I am meeting my long-term client in front of a small coffee shop in Berlin. As usually in April the weather is capricious and the sun, which is now out, and shining can disappear at any minute. We decide to have a coffee first and Simon* told me about the paperwork he was recently busy with and his worries about the ongoing war in Ukraine. He seems far better than the last time I saw him, and I tell him that. Simon is in his mid-thirties. Ten years before this meeting he heard the voice for the first time. While it was “just” irritating at first, it developed to be life-threatening over the years.
Simon was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia during his first stay in a psychiatric hospital. He was taken in after the police caught him, totally scared – running away from the voice which threatened him to send killers after him. He ended up on a high tower shouting out loud that he´d rather kill himself before they can get him. This stay later turned out as one of many, but Simon still remembers his first time in a psychiatric hospital the most dominantly. Every time we meet, he tells me about it. About how he was trying to flee, about how he was sure that he is going to be sliced open by the people who caught him, who he believed, were some of his voice’s allies.
We decide to continue our talk outside the café. While we are walking around, we are talking about his current job in a workshop for people with special needs. Then, after walking a few minutes quietly, Simon suddenly switches topic. He tells me that is has been ages that he has been in a relationship. I ask him if he wants to have a partner. He stops and looks at me and says: “listen, it does not matter what I want. The reality is, that I wont even pass the first date. Who will continue meeting a guy who is having paranoid schizophrenia and works in a workplace for handicapped people?
They will think I am dangerous, a looser, lazy, or stupid – or all of it.” I look in his face, stunned by this sudden honest sentence combines with the hurtful expression in his face. I must pull myself together not to start crying. I can´t find words to react on the said for a few minutes, thank God we continue walking. As I am getting back on my feet, I am trying to shift his focus on the things he has accomplished despite his mental health difficulties. I am encouraging him to take little steps towards his wish to start a new relationship and offer to help him to find ways to do so.
After all, I say, there is so much more about you, don’t reduce yourself to that illness. I walk him to the train station; weather has changed and so has his mood. Its hailing now and we run to the tracks. Before the train leaves, he adds to the previous conversation: whatever I do, wherever I go, even if we both meet or if I just go to work, I am reminded of my illness. Most of my day is dealing with my illness. How can you possibly think that I am more than just another person with paranoid schizophrenia”? The train leaves.
At home I am thinking a lot about what Simon has told me. How things, which seem so simple and so legit become almost “unachievable” for someone just because he has an illness. Unfortunately, what I did not dare to say out loud a few hours before was, that he is probably right. People hold so many prejudices and stereotypes about mental disorders, that finding someone who won’t judge him based on that will be incredibly hard. I know that and still, hearing it from his mouth had hit me like a lightning.
Most people will most certainly stigmatize him before they are even able to explore what a smart, funny, and loving person he is. Most people will have stereotypes coming into their head in the exact second, he tells them. They will judge him based and most likely turn away from him as soon as they know.
Thinking about this makes me feel suffocating – how then must a person feel who is not just thinking about it but is actually experiencing this – every day of his life!!??