For almost 20 years, I hid my diagnosis from in-laws, friends, coworkers, bosses.

I stand opposite the food line and ask people if they would like a cup of coffee.

Most of the people taking the hot drink from me are living on the streets. More than one hand reaches out to take the small white cup I’m offering, and I see their weathered skin, black crust beneath their nails, and occasionally an open wound on an arm, hand, or elbow.

The details that I notice bother me deeply — it’s hard to accept that people have to go day by day without access to a place to wash their hands, clean their clothes, or put ointment and a bandage on a wound that will most likely get infected. 

It isn’t my inability to deal well with this hardship that ends my volunteerism, though. It is the voices. People talking to someone only they can hear.

“Don’t do that!” a man yells from the middle of the line. No one is interacting with him.

Another person starts laughing loudly to a joke only they know and their mouth wide open shows several missing teeth. 

I tell myself, “This could be me,” because I live with the same illness I’m guessing these people also have: schizophrenia.

My life is a cocoon compared to theirs.

Their symptoms on display for everyone to see, fear, judge, and possibly avoid.

When I’m symptomatic, my husband shelters me at home, or if necessary, discretely takes me to a hospital with a psychiatric unit until I can distinguish between delusion and reality, and the voices stop filling my brain with demands and endless chatter.

For almost 20 years I hid my diagnosis from in-laws, friends, coworkers, and bosses. I would struggle in the confines of my own home and with the awareness of my husband and a few family members.

It is this hidden life I lived for so long that causes me to quit my volunteer work.

It is fear. Fear that I will be seen and treated like the people who I serve the coffee to.

Fear that I can, at times, do, and will always in some ways, wear a similar shoe. A shoe I would happily cast off and have felt years of shame for having to place on my foot.

I don’t want to change places with any of the people who stand in the line talking and betraying what I think is my private experience; an experience I can pick who, when, and where I want to share.

I want my diagnosis — so highly stigmatized — to be hidden from view.

I want to avoid acceptance that I have the illness that causes people to avoid eye contact, or pretend not to see someone, or cross the street. 

It’s an internalized stigma I have about a part of myself because the things society has told me about schizophrenia — that we are monsters, geniuses, happy fools, mass shooters, tinfoil hat-wearers, people with imaginary friends, and other movie-created stereotypes that keep me from going back and kindly asking, “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

The personal damage that stereotypes, ignorance, and ableism can cause when you have a severe mental illness are significant.

It can make you avoid those who are most like you because you don’t want to identify with their suffering and symptoms. 

I’m an individual lucky enough to have a network of people and access to treatment. But I’m under no illusions that that can’t change.

So many of the people I encounter have never experienced that same luck — and it is luck, not character, integrity, or hard work that make me so uncomfortable.

Because as someone who gambles, I know luck can change in an instant, and winning the jackpot today doesn’t guarantee you’ll hold on to your good fortune. 

 Rebecca Chamaa is a freelance writer living in the Golden State. She loves to scroll social media for dog photos.