When I lived at home, I reached out to a few women I met in a writing workshop. I was 32, and they weren’t receptive. It was a hard time in my life, and I decided to move to the City where I could be closer to Manhattan—and all the culture it offered.
Now, I have a few close friends I met at the board meeting of a newspaper I wrote for. The editor-in-chief invited me to join, and I took him up on the offer. We all lived with various mental illnesses. Kurt and Eric and I are still close friends. At the Muddy Cup coffee house, I met a woman named Merry who is also a treasured friend. And I recently started hanging out with Zoe, a cool new friend I met at a party.
The temptation, living with SZ, is to lie on the couch watching TV. How can we go outside and interact with others when we lack the motivation or fear having to disclose our illness? A clubhouse, such as Fountain House in New York City, caters to people with psychiatric conditions. When I went to the Fountain, I attended a Thursday night poetry workshop, and met a woman I stayed friends with for four years.
As I slowly recovered, I dared risk going to the Cornelia Street Café, where the Italian American Writers’ Association (IAWA) held their poetry readings on the second Saturday of every month. The first time I went solo I got dolled up and looked attractive, but was so nervous I fled as soon as the event was over. My friend, Zoe, used to go to lounges and listen to music, a couple of times after she got out of the hospital.
Last year, I began dating someone who was sensitive and cruel, if you can imagine that. He subtly “negged” on me, and now that we’re apart, I prefer not to talk to him on the phone. I simply want to move on. Years ago, when I lived in the residences, I decided I didn’t want to be in a relationship. I needed to work on myself, and I didn’t want to take on anyone else’s remodeling project. It was a challenge just to get out of bed and take a shower.
I was lucky—I always took initiative to fly solo instead of sitting home alone when I had no one to go with me into the City. One summer I attended an acting class at H.B. Studio in the West Village. Another year I signed up for adult education classes in handwriting analysis and color analysis. I found out, respectively, that my messy script allegedly proved I was creative and emotional, and that I was a “Winter” who looked good in red.
Looking back on my 20s and early 30s as I write this, I see that my active social life inoculated me against the stress I felt on the job, and alleviated my anxiety when I was unemployed. Dr. Santiago, my psychiatrist, told me that “self-isolation” was the hallmark of my illness. From then on, I understood that I have to catch myself when I’m slipping into being alone too much, because that leads to paranoia.
Like work, being engaged in the world is also the “anti-schizophrenia” that facilitates recovery. I spent two years in day programs before I was able to navigate an enriched level of activity. That daily routine, and living in a halfway house where I was around people all the time, boosted my social skills.
Today, I feel confident in my abilities, and I’m more gregarious than ever. I can walk down the street and feel I’m capable of interacting with people with grace and ease. I don’t mean to suggest the residences were like a finishing school; however, I do believe this supportive atmosphere gave me the courage to take risks. The week before I moved into my first apartment, my counselor told me, “Just remember, Chris, you will be doing the rejection, too.”
Truly, it works both ways. I’ve been hurt by a friend who left me, and I’ve also done a slow fade out of a friendship myself. The point of recovery is to be in relationships, even if they’re challenging. Disclose at your own comfort level, and remember: you decide when, where, how and whom to tell. I generally don’t bring up my SZ at work or when I first meet someone.
However, I do give lectures for patients, college students and the general public. I’ll be 42 in April, and I don’t have the kind of energy needed to keep up a wall. Mostly, I seek to project an image that is calm, down-to-earth and approachable. I come across as cheerful and sociable, with a sense of humor. This allows others to see me first, and not my pain. In this way I try to be nonchalant about having the illness so that I can put others at ease.
Relationships are worth the risks. Just remember, you don’t have to accept verbal, physical or mental abuse from anybody. In our zest to be liked and accepted by other people, we need to remember to set boundaries.
Published On: February 23, 2007