Monday Musings….Bravery Beneath the Helmet

I was running errands on a warm October day recently when I unexpectedly found myself standing behind a super hero. His feet firmly planted on the ground encased in one work boot and one Nike running shoe. Beige pants weather worn, the loop holes around his waist linked with duct tape and secured at his waist. A triple layer covered his torso, including a shirt, hoodie, and construction vest embroidered with reflective tape. The bristles on his face caught the sunlight and accentuated the age lines that wrapped around the curve of his face like the rings of a mighty oak tree. Atop his head, rested a snowmobile helmet, covered with additional reflective tape creating a pattern of sequence and symmetry.

He abruptly approached the counter, gently placed his milk jug filled with pale yellow fluid atop the marble, and started to converse with the unprepared and clearly unsettled customer service rep. His purchase was simple. His communication was not. As the word salad tossed in the air, the confused cashier attempted to dissect the ingredients that would bring clarity. “I need a stamp. Stamp out the cigarette butt. But it is not enough. No never enough. The cost of a stamp is too high. Higher than the Empire State Building. This building is nice. Yes I just need one stamp.” And then he twirled around and declared: “I’m praying for all of you. You all need prayer.” About face. “Thank you for my stamp. Cheerio! That’s what I had for breakfast.”

We are all souls caught in a machine. A machine that dictates what is normal and what is not. A machine that holds people captive in their ignorance and their fear. A machine that judges without seeking understanding. In this mighty machine, the cogs in our mental wheels keep turning. While many of us may be able to put the brakes on the repeated thoughts in our own minds, some have a greater challenge. Because of the extraordinary strength needed for this kind of combat, these people are my heroes, my super heroes!

When I started working in the mental health field over 25 years ago, one of my earliest jobs was working in a psychiatric hospital on the floor with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. I had studied the disorder from a mountain of textbooks and thought I had a thorough knowledge and understanding of the illness. I mean my grades were proof that I was an expert, right? No! Not even close! Books or lectures can never compare to the education provided when you spend time with those who live every day with this chronic and often debilitating mental health challenge.

My experiences taught me that the battle beyond neurochemical warfare was one of striving for control and personal power. We all seek to control our racing thoughts, which are highly personal in nature, and often obsessive. We aim for clarity from the confusion that halts us in our tracks and that creates doubts and fears that we keep hidden from the world. Most of us have momentary relief from these thoughts, but for those who struggle with schizophrenia, the respite is often found wanting. The confusion builds, the voices multiply and are heard above their own, the suspicion and torment increases, until the words erupt in rapid fire towards those who unexpectedly find themselves in their path. The proper reaction for bystanders is not to look with pity, but to realize how brave this person must be. That is the only word to describe those who cannot see the end to the battle, who long for victory and relief that seems to be perpetually outside of their grasp, and yet they carry on. That is bravery!

I followed my super hero for a little while, not wanting to intimidate, but rather to show compassion and care. It was a chance encounter, a moment in time. And as our eyes met, his fear seemed to subside for an instant, for he and I knew that his fear would return, life would get hard, and control would once again be out of his reach. “We all get scared at times,” I muttered under my breath, “but you are very brave.”

This week’s song is “Souls in the Machine” by the Goo Goo Dolls.

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