Empire State of Mind

“They’re not schizophrenics. They’re people who have schizophrenia.”

My boss Courtenay loved correcting me on this. She always said that schizophrenia was only a part of their identity and that they were teachers, doctors, or engineers as well. After 6 months of working in New York City, I met some of the most inspiring and smartest people I’ve ever known. And no they were not locked in a prison or mental asylum. I met them at workshops, in restaurants, and in their workplace; two of them were even my colleagues at work.

The second half of my gap year made me rethink my own state of mind about mental illness. I admit that I didn’t know too much about mental illness or anyone who had a mental illness, but my thoughts were that these individuals were often crazy and scary. Popular culture doesn’t do a great job of painting an accurate picture of them unfortunately (i.e. Shutter Island). While there are those who do conform to the stereotypes, my thoughts for the most part changed after I started working at this non-profit organization called The Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies, Inc.

At The Coalition, I learned more and more to see the person behind the disorder. I said “learned” because I think it’s something that took practice (and is still taking practice!). And that practice came in the form of displacing myself, putting myself in direct contact with people who suffered from mental illnesses. At work I was given the task of collecting recovery stories and met many amazing individuals with incredible stories who have learned to live with or even recovered from their illness.

In medicine we focus so much on disease and illness that oftentimes we overlook fostering the strengths, wellness, comfort, and natural self-healing capacity of a person in our care. Recovery stories are just one way of reminding us that a person is more than just a vessel of organs and viruses. I believe that not just mental health care but also health care in general has a lot to benefit from recovery stories and a “science of recovery.”

Aside from work, living in New York City was in it of itself an exercise of displacement. I admit I was not a big fan of the City because as a child of the suburbs in Texas, I found everything about NYC to be messy and overwhelming. But eventually the City grew on me. It helped having a rewarding job, delicious Korean food nearby, and my girlfriend Elaine around. I also found comfort in cycling and playing volleyball and basketball every week. Standing in Times Square for New Years Eve, though, wasn’t very comfortable.

But it sure was a once in a lifetime experience!


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