When I wake up early for a doctor’s appointment, I treat myself to breakfast at a local restaurant. It is a friendly place, and I enjoy the chance to be in public and people watch. Also, this restaurant has a TV, so I can watch sports highlights to tune out the voices and paranoia. Watching TV, I’ve found, distracts me from the gnawing feeling that people around me are reading my mind. However, having a meal, observing fellow patrons and watching TV is not a simple activity when you live with schizophrenia.
When I people watch, I am careful not to linger on any individual for too long because I know that people will not feel comfortable being stared at. I try to be alert and focused when a server comes to take my order. I want to smile and appear to be a friendly person — I don’t want to seem threatening or “unusual,” like the many negative depictions of mental illness in media suggest I could be.
Others’ perceptions of this mental health condition often dictate how I can live my life. So, over the years, I’ve learned that there are some best practices to help me live a normal and full life and keep myself safe and calm.
Distracting Myself from Delusions
Because of my schizophrenia diagnosis, I am hyperaware of how my behavior comes across to others, so I take steps to control my behavior, like in the restaurant. This often means distracting myself and resisting the urge to respond to my paranoia.
One time, when I was eating at the restaurant, I thought I heard another customer ask the server if I was stalking her. To avoid reacting to this kind of delusion, I will pull out my phone to distract myself and keep myself busy with another activity.
Surrounding Myself with Familiar People
Because being in a public space or group setting poses many challenges, I have developed several coping mechanisms. If I am out with a group of people at a restaurant, I make sure there is at least one person with whom I feel comfortable. This helps to ease my social anxieties; having someone who understands my situation allows me to be myself without fixating on how my behavior appears to those around me. I am the most comfortable when I am with family members because they understand my diagnosis, and they know I am not being rude or “odd”; rather, I am dealing with my symptoms.
Practicing Controlled Breathing
Another difficulty of being in a group setting is that I struggle to know if the voices I hear are in my head or coming from the many people around me. This fear often spirals, and then I wonder if those seated at my table or around the restaurant can actually see my anxieties.
However, I have learned that practicing controlled breathing exercises helps to calm me down when I am in this situation. This way, I can reset and focus on the present. I also remind myself that the other customers do not know me, and the people sitting at my table cannot read my thoughts.
Focusing on Listening
I can manage my belief that people are talking about me when I have a real conversation that draws me in. I can tell myself “This is real, and this is what is going on.” The server might be standing in front of me asking me what I want to eat. It is hard to concentrate, but when I hear a real voice or a real question, I listen, and it brings me to the reality of the moment.
Giving Myself Grace
I can’t put too much pressure on myself to be perfect in every social situation. When I’m in a group setting, I no longer feel like I have to start up a brilliant conversation. I do not have to be profound. I am allowed to rely on small talk and enjoy the company of others.
If I am asked a question, I think about it and repeat the question again in my mind. I am not afraid to answer, “I don’t know,” but I try to think of a satisfying answer.
Ultimately, despite my anxieties, human contact makes me feel good. Feeling part of the conversation and the world around me makes me smile.
A verion of this post appeared in The Schizophrenia Bulletin. It has been edited and republished with the author's permission.
Jason Jepson grew up in Virginia, but he now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he advocates for those who have received a diagnosis of severe mental illness. Jason was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army. He began his mental health advocacy with NAMI, where he received peer-to-peer certification, and he has since gone on to volunteer helping veterans who have mental health issues. Jason has written two books, and his first-person account of day-to-day life with schizophrenia has appeared in “Schizophrenia Bulletin,” an academic journal published by Oxford Press.