“Love, can you grab me some Maalox on your way home from work?”
It’s a simple enough request from my six months pregnant wife. But for a man who’s a paranoid schizophrenic this simple task brings with it a few hurdles.
I’ve been living with the disorder for about ten years now, having been on several medications and gone through lots of therapy, so these hurdles are ones I’m able to expertly maneuver. So much so that there are often times when people think I’ve been misdiagnosed.
The truth is, they just don’t know what goes on beneath the surface.
It had already been a long, difficult day and stress is never good for a schizophrenic. I take a few deep breaths before I step out of the car and head into CVS.
They’ll never know, I tell myself. They never do.
A woman who works there is stocking a shelf as I enter. She turns to me and smiles.
I’m relatively certain the thing I do with my face when social situations call for a smile is something more akin to a ghastly, tormented leer.
The woman recognizes it as a smile.
She doesn’t know. Just keep walking. She doesn’t know.
I make my way back towards the pharmacy where the Maalox is hiding. I catch a glimpse at one of the pharmacists behind the counter.
I know her. We went to high school together. We’re friends on Facebook. I’m open about my mental illness on Facebook so she must’ve seen it. I bet she’s looked up all the medications I’ve been on. I used to get them here. She can do that. She knows. She knows I’m having an off day. She looked away. That’s what that means.
Remember your readings. Psychological tests have shown that people rarely pay full attention to others. There was the test where they had psychologists walk up to strangers, start talking to them, distract them and have someone new step in the psychologist’s place. The person they’re talking to doesn’t even realize it’s not the same person. No one can tell you’re schizophrenic, let alone you’re having a bad day, because they’re too busy with their own lives. Plus, more than likely she’s a decent person who wouldn’t abuse her powers to obtain knowledge that would be useless to her.
I’ve been looking for the Maalox for what feels like a day. Any passerby would think I’m just having trouble finding what I want.
I bend down to the bottom shelf where there are at least four different types of Maalox. I need to figure out which one is okay for my wife to use but I’m having trouble focusing. A small black bug flies past my face. I look over to see what it was but it’s gone.
I hear a noise. It’s like the sound of lips smacking right next to my ear. But it’s not that.
What is it?
Fish being gutted.
It was a noise I heard when I was a kid when my grandfather brought home his fish. I hated that noise.
They don’t sell fish here. If someone’s got a fish here that’s unsanitary. I should tell a manager.
“Do you need help with anything?”
I look up from my crouched position. I’m holding two different types of Maalox and I must not have moved for a while because my legs are getting sore.
The older woman smiles down at me kindly. She has big glasses on but I can’t see my reflection in them.
I hate that. Do I look crazy? How am I supposed to know?
“Actually, yes,” I reply and I’m surprised my words are so smooth. The years of practice have made it so easy to throw up the façade. “My wife’s pregnant and has terrible heartburn and I’m not sure which one is best for her.”
She says a whole bunch of things but I’m not listening. My thoughts are jumping around like a bunch of monkeys on cocaine.
I bet she knows something’s wrong. I should look her in the eye. It’s polite. I can’t. Can I even trust her opinion on this anyway? How can you trust a woman whose glasses are so huge she probably can’t even see the labels when they’re two inches past her nose?
“Can’t see past the end of his nose…”
What’s that from? It was important to me once. I can’t even remember important things. How am I going to be a father?
I have to focus. Man-up and stop this. Your wife needs you and this lady desperately needs to shut up.
I pretend to look pensively down at the Maalox bottles the woman is showing me. I can see the words now. It’s clear. I recognize the bottle from the one my wife has on her nightstand.
This is the one.
The woman is telling me a story about when she was pregnant 800 years ago and how she talks to her grandkids about stupid things. I don’t care but I smile and say, “Well, I hope my wife and I are lucky enough to have the same wisdom to pass on down to our grandkids like you do.”
The woman smiles. It’s genuine and pure. I can tell. It’s in the eyes. I took classes to read faces and smiles are always more likely to be genuine when you see that little wrinkle at the corner of the eyes.
The compliment did its job. People love compliments.
“Thank you again,” I tell the woman as I begin to walk away.
“You’re very welcome,” she says. “You’re gonna be a great dad!”
She doesn’t know me at all and certainly doesn’t know if I’ll be a good dad, but I take the compliment because it makes me feel good. After all, people love compliments.
I’ve got the Maalox and I’m almost out. Riding on the bit of positivity from the woman’s kind words, I’m ready to face the line to pay.
I’ve got this. They’ll never know.
I’m in luck. There’s no line. The woman behind the counter is the one I saw when I came in. She smiles again.
She’s just being polite. I bet she saw the whole thing with the woman with the glasses and thinks I’m gonna be a bad father. I can’t even remember important things.
No. She’s smiling politely because she’s doing her job.
She doesn’t know.
I feel the mask slip back on and my payment and even my lack of having a CVS card (is she judging me for not having that stupid card?) goes smoothly. She puts the Maalox in a bag and hands it to me with another lackluster smile.
She’s being polite. That’s better than a lot of people can muster. You gotta give her that.
I tell her to have a good night to which there’s no reply. I’m grateful for that.
She’s more interested in getting through her shift than anything to do with me.
I made it. I’m out the door.
My mind is still racing when I get in the car. My fingers have a mind of their own as they twitch and dance along my steering wheel like I’m playing with invisible marionettes.
I’m going home to my wife and I’m about to drive a car. It’s time to get my thoughts in order.
My voice is low as I begin to recite a poem called NIGHT by Lois Weakley McKay:
My kitten walks on velvet feet
And makes no sound at all;
And in the doorway nightly sits
To watch the darkness fall.
I think he loves the lady, Night,
And feels akin to her
Whose footsteps are as still as his,
Whose touch as soft as fur.
As each line passes over my lips like cool, soothing water, the hysterical thoughts fade. Someone in my brain gave the volume a mercy-twist to zero.
It’s a mantra I learned to use in therapy. The poem always had a personal connection to me and reciting it is like clearing the air of all the noise, giving me a clean slate.
I take a few more slow breaths, utilizing meditation techniques I’ve been using since my diagnosis. I open my eyes. The clock in the car says the whole ordeal barely took five minutes. I take one last breath before I start the car.
That’s the important thing I couldn’t remember.
“Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can’t see past the end of his nose.”
I feel a real smile move across my lips and up to my eyes.
I can do this.
It had been a long and stressful day but I kept my thoughts in line and didn’t let them get too far out of hand. There were brief moments where I couldn’t see past the end of my nose, but that’s okay. I’ll be home soon and I can already feel my wife’s arms around me, keeping me safe.
She’ll know it was rough day. She can always tell. She’s the only one who ever can and I’m okay with that. She, above all others, has the right to see me weak and vulnerable. She’ll kiss me, run her fingers through my hair and remind me of how proud she is of me.
I kept it under control and no one ever knew that I was a paranoid schizophrenic having a rough day.
They never knew.
Kevin Nordstrom is a writer and illustrator of children’s books and poems, living happily ever after with his wife, a son on the way, too many cats, and, oh yeah, his schizophrenia.