Yesterday morning a friend and I dropped by a local coffee shop to relax and chat a while. As we approached the entrance together, I happened to notice an elderly man sitting alone at one of the glass topped outdoor tables. A brown paper coffee cup was resting in front of him, but his hands were busy gesturing as he mumbled toward the sky, perhaps in response to a voice only he could hear. Something about his demeanor prompted me to approach him. I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, smiled and said, "Good morning, my friend."
His entire face lit up as his attention shifted away from the conversation he'd been having with himself and responded to the sound of my voice. "Hello there. Is this a Club Med?" he asked, motioning vaguely toward the bubbling fountain beside the coffee shop. With the temperature hovering in the mid-eighties, the late morning sun blazing in the cloudless blue sky and the merry burbling of the water beside us, I could understand the logic - if not the nature - of his reasoning.
"Not a Club Med, no. It's a coffee shop." I replied, unsure what else to offer.
"Too bad." He shrugged. "I used to live beneath this place, you know. Ask anyone who's lived here a while what it used to be like before this. Although my home wasn't here, on top. It was inside the Earth. Before it exploded and thrust me into the past, the present and the future all at once."
His face grew animated as he began to tell me his story. He spoke to me of the spaceships, and the awful people who were trying to steal his blood for its unique DNA configuration, which resembled the molecular structure of honey. His mission, he informed me, was to stop the Earth from falling into a hole it can never get out of. Those of us who were milling around the coffee shop - he kindly included me in this explanation - were part of the human Exodus, the souls he was here to protect from the invaders.
I noticed how his fingernails were encrusted with the deep layers of dirt that accumulate from too many days without access to clean running water. His clothes, while neat, were worn and threadbare. Off to one side stood a shopping cart neatly packed with whatever precious items he'd managed to collect for himself on his travels. A blue plastic tarp covered the entire basket, preventing me from seeing the treasures within.
As I listened to his story, I found myself shifting between awe at the level of intelligent coherence he projected as he spun his tale, and compassion based on the realization he occupied a world no one else could truly enter. It was a magical realm indeed, filled with demons and heroes and adventures and lots of danger, while at the same time it was tinged with hope and wrapped in a deep sense of purpose. When he finished speaking he gazed up at me expectantly, waiting for something. What though? What could I possibly have to offer a man I couldn't understand?
Suddenly, I realized what he most needed from me wasn't for me to validate (or challenge) his ideas. By some serendipitous miracle a stranger had reached out to him and, at least in this one precious moment, had gifted him the chance to make some - any - slim connection with another person. That was what I had to offer, and it was enough. I smiled and patted his shoulder once again. "Well," I said, "That is some story. Best of luck to you, and I wish you success."
He laughed and pocketed the cash I offered him as if it was more of a distraction than something to be noted and appreciated. "I'm gonna be alright," he said, eyes twinkling. "I know how to take care of myself. Don't you worry 'bout me."
I walked away then, aware I wasn't worried about him in the least. Somehow, despite whatever dark nights of the soul and tragedies of the heart he'd experienced in his charred and broken past, he'd created a new world for himself out of the ashes. It was a world in which other people played minor supporting roles now and again, but where his primary "reality" mainly unfolded through the story inside his own mind.
It's a place I happen to know all too well, because I've been there myself the past. It's called psychosis. The alien landscape where my new friend dwells, perhaps permanently, is a world of his own creation. His mind has gotten so rooted in its own thoughts that his body has grown physically disconnected from external reality. While the body checks into the world now and then to tend to its basic needs - mundane things like shelter, food and sleep - as soon as those needs are satisfied he retreats to the world inside his mind once again. For people in his condition, sensory input is experienced not for what it actually is, but for what the mind has chosen to believe it to be so it "fits" into the story his mind is telling.
Angry, judgmental people become the alien abductors; the distant sounds of airplanes become invisible hovering spaceships. Kindly passing strangers become members of the Exodus team; the shopping mall becomes a cover for a hidden underground world filled with strange plants and beasts. Luckily for him, the saga he's woven is epic; it's exciting and coherent and open to lots of interesting possibilities as time passes. It is, I suspect, a story with enough of a punch to carry him for years.
It occurred to me then, as I entered the cool shaded realm of the coffee shop, ordered my tall mocha with whipped cream and prepared to settle into a comfortable chair and talk with my friend about our intertwined lives, that the only difference between him and me was that I'd managed - with the help of a loving family, good friends and an excellent doctor - to pull myself back from the precipice of mental illness before I'd fallen in so deep no one could help me. Most days these days I find myself fully connected to reality, surrounded by people who perceive the same things I perceive. Still, every so often a panic attack overwhelms me, reminding me just how fragile is the mind, and how lonely and frightening a place it can be when we're trapped inside it alone.
That's why yesterday morning I gifted a piece of myself to the man from the center of the Earth. There but for the grace of God...go all of us.