I Saw a Schizophrenic Struggling, and I Did Nothing to Help Him

Photo Credit: anno.malie via Compfight cc

I have a local hang out spot that I frequent more than a few times a week, which is located across the street from a county hospital which includes a mental health ward. Between that and the homeless people who to occupy the small South Bay town, there are some interesting individuals that come in, from time to time (meaning, like, every other day). I’ve seen people on drugs more times than I can count, a self-professed prostitute who told me I could make more money because of my red hair, and once, a man with schizophrenia.

He did not tell me he had schizophrenia. But I know my people. That may seem like a stereotypical or very prejudicial statement, but being schizophrenic isn’t like being white, or female. There are not very many of us still “suffering from personhood” (see: John Green, The Fault in our Stars) and most of us who are, appear to be functioning but are struggling to appear to be functioning. We know the look. To most we just appear weird or eccentric, but to schizophrenics, we appear schizophrenic. It’s like knowing there’s something wrong with your kid when your kid appears fine to everyone else.

A graying man, maybe in his late forties (possibly younger and physically aged by various coping mechanisms such as illegal drugs and alcohol) walked in with a small voice and kind demeanor that you don’t see in the LA area (or anywhere, really) too often these days. He asked if he could take a look around. We, of course, agreed. He circled the shop once, pulling a magazine from one of the cases on his way. He sat down on the couch at the edge of the shop, and he began to quietly argue with himself. It wasn’t a harsh or irrational arguing like the schizophrenics are unfortunately known for, but he was, in fact, having an argument with someone I couldn’t see. He set his magazine down and began counting the change he had in his pocket. Then he began to laugh.

The people I was with were obviously disturbed—even most medicated schizophrenics would be triggered—but I wasn’t. I was when he initially walked in looking lost and out of his element, but as soon as he spoke with such otherworldly kindness, I knew. People with schizophrenia are the kindest, to those they have the courage to deal with. I’m sure there are people with schizophrenia out there that are assholes, somewhere, but I haven’t met any of them.

I texted one of them—the people I was with—to ease the nervousness this man’s unusual behavior instilled.

He’s not dangerous.

(I know; people who use periods in their text messages are statistically proven to be assholes. I guess I have in fact met an asshole schizophrenic, and her name is Allie Burke.)

The man began to laugh. Unfortunately, for the person I had just texted, he didn’t get the text yet, because his eyes widened. His hand was on the phone, ready to call someone who could help if needed. He was protecting me. Bless his heart. Had I not lived through the experiences I had, I’d be doing the same damn thing. If I were a person not familiar with identifying the symptoms of schizophrenia (like Diversability Interactive CEO Jason Chun Lee says, there is a lack of education on mental health which causes most of our social issues), I would have reacted the same way. In fact, I might still, with someone with different symptoms that are more elevated and uncontrollable.

The man struggling with himself placed his magazine on the table, got up, said thank you, and walked out.

The person I had texted looked at me.

“I just got your text.”


“How do you know?”

“Because he has schizophrenia,” I said.

“Really?” he asked, looking at me with this expression that seemed to rise above itself.

“I think he was just a crackhead,” our other friend said, half-joking. I don’t blame him either. He very well could have been. Symptoms of schizophrenia and crack are not exactly discernable. Shaky hands, talking to ourselves, laughing out of nowhere—look it up if you don’t believe me. We’re basically all fucking crackheads.

It only hit me that I did not offer a helping hand to this man until after he left. I am an advocate for schizophrenia; I’m the Vice President and Board Director of an international non-profit organization with the goal of eradicating the stigma of mental illness. I felt like a terrible person. A failure. A fraud. What kind of advocate could I possibly be? A person struggling with their mental illness—a schizophrenic, no less—was standing right in front of me and I did nothing. I just watched him. I’m sitting around here writing every chance I get like THE SCHIZOPHRENICS NEED TO STAND UP AND HELP EACH OTHER, and I watched him and did absolutely nothing. I’m such a hypocrite.

But what could I have done, really? What would I have done? Asked him if there is someone I can call for him? There’s no one I could have called. His family either disowned him or died. And if they didn’t, would he remember their phone number? He hadn’t had a shower in weeks. His clothes were torn, and his shoes are not being sold in any store anymore, anywhere. Was there anyone really that would answer the call from this man? I could have walked him across the street to the county mental institution. But for what? Everybody with a serious mental illness, or without—anyone who has ever stepped foot inside a mental institution, really—knows those places don’t do anything but make you more depressed, more psychotic, and more suicidal (there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who disagree with me on this, but I don’t care, I’m standing by it). I could have given him some food, but would he have eaten it? He is a schizophrenic person in psychosis. I’m not a doctor so I can’t definitively say that he was a paranoid schizophrenic (which doesn’t even technically exist anymore but that’s a different matter entirely), but I’m willing to bet money on it. Like I said, I know my people. I wouldn’t accept food from someone I didn’t know, even medicated. He definitely wouldn’t.

It’s a cop-out, probably, to say that I could have helped him but it wouldn’t do any good anyway so I’m in the clear on being a bad person. I’m sure that’s what millions of families think about their depressed daughters and alcoholic sons, because they have tried and tried and there is nothing further they can do, which is most likely not true. But I don’t know what to do. I’ve been living with this illness my entire life, and I can’t explain to you how I deal with it. I don’t really feel like I even do. Truthfully I feel like a failure every day about everything I do. Working a corporate job, I don’t know how I do it. I really do believe that I won’t make it through the day sometimes. That I’m just going to lose my fucking mind. I don’t know how I do make it. I don’t know how I don’t lose my fucking mind. Every single day. I just…I do the thing. I push myself and tell myself it’s going to be okay, and it usually is—no, it always is, because I’m still here, with a full-time job and a very small amount of money in my bank account and cat food under my sink. How do I do it? I really don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that question.

You try explaining the answer to living a normal life to someone with a brain disease. A brain disease that takes away every semblance of our own trust in ourselves. You can’t trust yourself, but trust me, please. Yeah right.

If I can barely do it myself, I don’t know if I can help someone else do it. I’m trying. I do try, and I’m still trying to help these people. I just haven’t figured out that part yet. I’m working on it.

The way I see it, I have a little longer to think about it before I go down as the world’s most functional crackhead.

Allie Burke

Allie Burke is a bestselling author, magazine editor, and mental health advocate. She lives in Los Angeles.

2 thoughts on “I Saw a Schizophrenic Struggling, and I Did Nothing to Help Him

  1. Allie BurkeAllie Burke

    Thank you, beautiful. I appreciate your support so much. This was a hard piece to write. Well, not so much write, but publish. I was afraid to be honest. That everyone would judge me as a horrible person (which they did, but that’s a different matter). Thank you again.

  2. Stephanie OrtezStephanie Ortez

    There is so much pain in the world. Especially to those who don’t have the resources and support they desperately need. We fight against stigma every single moment of our lives, but do we really help the lost souls we see on the streets, hospitals, etc…? How can we help them? This is a very thought provoking post Allie, like you say, all we can do is to keep trying reaching out and help others the best way we can. Thank you for the reminder.

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