Sunday, 24 October 2010

"I Want To Know Why People Don't Know Who I Am"

I promised to write this post a while back, and I am now fulfilling that promise.

I was sitting in the Student Union Building, eating a peach and doing readings for a class about Asian Canadian Studies. The SUB wasn't empty, but it was nearly so. A few tables down from me was a group of older middle aged women, and a young man approached them. I didn't hear their exchange exactly, but I did hear one of the women say, "We're trying to have a conversation, here." He said something to the effect that that's what he wanted, too, but they rebuffed him anyway.

He came over to me, sat across from me.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello," I said. "How are you?" I continued looking down at my readings. What did he want?

"Alright," he said. He paused, and I waited.

"I'm trying to figure out why people don't know who I am."

Who are you, a B-list celebrity? I wondered. In truth, I was uncomfortable. I didn't know who he was, but I didn't want to insult him because I did not recognize him. He was young, around my age. It was hard to tell whether he was older than me or younger than me. He wore a hoodie, dressed in the nondescript layers I associate with the homeless or the out-of-luck. He hadn't shaved for a few days.

"How do you mean?"

"I feel like people don't know who I am when they see me. I think people know who you are when they see you."

I put my readings down. "Who do you think I am?"

"I think when people see you, they think you're intelligent. That you know what you're doing, that you're confident. What are you studying, law or philosophy?"

That day I was clean-shaven; I wore new(ish) blue jeans and a dark-blue collared button-up shirt with verticle stripes. I had a pocketwatch in my pocket, for Pete's sake, with the chain hanging out in a loop like I was some sort of dapper gentleman. Next to me I had a backpack; I had had my feet up on the edge of the filthy table when he arrived. I supposed I did look as he described, but on another day--say, two days from then, when I hadn't shaved yet--I might look more like he did, though not nearly as world-weary or perpetually out-of-place.

"I'm studying English," I said.

"That's like philosophy," and we talked a bit about what I did in English.

"Do you think," he asked, "that there's more to you than people see?"

Oh boy, you have no idea, I thought, but of course the things people don't see are the things I don't want them to see and I couldn't say that. "I hope so," I answered instead. "I think most people have something... deeper... that others don't see, or see right away."

It was a lame answer, but it would have to do.

"Who do you think you are?" I asked. "What is it that people don't see?"

It took a while for him to answer coherently; it was like he was gathering his thoughts aloud, though perhaps it wasn't that he was speaking unclearly but that I didn't know what to listen for. Eventually, he said, "I guess I have what you'd call schizophrenia."

"How does that manifest for you?" I asked. If I recalled anything about abnormal psych from first-year (and I remember a lot of it), it was that schizophrenia can be a diagnostic grab-bag. If you have a number of unique and life-altering psychiatric symptoms, you are often shoved into the "schizophrenia" category. Someone telling you that they're schizophrenic implies that they have delusions or hallucinations, but the details of those experiences can change dramatically from individual to individual. How they interpret those experience also changes.

Again he explained, and again it took a while for us to figure out this whole communication-of-ideas thing. "When you scratch your nose, I think I did that. When you cough, I wonder what I did wrong to make you cough."

"Wait. Tell me if I got this right. When other people do things, you feel somehow... I don't know..." The word that hung in my mind was "guilty," but I didn't want to put the shame of that word onto him.

"--responsible," he said. "And I don't feel responsible for my own actions."

Something clicked for me. "So you internalize external events? Is that right?"

"Yes. [pause] I've never met anyone who understood that so quickly before."

"I've taken psychology courses, and I research similar things on my own time. I've heard of it before."

He seemed interested. "That's good. You study psychology."

"I did take a psychology course, years ago," I corrected.

We talked some more about the way people think, and so forth. I mentioned my interest in reading blogs and watching YouTube channels not just about but by people with DID. I had no idea whether this guy had Internet access on a regular basis--from what he said about the pidgeon wandering under his chair (apparently he often let it outside, but it always came back in), he may very well have lived in the SUB--but I wasn't going to speak "down" to him or make any unfounded assumptions if I could help it.

Sometime later he said, "I sometimes have what you'd call mystical visions. I feel connected to world, you know? Connected to a higher power. I think everyone feels that some times in their lives."

(In case you're curious, that could be due to unusually synchronized activity between the tempororparietal lobes in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Unusually decreased activity in this area results in a loss of the sense of self; overly synchronized activity results in a confusion between self and non-self. This happens during meditation sometimes, and during psylocibin trips. Perhaps it also happens in folks with schizophrenia.)

"It's interesting that you'd say that," I said. "I've always... I've studied mysticism in school, you know, and I've always wanted something like that. To see... more... but--are you familiar with Buddhism?"

He nodded-shrugged.

"Have you heard of monkey-mind?"

He shook his head. "No, but I'd like to hear more about it."

"It's a Buddhist term for the sort of consciousness that just races. Confused thoughts, one after another. It's like a monkey running around in your head, grabbing things at random. Buddhists say most people spend their lives having monkey-mind. Meditation is the opposite of monkey-mind." As I spoke, I realized that this description might have different connotations for a person with schizophrenia, but I went on. "I have always had monkey-mind. I have never... not had monkey-mind. But I would like to have a mystical vision one day."

"You're still young," he said.

Soon after that he stood up to leave. Something in his eyes showed me he had already wandered off mentally, that he had had the conversation he wanted. When he stood, I put out my hand. "My name's Christian. What's yours?"

"John." He shook my hand.

"It was nice to meet you, John."

"You too," he said, and wandered off. I wished he had stayed; I had almost finished my peach, and after my peach came the cookies, and I was prepared to offer him two (of the four). But he seemed rather intent on leaving.

I watched him as he left, and I watched the few people around him react to him. They ignored him entirely, adjusted their stride to move around him, but as far as their faces went he might not have existed. It reminded me of Neverwhere, if you've read it.

He walked with his hands out from his body at a 30 degree angle, his fingers splayed and twitching a little.


I couldn't do my readings.

The conversation I had had with John unsettled me. I wanted to rush through the SUB, find him, ask him so many questions. These readings didn't matter. School didn't matter. My problems were nothing compared to his. My experiences were dry, void, without meaning. His life and his problems thrummed with potency. But I didn't want to intrude. I saw in his eyes that when he left me, he left me. He had had his conversation. My pursuit would be seflishness.

I packed up my stuff and left the SUB. I wandered campus, finding my way to the Rose Garden in a light Vancouver rain. I climbed up onto the cement edging of the central flowerbed and paced it, thinking in a fury. How could I justify studying English? How could I explain my experience with John to my classmates, to the faculty? Did any of the faculty leave their Ivory Tower? One of my professors had once said, ventriloquising the 'common people', "What's going on up in that Ivory Tower? What do they do up there?" What do we do up here, I thought.

It took me forty-five minutes. In that time I established that my Asian Canadian Studies course had practical applications; we discussed issues of justice, policy, identity. My Eighteenth Century course... less so. But I was learning skills that I could apply elsewhere. I would be a professor who taught the students of tomorrow; I would be an author who provided enlightenment to the masses. Or not. But my responsibility was to make this education work. And I would champion volunteerism in academia. Get us out of the Ivory Tower for a while, working with things that more immediately mattered. And I knew how fleeting this crisis of mine would be...

I still hope to meet John again in the SUB. Maybe I would get a chance to introduce him to some of my new friends. Maybe he would recognize me as someone who listened to him...

My life hasn't changed since I spoke to him, but in that conversation, I realize looking back... in that conversation I saw a vague sillhouette of something... more...

I wish I had a moral for you, here. A nice take-home message, packaged in a quotable, gnomic little phrase. Preferably with assonance or metre or parallelism or internal rhyme. I don't, though. You will have to supply your own.
I also said I'd link Leah's post on sin once I wrote this; at the time, I thought this post was going to take a different shape, one more related to her post. Something along the lines of the following: "It turns out that all he wanted was a conversation. He didn't need money; he needed someone who would take him and his experiences seriously. That is free to give, but it seems so costly... etc. so forth and sentamentality." But that's not how I wanted to write this in the end, because I DON'T know what he wanted or needed, and I still don't know what it cost me or gained me.


Leigh said...

Love this! How wonderful that you put down your readings and paid attention to this man for awhile. It allowed you to really see him, even if you didn't always understand him. At the end of the day, we all want to feel that we've been seen and that we're worth noticing. Thank you for sharing.

yolanda said...

with regards to “A nice take-home message, packaged in a quotable, gnomic little phrase. Preferably with assonance or metre or parallelism or internal rhyme” – this comment called to mind an interview with john paul lederach (a very well known international peacebuilder,) that i downloaded from the apm radio programme “being” with krista tippet. i’d recommend listening to that episode in particular, and to the program in general, which maybe is a bit like an american version of cbc’s “tapestry” (or perhaps its vice-versa?)

lederach discusses, at one point, connections between poetry and peacebuilding, and for him personally, the discovery and deepening of “a kind of haiku understanding” as “an ability not to simplify the complex” but the interesting discipline of “trying to capture the full complexity of a human experience in the fewest words possible.” lederach quoted oliver wendall holmes who apparently wrote “i would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but i would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity,” and said he thinks that is what the haikuist is after. that particular quote struck me as extremely poignant - “simplicity on the other side of complexity” - and as relevant somehow to your comment on a take home message.

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