I was at my favorite table watching the game when my phone played Gimme Shelter. I checked messages and switched off the ringer out of habit. The guy at the next table over said, “That’s such a great song! Let it play.” He listened intently.
Do you hear voices?
Suddenly, this two-sentence conversation took a sharp turn.
“Do you hear voices?” he asked matter-of-factly. I understood what he meant, though I’m not sure how since I didn’t know him.
“You mean, in my head?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “No,” I replied. He was silent. I sensed something like sadness from him, but not quite. Then I realized, it’s solitude, a negative solitude, more like isolation. “Do you hear voices now?” I asked, assessing the situation. “No,” he replied. “So today’s a good day then,” I said. “Yeah,” he agreed.
Is it schizophrenia?
“Does your doctor say it’s schizophrenia?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “It’s good that you both know what you’re dealing with. But it makes life hard sometimes,” I said. He agreed. “Are you taking your meds?” I asked. “Yes, but I don’t like them.” That’s understandable.
“I can hear my thoughts and I can imagine things that aren’t real,” I explained, “but I don’t hear voices in the way that you do.” He nodded, and waited. “I can hear memories, like playback on a recording, or replaying a CD or DVD,” I continued. He considered this. “I can hear a book while I’m reading it, like reading it out loud in my head.” He nodded in understanding.
Do you know who they are?
“When you hear voices, do you know who they are?” I asked. “No, well, yes,” he hesitated. “They seem familiar because you know what to expect?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “That’s good, so you’re in control,” I said. He agreed. He talked about his doctor and someone else who seemed like a social worker. I thought about issues surrounding treatment, access to supports, even housing and safety…the shortage of hospital-level care as well as those who are never properly diagnosed….Despite this, the mood wasn’t bleak.
“I like to come here for coffee,” he said. Me too. He told me about other places he liked and the people he said hello to every day. “Who gets to see you tomorrow?” I asked. Oh yes, that place with the homemade vegetable barley soup.
I thought of the dark city streets outside and the potential dangers for someone experiencing a psychotic episode. There was so much more that could be done, city-wide and beyond. Then I saw it: this moment. A conversation with a stranger, without fear or discomfort, to know that you are not trapped inside your own mind.
Gimme shelter. Sometimes the best thing is shelter from the storm.
[Image: MRI scans.]
[“Gimme Shelter,” by The Rolling Stones. Original release: Let It Bleed, 1969.]