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Today I was a very little dismayed when a guy I’ll call Troy came in to the place I work. (I’m a certified peer specialist, and I help run a small group of recovery learning centers, where people who’ve experienced mental health diagnoses come to hang out. We peers also have lived experience, and we’re trained . . . differently than your average Mental Health Professional.)

Troy has something called word salad, in which his language gets garbled. People with this are in a way sort of like having killer mega ADD, in which they distract themselves second by second: Sentences merge into other sentences, words interweave with their cousins and their sisters and their aunts, and the result is that the simplest attempt at conversation is about as linear as a plate of spaghetti. It’s Ulysses in a blender.  

I have a really beautiful verbal processor for my native tongue, and so I find talking with Troy to be fascinating. But I just realized that the dismay came from old memories of what talking to Troy felt like. See, it makes my processor work very hard, and it’s not used to that as a rule! Not since grad school, in fact. I’m a weekend jogger who just ran a half-marathon. So the net result is that I’m exhausted now and my brain feels sorry for itself, unsure of any logical connection and unwilling to make decisions.

(“Ooh, I know! Let’s attempt to write something now and put it up on the Interwebs!”)

Troy hadn’t seen me for several years, and approved of my weight loss in the most straightforward fashion, approaching me with hopeful hands outstretched and asking if he could embrace my thigh so as to appreciate how much was just loose flesh. I told him that wasn’t happening, and he then offered me the same privilege, so I could tell him what the difference was. No dice there, either, but it did occur to me that it was just as well my co-workers were just a holler down the hall—just in case.

But Troy was just testing boundaries, which I’m used to from our community members, and we went out with his coffee and my knitting. (I don’t go anywhere without my knitting if I think I’ll have to sit still for more than five minutes.) So Troy talked to me, and I tried to follow along, with him having me repeat back verbatim what had come out of his mouth, and both of us laughing: Whatever I had heard had not been the impulse of Troy’s brain; it’s unsurprising that sometimes he talks of himself as only borrowing Troy’s body.

Luckily, I had my knitting, in which I make things out of sheep fur, imposing order onto the chaotic universe. It calms me down and centers me—some people smoke, but I knit. No great shakes—we’re talking an average of a sock a month—but it anchors me, and lets me focus on things like talking to Troy, and sometimes the much harder task of talking to myself.

“It’s OK,” I said fairly early on. But he transfixed me with a sharp-nailed fingershake.

“It’s not OK,” he declared. And I felt like an ass: How would I feel if my brain pulled that sheep on me? Not OK, that’s how. But Troy carries it with an abundant sense of humor, and what I must call grace, meaning both a rough sort of etiquette and what some would call a gift from God.

Troy called my attention to the embarrassing fact that I say, “It’s OK” a lot. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but I seem to have a pattern of needing to reassure people, possibly because my trauma survivor brain sees the world as a dark and scary place.

Hmm. That’s not OK.