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Friday, September 01, 2006

Singing Out of Tune

" What would you do if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key."

Most people are familiar, whether via The Beatles or Joe Cocker, with these opening lyrics to the song "With a little help from my friends" but this week they came to my mind when I went to check up someone who I felt needed some love and support.

Living with mental illness can be very much a case of "singing out of tune" to those who try and listen in to the conversation. I am speaking particularly of schizophrenia but it also affects many other mental illnesses. I am building a good friendship with a man who has schizophrenia and feels very misunderstood and has a history of rejection. Of course, the stories behind the rejections will be complicated but the hurt is still very real for this man.

He has expressed to be me on a few occasions that he is "mad". To follow the analogy from the song he feels that he sings "out of tune" and that this is the only way that he can sing. For many people in society there is a correct way to sing and if people broadly fit into this "style" then they are "in" otherwise they are "out". Regardless of what Britain, the USA or Australia say in regards to being egalitarian there is a stigma and a fear attached to mental illness that means that many people only hear that the song is sung out of tune; they fail to hear the hurt and the need and the beauty that lies in the words.

"What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you turn around and walk out on me?" This friend has joked with me that people think that schizophrenics walk around with an axe in their back pocket ready to strike when the truth is that the vast majority of deeply troubled schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves. This friend has been prepared for me to walk out on him when he gets upset or anxious or angry at his life. He will probably carry a fear of rejection for a long time and part of the cost of befriending him is to make a covenant with myself to be honest and supportive of him. This relationship does not cost me much in the way of time. Contrary to another "myth" this man is not dependent upon me he simply appreciates a friend.

"Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song and I'll try not to sing out of key". Even if someone sings out of key we still need to take time to listen closely to what they are saying. Last night this friend expressed to me his hurt over a simple misunderstanding that occurred this week. He spiralled into depression and admitted that he felt that God hated him and had abandoned him. To be sure, when I first arrived he was singing somewhat "out of tune" but I took time to listen in.

After listening to his "song" as it moved around between keys I began to offer some thoughts that would bring some gentle truth to his situation. By the end of the evening as he smoked a cigarrette outside I offered to pray with him. Today I checked in again and he said that he had slept well and that he believed that that God had sent me in a time of need.

I am no hero and I certainly do not want this blog to be anymore than a signpost on the journey for other pilgrims. This man is a Christian and so I had an opening to pray but only when I had listened and loved and shared from my own heart. Sometimes the "music" that comes across from those with mental illness can be "harsh" and "crude" and "out of key" but if we are to be friends then we need to consider if we are willing to listen past the noise to the emotions that are being conveyed beneath. Jesus seemed able to listen where others only heard noise. Perhaps it is time for many of us to be adjust our tuning dials for those who need to be heard.

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