The last two nights while we were eating dinner, my husband and I did some “couple’s exercises” just for fun. One of the things we were asked to do was tell each other our whole life story in four minutes. My husband started. He said he came from a traditional Catholic home in Lebanon. He talked about the stability of his life up until the war broke out when he was ten. He went on to talk about boarding schools and the American high school he went to in Cairo. He spoke about college in the United States and moving to Southern California. He went on to meeting me, getting married and ended with the present day.
When it was my turn, I talked about one of the things I love most about my life and that is spending the first eleven years in a small town in a blue collar environment and then when my mother remarried starting to travel and see the world. Having both of these vastly different experiences has made it possible for me to relate to the working class and also the more privileged. Spending time living in Egypt helped me to understand different parts of the world and to look at American culture from the outside. I also talked about my first marriage and divorce, and then meeting the love of my life my husband/partner and up to the current day.
As soon as I was finished telling my condensed version of my life story, it occurred to me that I never mentioned schizophrenia. I said to my husband, “I never once mentioned my illness. It never came up in my story.” Surprised, he said, “I didn’t mention it either.”
Even though we live each day around schizophrenia; we schedule our meals around medications, try to limit my stress, make sure I get enough sleep, deal with my symptoms when they are present and one hundred other life-disrupting things, none of that seems to matter in our bigger life story.
I find the fact that neither one of us thought to bring up schizophrenia in our brief telling of our history as an encouraging and hopeful truth. My illness isn’t what is important or significant or memorable about our lives. Even though we manage it in as responsible of a way as possible, it doesn’t run or rule our lives the way I thought it did. It is an afterthought to the things we find important.
I think my husband and I have truly found a balance with living with a severe mental illness. On the one hand, we do everything possible to limit the negative impact of that illness on our lives which means sticking to routines and making many choices about travel, events, etc. On the other hand, none of those choices and sacrifices is what we focus on when we are considering our whole life; the precautions we take and hours we spend trying to get me through a tough patch of symptoms doesn’t even warrant a mention in the telling of the story of our life.
I have always said that my life is more than schizophrenia and I have proved to myself that I believe that and behave in a way that makes that statement true. Those of us with a severe mental illness must create a life that reaches beyond our diagnosis – we need to stretch up and out and cultivate experiences that have nothing to do with our illnesses. Let’s do what exceptional people all over the world do, let’s reach for the stars and even if we never touch them think of all the benefits we will gain from trying. Tonight’s sky will be full of stars, let’s all look up at them when it turns dark and dream our most creative dreams and then let’s take the first step to making those dreams happen. If we do this, we will be one step closer to touching a star and that step can be the one that puts us within reach.