A gentleman just came in to my office to talk to me. He was one of the gently unsettled folk who often drop in to chat. He was pale, dressed in an orange and blue jumpsuit, and he wore a tall red ball cap. And wraparound sunglasses. He stopped in to tell me that the world is ended, caused by the oil spill off the Louisiana coast in the US. The cruise industry is done for also, he told me, because no one will want to sail through “that cesspool”. Which makes sense.
This guy, though. This one wasn’t a poet. We get a few people in the office who ask how to have their poetry published (even though that’s not what we do; if you’re a writer looking to be published, you should talk to your local writers’ guild), and some of them are subtly off-kilter. Often, you can’t tell, until they say something like: “in fact, publishers should be paying *me* to write this book, because I’m actually a descendent of Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England stole my house and my birthright. She owes me millions of dollars.”
Or: “Actually, it’s odd that you say that lots of writers hear their characters’ voices in their heads, because I’m schizophrenic, and I *do* hear voices in my head…is that okay?”
To the first sort, one nods and expresses disinterested condolences at his loss. In the second case, one reassures the guy. Who am I, after all, to claim the voices he hears aren’t real voices? As long as the voices aren’t advising something that would cause pain and suffering, why not ask them their opinions on your stories? Maybe one of them is an editor. I mean, I say this kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I knew a fabulous girl who was having Serious Problems in school.
My mum taught her, and asked me if I’d come talk to her. So I did. One time, she told me, “sometimes, I see this big, black dog. It’s sometimes in the room with me; sometimes I just see it out of the corner of my eye.”
I said, “Does the dog scare you?”
She said, “Well, it scares me because it’s not really there.”
I said, “If you know it’s not really there, and you accept that it’s not really there, does it still scare you?”
She said, “No, not really. It’s just weird.”
I said, “So you have a puppy that’s really easy to take care of.”
She said, “Yeah, I guess.”
I said, “You’re not broken. You’re beautiful and sometimes out of sync with some of the rest of the world. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. If your syncopation starts interfering with your ability to understand the world around you, or if it starts harming you in some way, that’s when you get help.”
She said, “Nobody’s ever told me I’m *not* crazy before.”
I said, “Nothing wrong with crazy. Crazy is what you want it to be. You get to define yourself, here.”
She said, “Everyone at school thinks I’m crazy and they don’t want to talk to me.”
I said, “That would happen whether you were sane or not. People are terrible in high school.”
She said, “Really?”
I said, “I was voted ‘most likely to be institutionalised’ from grade seven to grade twelve.”
She said, “Um,”
I said, “Yeah, but the thing *is*, everyone is uncomfortable in high school. And if they say they’re not, or if they give the impression they’re not, then they’re lying. You just have one extra hurdle, but it’s no different than a kid with diabetes or arthritis.”
She said, “They tease me.”
I said, “Of course they do. They’re assholes because they’re adolescents. And, as they will realise in one or two years, they are missing out on a wonderful opportunity – to get to know someone amazing who will expand their understanding of the world. Most teenagers don’t even know they *can* expand their understanding of the world. ”
She said, “But what am I supposed to do about school?”
I said, “I don’t know. My *guess* is that there are people who do care about you at your school, people who do want to be your friend, but they don’t know how. My guess is that you’ll find your niche in a little while, but that it won’t necessarily be easy.”
She did make some good friends at her school, and she ended up dropping out and finishing her high school education via home schooling. She’s a successful clothing designer now. I don’t know if she still sees the big black dog, but several years later, she came to my apartment and told me she had named it Bruce. She’s pretty awesome, actually.
What the hell is my *point*?
Oh. Probably that I actually enjoy working up the street from the mental health centre because it expands my understanding of the universe.