By Elena Morabito

A simple plaque decorates the ajar door of the secret handshake gallery, letting the smells of crunchy, warm sourdough enter from the bakery next door.

An inviting stream of light shines on the door, which squeaks every time a member of the clubhouse closes it shut.

The counter is covered with posters of upcoming poetry readings and past newsletters, every publication’s subheading is “Canada’s first and only peer-to-peer support for people with Schizophrenia.” The January 2020 issue dedicates its first pages to the myths and misconceptions of the mental illness.

Seven foldable chairs are placed in a circular manner and Daniel, Hart and Brian are discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth poetry book they are in the process of publishing.

Light is pouring in from the wide rectangular window, melting the ice from Hart’s leather shoes, water dripping onto the unpolished wooden floors.

Soon, the doors squeaks and a new member stomps his feet on the stairs, loudly greeting his friends and bumping his fist against theirs. He introduces himself to me as Bill Bisset.

“I had all kinds of strange experiences out there, be very careful out there when you go,” he says.

The strange experience Bill had was a woman putting lettuce in his salmon sandwich when he asked for her not to, telling him he could take it out after.

Their conversations often seem to revolve around food, which reflect a deeper sense of incomprehension for the world we live in.

Daniel tells us his girlfriend “basically belittles him” by asking him if he is rich when he does not eat salmon bones. His eyes dart around the room from Hart to Bill to Brian, as if he were looking for reassurance.

The room goes quiet and Hart opens a metallic can, generating a popping sound which bounces off the creamy white walls, the lack of furniture allowing the sound to travel down the corridor.

Daniel shifts his body into his chair and slouches down, before softly adding “it’s a big source of calcium.”

The Secret Handshake was created ten years ago, when a man named Jordan Stone decided to create a clubhouse for people with schizophrenia to support each other.

“He was very aware that people with schizophrenia had nowhere to gather, […] nowhere in Northern America, none. His ambition was to start a clubhouse so I met him and I became his assistant in a way,” says Bill. 

The group receives a grant from the Schizophrenic Society of Ontario each month, but they need to raise nine hundred dollars a month to cover their rent and supplies.

“I don’t know what will happen when there is a month that we can’t do it. So far there isn’t a month that we can’t do it. Also it creates an illusion that we can connect the dots. But that’s an illusion I never want to fall for,” says Bill.

His comments often have somber undertones, but he transpires a sensibility and care for others, such as when he asks each one of us if we “ever wonder who we are.”

The group reminisces about the times they were allowed to smoke on airplanes, complain about the “epidemic” of idiocy and lack of knowledge in today’s society, but more often than not the conversation turns to politics.

Bill believes all politicians are lying, and they choose not to believe climate change is real.

When Greta Thunberg is mentioned, Bill says, “the people who believe her have no ability to do anything about it” in a plaintive tone.

“We believe her,” he continues, his shoulders retreated in his chest, his eyes glistening. 

When one of us leaves, he jumps up from his chair and rhetorically asks “hugs?” before wrapping his arms around us in a tight embrace, as if they were made out of bubble wrap.

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