I wish everyone would get this. Once I came out of the closet about my mental illness, no one cared. There is an old saw that people notice first what you are trying to hide. I don’t wear a T-shirt that says “Schizophrenic” but often I tell people I have had mental problems since my discharge from the Army. It is the principal fact of my life. Some day I will be able to write a book that does not mention my mental illness. Life gets better and better each day.
People are drawn to me or ignore me and I blame their response on my illness. In a group, I always notice when people address their remarks to me or act as if I were not there. At church, for example, I am considered a nice guy but not a force to be reckoned with. Two heart attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism have made a sissy of me. I am a leader but the world has not asked me to be a leader, either in the Army or civilian life. I am a cashier at Walgreens. If I lead, I lead by example, and my example is living well while mentally ill.
It is important in mental illness, as in life, to have goals. Projects lend themselves to goals. Right now, I am marketing my new book. The process of marketing has given me a new lease on life. I am soaring with the eagles, as I email TV anchors, radio talk show hosts, and bookstores asking them for an interview or a reading. My efforts are bearing fruit, since I received one reject and two positive responses already. I started marketing last week. I could tell you more about this process but space limits me. The experience has made me mentally healthier.
With my disease, I was put in the corner as an oddity at family gatherings. This was not always true because my family wanted me to have fun, They knew it was the only social life I got. Because of the severity of my illness, our holidays were sad. My family, broken asunder by my illness, lived on hope. Hope came but too late for my parents to see it. Today, our holidays are joyous. Two years ago I was shot into a fourth dimension by an A.A. workshop and a study at the VA. My immediate family wants me to join them for the holidays. After forty-five years as a black sheep, it’s nice to be popular again.
I was schizophrenic and went back to school for an MBA at the University of Minnesota. I ate, slept, and studied and saw my psychiatrist every week. The stress was terrific and twice my doctor ordered me to drop out for a semester. The competition was cutthroat and I could almost hear the switchblades come out in class, especially when we were graded on participation. It took five years but somehow, I graduated. My father was a successful banker and I tried banking, that was not to my liking. That was my last shot at the respectable job my mother always wanted for me. I bounced around from job to job and now was a cashier at Walgreens. I am proud of my work at Walgreens and intend to stay. I have outgrown my illness and life is good. I attend one class at the university, Introduction to the Short Story, and feel blessed to have such a great professor. College is free at the university, if you are over 62 years old and a resident of Minnesota. I am a returning student and getting the world class education I always wanted.
I am the oldest sibling of my family. When I first became mentally ill, I lost all credibility. I was normally a leader in the family but then my brother took over as head of the family. He and my sister ran the show. They looked at me as someone to consider with my best interests in mind. I became the black sheep of the family, a cement brick, something to be swept under the rug. The whole town knew I was schizophrenic. My brother took me on hundreds of skiing, hunting, and fishing trips. For that I was grateful. He was never my guardian. My treatment was between me and my doctors. I took control of it early on. Every time my family got in the act, no matter how well intentioned, it was disastrous. I am independent by nature and handled my care to the best of my ability. My psychiatrist likes it when I play handball, socialize, go to A.A., and write. Anything else is gravy and cost money, skiing, hunting, and fishing included. Those are things I did in my youth. Part of maturing is letting go of the trappings of youth. Handball and writing are the only things that make me happy. The problem with this argument is my God is the outdoors. I leapt at every chance to partake.
I am a returning college student. The last time I darkened the door of the University of Minnesota was in 1980. I was nuts in those days. Not so now. A lot has happened, from jobs, to life, to health, to growing older. I survived two heart attacks and defeated my mental illness. The young people who surround me in my Introduction to the Short Story class are smarter than we were and more motivated. College is harder. The quality of education is higher. My teacher is better than I remember my old teachers. I walk past the mall that once held 50,000 students protesting the Viet Nam War. Now, students lay in its grass. My improving mental health allows me to go to college a second time. The U is free, since I am over sixty-five and a resident of Minnesota. I glory in what I learn, in class and outside of it. The students teach me much.
I try to work out five days a week, whether I walk or play handball. I am 72 years old and still able to get around the court for an hour or two. I prefer to play doubles because it is not such a workout.. A friend says handball is the only thing that makes me happy. He’s right. When I leave the court, I don’t have a problem in the world. A dietician at the VA said exercise is the most important thing a person can do for their mental health. I agree.. Due to time constraints, I play handball only once a week. I walk up to an hour often and do yoga once a week, too. When I have a problem, I exercise. I eat right. I am in a meal program in my hi-rise and get a healthy meal two times a day with all five food groups. I eat in a dining room because I don’t like eating alone. I stay clean. I shower, shave, and brush my teeth every day. I wear clean clothes, even though they come from the Goodwill. “Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.” I like a clean ass. My body is the temple of my soul. People who are actors call it their “instrument.” Personal hygiene is important no matter how bad things get. They’ll be worse, if you’re not clean. You’re mentally ill, not a street person. Take care of yourself.
Bertrand Russel claimed the highest form of human happiness is having sex with someone you love. For myself, the highest form of human happiness is having close friends. I am lucky to have about 7 close friends. I don’t know where I would be without them. My mother, when we put her out to pasture in a nursing home, asked, “Where are my friends?” I find, as my mental health improves, my relationships improve. I may never return to my old popular self, invited to parties, and indispensable at all social gatherings. but I am comfortable with my level of socializing. I go to parties and coffee klatches in my hi-rise, play handball in a league, attend A.A. meetings, and have a job. My social life is adequate. Also, my mental health has improved to the point people no longer shun me socially. That includes waiting in line at a coffee shop. I am never invited to parties outside my hi-rise, including parties held by my family. For some reason, that does not bother me. I was counseled many years ago to avoid A.A. parties. Once, I attended an A.A. New Years Eve dance and had a riot. The addiction therapist who told me this did not have a strong feeling for the fellowship of A.A. My closest relationships are in A.A. That sums up my social interaction and philosophy. I do not know where I would be without my friends.
Song For My Baby and Other Stories, published by Unsolicited Press, is due out in June of 2020. After months of grueling copyediting and proofreading, the manuscript is ready to go to the printer. The book describes the hobbies I enjoyed that gave me a life worth living, while climbing out of the abyss. It tells of the family and friends who made life bearable, while I clung to psychiatry as my only hope . I downhill skied, hunted ducks, and fished. I formed a playwrights’ group and played handball. My family stayed close and my friends did not leave me. I am reasonably healthy now. Song for My Baby and Other Stories shows how I got here. Look for it next year from Unsolicited Press.