. Today, like most days, it is bright. I leave the building. This psychiatric clinic I was in, is well hidden. It is at the end of a dead-end street; five blocks over is the hospital, two blocks in one direction and three in another is my primary care physician’s office. I had walked to Katie’s office, and I would walk home. I could call my husband, but I don’t know how to tell him that what we have lived through one month ago that had lasted six months is due to paranoid schizophrenia and not bipolar disorder. We are new to this city. We have no family and no friends here. Before we moved, we had a whole network of people who we could call, count on, talk to, drink with, hike with, play racquetball with, have lunch with – here it is the two of us. Who can we tell that bipolar has left our lives and paranoid schizophrenia has taken its place?
As I continue to walk toward home I think about my years as a social worker; I know that most of the people who are talking to voices only they can hear, and people only they can see, have schizophrenia. So many people living on the street, dirty, hungry, shelterless, we have more in common than our humanity; we have the same illness. The very thing that probably drove them to the streets is eating at me as well. But then there is Nash, the guy in A Beautiful Mind who won a Nobel Prize and had schizophrenia.
As I walk past the houses, I hardly notice my favorite colors in California; the bright pinks, the dark purple of the bougainvillea. My favorite fragrance, jasmine, fills the air. I have at least a mile more to go before reaching our apartment. Now I know why I heard the voices: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Now I know why I thought I was a healer and baked three cakes a day for over a month and gave them to the neighbors every afternoon, the hallways smelling like a bakery. I was once told I had bipolar disorder with psychotic features. The psychotic features part seemed frightening, but I had lived twelve years with the bipolar part. I understood it. As I continue walking, I pass the 7-11 where the homeless men and women hang out. “A thin line between you and me,” I say out loud.
As I continue to walk I think of all the books I have read by parents with a mentally ill child, and so many of them say the same thing, “At least they don’t have the dreaded schizophrenia.” I went to a writer’s conference, and the panelists were discussing creating character that had a “different” view of reality. One woman on the panel had bipolar disorder, and she said, “At least I don’t have schizophrenia!” Her comment was so out of place, no one was questioning her, or accusing her, or even addressing her, but I guess she wanted us to know there is something worse than bipolar, there is, of course, schizophrenia.
I walk into the lobby of our apartment building; the apartment manager is there. We say hi to each other, and she talks to me as I pass her and go left toward our door. Once inside, I sit on the couch. How do you tell the man who recently spent six months with a psychotic wife, and who feels as if he just got his old wife, the one he has been married to for almost ten years, back? I look at the clock. My husband will be home any minute, and as always, I won’t keep anything from him. I plan on telling him as soon as possible. Shortly after, I hear the keys jingle in the lock and in walks my tired, worn out, but grateful to have his wife back, husband. Before he can even take his light jacket off, I say, “I saw the psychiatrist today. She said I have paranoid schizophrenia.” “What does that even mean?” he asks.
I wish I could tell him what I will learn later, that one percent of the world’s population has schizophrenia. In the United States, that is approximately three and a half million people. It is the leading cause of disability. The Treatment Advocacy Center reports that half of the people shot and killed by police have a mental illness. Mentally ill people fill our streets and jails. Schizophrenia is the most widely stigmatized and misunderstood of all the mental illnesses.
I stand up from the couch. I cross the space between my husband and me, and we hug each other. We hold on to each other tighter than we ever have. Something new and scary and unpredictable has entered our lives, and we feel lost in our new city, with my new diagnosis. I cry, “If it wasn’t for you, I could be any of those people on the street right now!” “I’ll find you,” he says. “I’ll always find you, and when I do, I’ll wait for you to come back to me. I know you will always come back to me.” I let out a sob, and he says, “One diagnosis or the other, you are the same woman who kissed me goodbye as I left for work this morning. Nothing but the name of your illness has changed. Don’t cry and don’t worry; we have lived with this for years. What is the difference? It’s only a name.”