Gerald keeps his job

When we first met, his smile was terrified, and my own felt a little wobbly. Then we started to become friends across the social abyss of mental illness.

When we first met, his smile was terrified, and my own felt a little wobbly. Then we started to become friends across the social abyss of mental illness.

I like meeting Gerald for coffee. He's funny and smart, and I admire his grit and perseverance in having resisted, for years, impulses to quit the medications he takes for paranoid schizophrenia.

We can all be tempted to go off our meds when a half-finished prescription for antibiotics has eased our symptoms. But for people who have mental illnesses the understandable reluctance to put more chemicals into their bodies is increased by the serious side effects of many antipsychotic drugs.

Worse, each dose reminds them that they have an illness most Americans consider shameful and terrifying. To stay on course, exiles in our society’s invisibly roped-off area for “the mentally ill” (a term reducing persons to their symptoms) can really use the kind of ordinary human companionship we all need for keeping our balance. We need people outside the family, with its intricate and often loaded emotional life, and outside what my son calls "the medical-pharmacological-military-industrial complex.”

I first met Gerald and several of his peers last summer when I signed up for an innovative project that pairs volunteers with individuals disabled by mental illnesses who can work part-time. Project leaders at the Mental Health Division of Washington State’s DSHS, in collaboration with Harborview Mental Health Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Seattle, thought that clients would more likely succeed at their jobs if they could talk informally about work stresses every week with someone outside the system. Gerald, the well-educated son of retired professionals, clocks in 12 hours a week at one of the Seattle area’s big-box stores.

The day of my first coffee with Gerald was sunny and hot. He and I sat down at a table outside a Ballard café, he sweating in a tweed sport coat, starchy shirt, and tie. His smile was terrified, and my own felt a little wobbly. “Nice day!” “Sure is!”

Now what?

When a social abyss opens I’m simultaneously Nature Abhors a Vacuum and her daughter The Good Student Does the Assignment: "Well, Gerald, how's everything at work?"

Not a good start. He jumped out of his chair and paced back and forth, fuming. "Oh, I got in trouble again. People crowd into the store and load up the carts. They dress like pigs." Then he stopped pacing, shot his cuffs, and admired his cufflinks. "These are good style. I'm old-fashioned. You’re probably old-fashioned, too."

"What did you do that got you in trouble, Gerald?" Partly I was wondering what kind of trouble I might land in if I turned up badly dressed.

He acted the whole thing out. "Somebody threw their candy box on the floor. They think the store’s a trashcan! I picked it up and stamped around a little. The manager, he had to sit me down and have a little talk." At last Gerald subsided into his chair.

Truth to tell, I was jumpy, too, except more practiced in masking my anxieties. But Gerald's frankness prompted me to admit something. “You know, I’m pretty judgmental, too.” He leaned across the table, his eyebrows shooting up. “You are?” I nodded and said that when my hypercritical habits of mind give me grief, I try to think of something pleasant and later maybe talk with a friend. He leaped up again, spreading his arms wide, and beamed at me. "Like we're talking now!"

Gerald’s irrepressible candor is chastening when I consider my own lifelong effort to front a sophisticated self. One day at the NAMI office, when he saw a new volunteer filling in at the reception desk, he plopped down beside him and said, "Hi! I'm Gerald! What's your diagnosis?" Along with several residents of Seattle's tent cities, who in the course of widely varied conversational topics have been refreshingly open with me about their problems including their priors if any, he’s shown me that I've spent (I've wasted!) a whole lot of precious time trying to paper over my faults.

At 42 Gerald is transparently expressive about wanting to build a better life while feeling clueless how. "I was a big mess but finally made it to 'START' on the game board. The next move … I don’t know."

It’s been almost a year since he’s had any trouble at work, but he lives alone and has no friends besides me. The inner voices of schizophrenia, which meds can muffle but not always erase, may supply him with more company of a certain kind than he wants.

Nevertheless, he and I meet over coffee for an hour each week. Both of us are more relaxed now, and we ramble on comfortably about fashion, faultfinding, meds, manners, pet peeves, inner peace, the human condition — everything and nothing at all.


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