Jeff Daigle wants a new T-shirt. And across the front, in big, bold letters for everyone to see, he wants the phrase, “Results Not Typical.”

“You know, like they put in tiny print at the bottom of those weight-loss ads,” Daigle, 46, said over an iced coffee Friday.

No, this is not a story about the kind of weight that sets the bathroom scale spinning. Rather, it’s about the weight of mental illness — in Daigle’s case, schizophrenia and depression — that drives a success story we’d all do well to hear on this first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

We begin with the obvious.

“Having schizophrenia sucks,” Daigle said.

“But,” he quickly added, “someone can deal with schizophrenia on a day-to-day basis and still have a full life.”

More on that in a minute. First, a little background from “Shackles No More!” — a 12-page, single-spaced autobiography that Daigle recently presented to a Grand Rounds gathering of mental health professionals at Maine Medical Center:

Daigle grew up in the central Maine town of Mexico, where he barely made it through high school because he spent too much time drinking and doing drugs and not enough hitting the books.

At age 19, he moved to Biddeford. Around the same time, completely out of the blue, he began to hear voices.

“There were many kinds of voices,” Daigle recalled. “The scariest ones were the ones I heard at night — they told me to kill myself.”

So real were the voices that he’d often jump out of bed and search every corner of his apartment. Nothing.

Figuring the voices must be coming through the apartment’s wall, he’d quietly open the door and jut his head out into the hallway. Nothing.

He’d even get down on his knees and peep through the keyhole, hoping to catch them unaware. Still nothing.

“I thought of calling the cops, but the people in the hall would just hide from them,” Daigle said. “Besides, the cops were in on it, too.”

During the day, Daigle would go to the store and the voices would tell him to push people over while they bent down to get a product from a lower shelf. Outside, the same voices would tell him to push people into oncoming traffic.

He never did either. Rather, he’d break down in tears, at which point “everyone would look at me and walk away.”

The voices, Daigle soon concluded, were Satan. And Satan was everywhere:

He was in the egg that once failed to crack when Daigle hit it against the rim of a bowl. He was also in the bowl, which cracked instead.

He was in the knickknacks Daigle saw on the mantle of a house he was visiting. The collectibles sent a message that “I was bad, so I would rearrange them so the message would be OK with me.”

The devil even hid behind the scramble of disjointed words blaring from a television while Daigle’s friend surfed the channels.

“To me, all the words from the different channels made sense and completed a thought,” Daigle said. “The message usually meant I was evil and not deserving of God’s love.”

And so Daigle drank. And drank. And the more he drank, the more the alcohol seemed to at least mute the cacophony inside his head.

Why not just tell someone about the voices?

“I couldn’t do that because if I talked to you about the voices and the delusions, I’d put your soul in danger as well as my soul in danger,” he replied. “So that meant I couldn’t talk about the voices or the delusions — to anyone.”

‘YOU HAVE A DISEASE’

One day in 1987, at age 22, Daigle decided to get sober. Back came the voices, louder than ever.

While undergoing treatment at a drug-and-alcohol rehab center in central Maine, Daigle finally decided to bare his soul to a counselor. Upon hearing about the voices, she immediately referred Daigle to a psychiatrist.

He met with the psychiatrist for more than three hours. For the first time ever, Daigle heard that no, other people don’t hear voices, and yes, there was more contributing to his misery than just alcoholism.

“You have a disease,” the psychiatrist told him. “It’s called schizophrenia.”

A turning point? No doubt.

The end of the battle? Not even close.

A litany of medications — Navane, Cogentin, Haldol, Zoloft, Clozaril, Geodon, Abilify, Lamictal — has come and gone as Daigle and his doctors search for the right combination to keep him on stable footing while minimizing the many side effects that sometimes can be as bad as the disease itself.

And the 20 electroconvulsive-therapy treatments he received during a relapse a few years back left him to this day with short-term memory loss that would drive anyone to distraction.

But Daigle has learned to cope.

A devout Roman Catholic who serves as the Sunday Mass greeter at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, he’s often charged with recruiting six members of the congregation to help with the collection. Problem is, he often loses track of how many he’s lined up.

“So I put six pennies in one pocket and, when someone agrees to help, I take one penny and put it in the other pocket,” he said. “And when I’m done with the pennies, I know I have six people.”

HELPING AND TEACHING

Daigle also has become, in his own recovery, a man on a mission.

His day job for the past five years: Working as a peer support counselor for Shalom House, a mental-health agency that provides counseling, housing and other services to hundreds of people with mental illness throughout Greater Portland.

“I help other people with mental illness integrate themselves back into the community,” Daigle said. “And I teach them how to do things.”

One peer, for example, was terrified at the thought of going into a movie theater.

“So we worked on that,” Daigle said. “We went to the movies and stayed for a half-hour. Then we tried it again for 45 minutes. Then I finally got him to stay for the whole movie and then he says, ‘I think I’ll go to a movie on my own next time.’“

Daigle smiled.

“I said ‘bring me the stub’ because I wanted to see if he really did it,” he recalled. “And sure enough, he brought me the stub. He saw ‘Fame.’“

When he’s not working one-on-one with people whose pain he knows all too well, Daigle often finds himself standing before all kinds of audiences — the recent Grand Rounds at Maine Medical Center was his second time there — to explain mental illness from the inside out.

Four times a year, he tells his story to nursing students at the University of Southern Maine — his latest appearance came just before Friday’s interview. (“I didn’t dress up for you,” he deadpanned.)

Four times a semester, Daigle does the same with students at Southern Maine Community College.

He’s a regular lecturer at training sessions for area law-enforcement crisis intervention teams — one Portland police officer recently got out of his cruiser on Congress Street, walked up with an outstretched hand, and thanked Daigle for having the guts to share his story.

He does it, he said, because he thinks there are two types of people in the world: “People who know and people who don’t know.”

“A person who really knows what mental illness is — they’ve lived through it, they know what it means to be paranoid, they’ve experienced it,” Daigle said.

And what exactly do they know that the rest of us don’t?

“What it feels like inside,” he replied.

Which brings us back to that T-shirt.

Daigle said he wants to wear “Results Not Typical” across his chest not just because the past five or six years have been the best of his life — he knows better than most that a vast majority of folks out there with mental illness are fighting the same good fight he is.

But unlike so many others who try to stay under society’s radar for fear of being stigmatized, Daigle insists on telling his story. And this week and every week, he insists the rest of us take a moment to listen.

“That’s what’s not typical,” Daigle said with a hint of a smile.

He’s right. It’s nothing short of heroic.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]