Keeping It Real

I walked into Real’s room and told her that there would not be a sexual assault examination conducted, but that I had requested that the doctor perform a medical exam.

“Is there anything more I can do for you?” I asked in somewhat doting but concerned voice.

“Why do you talk like a child?” she asked.

I sat down, propped my elbow on her bedrail and leaned by head on my hand and inquired, “Can you help me understand what you mean by that? How do I talk like a child?”

“You know,” she said, “like you talk like you are talking to a child.”

“Oh, I get what you are saying. I make you feel like I am being condescending because of the tone of voice I am using.” I quickly tried to start talking in my usual, matter-of-fact tone. "You know, I never thought about that. I think I tend to use that voice when I am concerned. I never thought about how it might be perceived. I appreciate you telling me that, Real. That is something I should really be more conscious of.”

“It is not just you. It is everyone here. They talk to me with that voice. You know, it is like that voice people use when they tell you that your grandpa is dying, and there is nothing they can do about him dying, but they talk to you in that voice telling you everything is going to be fine and he is going to be ok, but really they know – and you know – that he is going to die regardless of the voice they use.”

“Hmmm. You are so right. I think right now, I am helpless to help you, and yet I want to comfort you. So, I use ‘that voice’ hoping it will help ease the pain a little bit. I am concerned. I have definitely been using my concerned voice tonight.”

“Well, it is not comforting,” Real said matter-of-factly. “It is actually the exact opposite of comforting.”

“You know, Real, I totally admire your honesty. That is such a beautiful quality in a person. So few of us are honest with one another, and you just say it like it is. And because of you, I will always be conscious of my tone of voice when I speak to people.”

We just stared at each other for a few moments. Over the last two hours, she had held my gaze for many seconds during our conversations, in-between her eyes shifting side to side while she fumbled around in her mind for the words needed to compile her next coherent phrase.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help to you,” she said after a long silence.

I was caught off-guard by her apology. “It was not your job to do anything tonight. It was my job to be helpful this time. I am sorry I could not be more helpful to you.”

“Well, I guess neither one of us were very helpful to each other,” she said as I stared at her, probably with a pathetically helpless face that just confirmed how pointless I felt.

I looked at her for a moment, not sure what to say before I left that would actually make any difference. So, I said something that was cordial, and made me feel better as I left the room.

“Well Real. It was nice to meet you. I hope you have a good night.”

And as I left, I was disgusted with myself. A good night? Really? Could I have chosen a more cliché, meaningless and obnoxious parting phrase? She was not going to have a good night. She was a schizophrenic off of her meds, who had no place to lay her head once the hospital discharged her from the safety of a quiet, sterile room. Who knew where she would go once she exited the hospital. Who knew where she would lay her head. Who knew if she would even be able to remember the phone number of a family member.

You see, the police knew Real. She had a history with them. She was infamous for ‘lying,’ according to the police. So, Real’s reputation preceded her, and that reputation colored the investigating officer’s approach. That officer’s opinion carries weight when he calls the District Attorney’s (DA) office, because the story he tells the DA is colored with his opinions and perceptions of the legitimacy of Real’s rape outcry. And here is the loophole: if a person has a history of lying to law enforcement, the DA can refuse a sexual assault exam. And if the DA refuses a sexual assault exam, the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) does not have as much footing to justify spending tax dollars on a forensic sexual assault examination. And coloring this entire decision-making process, are two words: schizophrenia and hallucinations. Does Real know what she is saying? Were the rapists real or imaginary? Why does her timeline keep changing? Why does she not know the phone number of the boyfriend with whom she shares a home?

As one police officer put it, “You cry wolf enough times…” He stopped with that, as if he did not need to say anymore.

My question is: How hard must a person with schizophrenia cry before we decide her tears are sincere and truth-filled? If she had been in her “right mind” like all the “normal people” that do not make us feel uncomfortable, she could have advocated for herself. If she was on her meds, maybe her recalling of events would have been more linear for the linear system on which Real must depend in her moment of desperation.

A history of lying, also known as a history of hallucinations brought on by a severe mental illness called schizophrenia that causes one to have an incredibly difficult time distinguishing between events that occur on a plane of existence “all of us” see and understand and events happening on a plane that only she can see and understand. So because she is a “liar,” we do not deem her worthy of an exam that will prove or disprove her claim. She told me she was wearing the same clothes she was wearing when she was raped by two men two nights prior. She had crime evidence on her person. The clothes and the sexual assault examination specimen might have been taken to the lab and they would have quickly determined whether or not there was evidence of an assault. But, we will never know whose story was true. We’ll never know because we – the Normal Folks – decided who was telling the truth before we gave a chance to let the truth be revealed through a time-tested process.

I once had a good friend whose aunt, Sass, had schizophrenia. We were at a family event, and I was sitting next to her, texting on my cell phone. She said to me, “You are all connected with those things. There is a line that connects you to each person in this room who has one of those. There are lines everywhere. It is a web. A web you are all trapped in. I’m not trapped though. I cannot get trapped. I’m not connected to a line.”

I looked at her a bit perplexed because at first I did not understand what she was saying. I was sitting next to my friend’s son, B. He looked at me with a half-smile, but his eyes showed he was engaged in what she had said to me.

I asked “Can you see those lines Sass?”

She said to me, “Yes. They are all over this room. It is very crowded. All of you are kind of jumbled up in the lines. Sometimes, I’m afraid you are going to trip or get wound up in the lines cuz there are so many.”

I just looked at her. I was speechless. I was fascinated by her perception. All I could say to her was, “That is amazing that you can see that.”

“I can see a lot of things that you cannot. Everyone thinks I’m lying, but I’m not. It is real.”

Later that day, I was taking my friend’s son home. It was quiet in the car; both of us were in our own heads. It is sometimes difficult to find a convo topic interesting to a sixteen-year-old guy.

“Everyone is so hard on Sass,” B said. “Like everyone laughs at her when she talks, or if they do not laugh they just ignore her. Have you ever thought that maybe she is actually more advanced than we are? I mean, what if she can see what we cannot because our minds are too limited? Like, maybe she is really more in touch with what is real than we are? Maybe, her mind is capable of seeing another dimension of existence – like on a different plane? What if we are the ones who are limited? There are just more of us, so we make her feel like she is the weird one. Maybe she is more connected to what is true than we are.”

It was a day of being wowed. I thought for a moment, and looked over at him and said, “You know B, that is what makes you so special. You see people as they are. I never thought of it that way. I think what you have just said is pithy insight. I hope you never lose that gift. Never stop being who you are right now.”

A person who has schizophrenia can be a little frightening at times, with the shifty eyes and the rapid breathing and the sudden changes in affect. It can be a little unnerving to stare into the eyes of someone who will not shy away from staring right back at you. Sometimes when you look into their eyes, you see a terrifying pointedness that seems to be sizing you up and looking right into your core. Other times, their eyes will flutter, and almost half close, as if they are trying to piece together thoughts and perception and feeling as they push against a thick hazy, fog that is making it difficult for them to see the things they wish to grasp.

Their words are so to-the-point, so unfiltered. It is almost like talking to a small child who has not yet been socialized to edit her thoughts and feelings in order to appease rather than offend. That brutal, get-to-the-point and say-it-like-it-is honesty makes the “normal” person uncomfortable. But, if you will sit there, and allow yourself to hear what they are saying, you will find that their words are profound. And you will walk away wiser.  Humbled. With a clearer understanding of how little you really know.

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