Back in the early 90s there were these posters and pictures everywhere that looked like a big mess of colored dots or designs, but if you learned to look at them the right way, you could see a three-dimensional image there. It took practice to teach your eyes to focus in this new way. Even after you had learned the trick, sometimes it was just really hard to get past the “noise” and see the true picture beneath.

Some people never could get the hang of it. I remember hearing someone in a mall tell his companion that it was just a marketing ploy and there was really nothing there to see.

That’s how it is when you work with psych patients. You have to learn to look at people in a different way, and sometimes it’s really hard to see through the noise. You might even be tempted to think there’s nothing there but noise. But if you stick with it, look hard, and focus in just the right way, you will eventually find a real, live, human person in there amidst the noise and chaos.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a very engaging and intelligent man. The first time we met, in the dining area of a psych unit, he was alternating between busily cleaning the coffee cart and table next to the kitchen with a bath towel, and running it around his neck in a manner that made me think of a dancer with a feather boa. (Watching people who are manic, I sometimes can’t help but envy all that energy just a little bit. That is, until I remind myself of the high price they pay for it!)

“The word of the day for the business sector,” he informed me when I had introduced myself, “is prospirate. Can you spell that?” “P-r-o-s-p-i-r-a-t-e?” I asked. “Correct!” he told me, with a flourish of his towel, and took another swipe at the table.

“Now use it in a sentence,” challenged a nearby staff member. I thought for a moment, then ventured, “if you work very hard, you will prospirate.” My new friend nodded his approval, and approached me again, touching the back of his hand to the back of mine in an odd rendition of a “high five.” Then he leaned in close and said in a conspiratorial tone, “I’m incognito. Do you know what that means?” “You’re in disguise?” I asked. “Yes!” he exclaimed, twirling away again and flourishing the towel. “In disguise. Like Lucy, with diamonds!”

When a psychiatric patient says something like that, it’s called looseness of association. But I couldn’t help thinking that if anyone else said it, it would have been considered a rather clever pun. (Maybe we should take a closer look at some of the people on the Comedy Channel…)

A week later, after the proper medications had taken effect, I had a very nice conversation with the same man. He was intelligent, charming, wise, and very in touch with himself — more so than a lot of supposedly “normal” people I know.

The secret to seeing the three-dimensional pictures is to look at them with your eyes just a little bit out of focus. Next time you meet someone who you think is odd or peculiar, try looking at them just a little bit out of focus. You might be surprised what you see.

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