Friends

I must confess that I never was Mr. Popularity, not as a kid or an adult.   I may have not had legions of acquaintances I considered friends, but I am fortunate to have had a few I felt I could tell anything and not be condemned for my confessions or thoughts.  It was tough for me to make friends as a kid because I had different interests than most people in my town.  I loved reading about science, history, and foreign cultures even as a little child.  This didn’t endear me to the neighbor kids much as I didn’t really like tossing around the football, playing basketball, or any other games grade school kids are supposed to like.  I was usually one of the slowest runners and least coordinated children in my grade school.  Of course this singled me out for some ridicule from school mates.  Being the really smart kid who wasn’t going to hide his smarts didn’t help my social life either.

As a result of not having much for friends as a child in a town that was lacking for choices of friends compared to most places, I spent a lot of time alone.  I would often wander in the back yard or the allies and make up stories in my head.  I often continued these stories and characters for weeks and even months at a time.  I wish I would have written some of these down.  But I was afraid I’d be ridiculed for being creative by my school mates and family members.  Every time I brought home a piece of work from my art class I was proud of, my older brother and even some of my cousins would critique it and tell me how awful it was.  I kept a diary one summer in junior high but my brother found it.  After that I kept my creative streaks to myself.

My saving grace came from two really cool friends I met as a pre teen.  One was an artistic guy who introduced me to some really cool music like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica, AC/DC, etc. that I still listen to occasionally even twenty five years later.  He also introduced me to cool artwork.  We admired everything from the Renaissance masters to Andy Warhol.  He taught himself how to play guitar just by listening to rock albums.  He became quite good and even played in a band for awhile.  Like myself, he too had problems fitting in during our school years.  When we were in sixth grade in 1992, he and I would be talking about the news from the presidential election.  While many of our classmates were discussing the latest Denver Broncos game or Michael Jordan commercials, he and I would be critiquing old Ross Perot’s latest television specials with his graphs and pie charts.  Naturally, our school mates thought us kind of odd.

The other really cool friend I had growing up was another artist type.  She and I thought alike.  We liked each other right away.  As she was home schooled until high school, we didn’t have the shared misery that was middle school.  Like myself and my other close friend, she wasn’t really interested in sports or popular culture.  Even in our early teens we spent time discussing art, philosophy, politics, literature, and science.  Her family and mine were among the first to get in home internet back in the mid 1990s.  She also taught me how to get free songs online.  I never did this because the internet was very slow and costly in those years.  And since it was old dial up, it tied up the house phone line whenever I wanted to go online.  Kind of tough to download the latest Green Day or Ice Cube songs when dad was telling me to get off the computer because he was expecting business calls.

I also had some other cool friends in my church youth group.  But since most of them lived in different towns and went to different schools, I didn’t get to spend as much time with them as I would have liked.  We did spend time together at summer camp for a couple weeks every summer.  But it just wasn’t the same as seeing them everyday in the halls of school.

After I graduated from high school I moved onto college.  Even though I have more friends from college I stay in contact with than high school, the friendships just aren’t quite the same as the ones I managed to save from my middle and high school years.  I loved college.  Even though I was going through the trials of adapting to life with a mental illness, I had some amazing times.  Dated some more in college than I did high school.  But, looking back on high school, I think that my best friend being a girl was what killed my dating life more than anything.  Yet, I wouldn’t trade those experiences at all.  Besides, high school dating is pointless nonsense and too much drama anyway.

My social life dried up once I got into the adult world and many of my friends moved away and got married and had families of their own.  Fortunately, thanks to facebook and easy communications, I can keep in contact with my college friends and high school acquaintances pretty easily.  Even though I wasn’t Mr. Social Life in high school, I made an honest attempt to be polite and considerate to my classmates.  Sure I butted heads with a few kids in my school, but what teenagers don’t experience social drama and strife?  It’s all part of learning how to socialize and be an honorable human being.  And, unfortunately, the only way to learn this is to go through the trials yourself.  It’s not like you can have that knowledge uploaded to your mind, like in The Matrix movies.

Even though I don’t socialize much in person anymore, I still occasionally make new acquaintances online.  Most of these people have similar interests and participate in the same online forums and discussion groups.  Once I figured out how to sort through the various trolls and trouble makers, socializing and making friendships online became a pleasant experience.  Granted, it’s not the same as making friends in middle school, high school, or college.  But, seriously, how many people make their best friends when they are adults?  My biggest regret about my friendships is that I haven’t heard from one of my two best friends (the guitar playing guy) since 2005.  And, sadly, he’s not the type of man to spend time on facebook or going to class reunions.  Haven’t seen him in years but I still miss our conversations.  I don’t know if anyone makes the same kind of friends as adults that they made as teenagers.

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Getting to Know My Neighbors

We received over 15 inches of snow during this last snow storm.  It essentially shut down my hometown for a day and a half.  Fortunately we never lost power or water.  Since I was home bound for two days I had to make the best of that time.  Finished a book I was reading and almost finished a second one I have been working on for the last few weeks.  I also used the time to chat with one of my neighbors for a few hours.

This guy is roughly my age and lives on the same wing I do. We live in a low income apartment complex that is primarily senior citizens with disabilities.  Talking with him, I learned that he too has had problems in the past with older residents who don’t believe that younger people with disabilities should be allowed to live here.  He has also had problems with a few tenants who don’t believe in mental illness and think we’re just making this up because we’re ‘lazy and don’t want to work.’  He’s lived here for a few years and we have some similar interests.  He and I are both into computers and gaming.  He and I have similar backgrounds as we were both from small farming villages and we were heavily involved in school activities.  When I was visiting at his place yesterday after spending much of my day shoveling my car out of a snow drift, we got to chatting about our younger days, friends we had, and the stupid nonsense we got in as teenagers.  His path and mine didn’t cross very often as he has his group of friends and I have mine.  But we were friendly to each other and would hang out a few times a year.  But it never got to be anything regular.

I found out this guy also has schizophrenia.  In some ways he’s had it worse than I have.  He’s been hospitalized more times than I have and he wasn’t diagnosed as early as I.  Like me he started having problems in his late teens and early twenties.  Unlike me, his illness didn’t make him as socially reclusive as mine did.  I have always had a hard time socializing, especially with people I just met.  There are times I just don’t want to socialize outside of family and long term friends.  Hopefully this newfound friendship can open a few more doors for socializing.

Reflecting on the Past before My Birthday

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On June 14th, I’ll be celebrating another birthday.  I’m getting to the point where I’m almost halfway done with my life, considering normal lifetime expectancy.  I’ve also lived over half of my life with schizophrenia at this point.  The biggest thing I have figured out over these 35 years of living as a human is that the only true certainties in life are change and unfairness.  We can make all the plans we want for our lives, but nothing goes exactly to plan. There will always be snags, problems, opportunities missed (and taken), and changes in direction.

When I was 16, I had the next 30 to 40 years of my life planned already.  I was going to graduate from high school, then college, then medical school, then go on into medical research, get married, have a couple kids, own a house in the suburbs of a large city outside of Nebraska, make well over six figures, and help develop something that would benefit humanity through my research.  Besides graduating from high school and college, none of that happened.  For years I was brutal on myself thinking “It’ll all fall into place when you get your big break” or “People less intelligent and less ethical than you are having good careers, why can’t you get things together”.  I spent my twenties after college going from one remedial job after another, finding out the hard way that my ability to handle stress and interpret social cues and understand social norms were all severely damaged by schizophrenia.

For those years of struggle, I thought I was a failure and not trying hard enough.  I would get panic attacks and bouts of nausea before I had to go to work every morning.  It got so bad I had my stomach scoped to see if I didn’t have some underlying gastro intestinal problems.  I didn’t.  I also had to spend years listening to the whole “all your problems are in your head” nonsense.  Everything we experience is merely electrical signals interpreted by our brains, so no kidding it’s in my head.  It’s in all of our heads.  Telling someone with a mental illness it’s in their heads is cruel and does nothing for them.

I was also told the whole “have faith and it’ll help you” nonsense.  I won’t even address that subject except to state I had more faith than everyone I knew until my early twenties and I still developed a mental illness that destroyed my productive ability.  I still get these feel good memes that oversimplify while not addressing root issues.  I even had someone I thought was a friend tell me, to the effect, I wasn’t a real man because I didn’t have a job or a family.  I still deal with ignorance and cruelty after eighteen years of mental health problems.  Granted it doesn’t ware on me or anger me as much as it did ten years ago, but it still hurts.

Seen and experienced lousy things, horrible hallucinations, and harbored horribly violent thoughts in eighteen years with schizophrenia.  But I did learn to not discount kindness and empathy when it does come.  I also learned the value of real, genuine friends, something that not many people have at all in their circles of friends.  Hopefully the struggles, disappointments, and good friends of the first 35 years will prepare me well for the next 35.