The Other

Over the past month, I have finished reading four autobiographical accounts written by people who suffer from mental illness. One suffered from schizophrenia, another bi-polar disorder, one from drug and alcohol addiction, and the last was a book written by the father of an addict. Technically, I suppose the last one is in a slightly different category, but the difference is merely one of perspective and in the end, that difference is trivial. The real theme here is suffering, the kind brought on by the alchemic transformation of biochemistry into madness.
Unlike what the world, (the untroubled world, the world of “normal”), defines as suffering, mental illness is a disease of one: one person, one demon, one battle. The individual at the eye of the storm is not living in a place where ebola, starvation, intestinal parasites, and bombs are the primary cause of death. (Here I must provide a rather banal disclaimer: yes, I know other cultures, including impoverished third world countries, have mentally ill populations, but that isn’t what this is about.) They live here. They live next door. They live, perhaps, in your house. They live, perhaps, in your own head.
We think of them as the “Other,” as in “Not Me.” Not Me is a place, as opposed to an actual person. Not Me is a country populated by your friends, family, and co-workers, all of whom are perfectly normal. Other is a place too, but it is populated by people who talk to themselves and smell funny and pick through the trash and have more cats than they do teeth. Other is a place populated by criminals, pimps, whores, drop-outs, the unemployed, and the unemployable. Obviously Uncle Bob doesn’t live in the land of Other – he just has “spells,” or is “sick again.” Obviously your beloved child doesn’t live there either – he is just going through a “phase.” And obviously your ‘til-death-do-us-part-teenage-sweetheart-made-for-T.V. spouse doesn’t live there either. He’s just having a “rough time” and is “under a lot of pressure.” Uncle Bob, your child, your spouse live in Not Me. Obviously.
Except…except when they don’t, but we don’t really talk about that, do we? Why? Well that’s pretty obvious too. Some people deceive themselves, true. Therapists love to talk about denial as if those of us who love someone who is broken have some sort of choice in the matter. We don’t talk about it because it is dangerous, and the danger is real. There is a danger that a person who has worked very hard to recover will lose a hard-won job if the word gets out. There is a danger that we will be kicked out of our home if our landlord finds we are caring for an adult alcoholic child. There is a danger that our neighbors will find out that we have a crazy person in our house and will try to force us to move. And that doesn’t even step into the emotional bullying pile of shit the good folks from Not Me will leave on our front stoop.
Now these books I read were brave and brilliant and raw and true, but the fact is that they were written by people with resources. Yes, I am sure they found more than one flaming pile of shit on their doorstep, but they had two things that most of us who deal with living in Other-world don’t have: access to treatment and environmental security. They had degrees, connections, families with money, someone in their life who could keep a roof over their head when they lost control. They had a physical safety net that your average, run-of-the-mill crazy person doesn’t have.
I do not begrudge them this and it takes nothing away from the immense courage it took to tell their stories. The fact that they had a safety net does not diminish, by a single iota, the suffering they experienced, and still do suffer, because mental illness may sleep, but it still dreams. My beef is not with these incredible authors who stood up and told their stories and in doing so, became advocates for all the inhabitants of Other, including – maybe, especially – those who are flying without a net, those who have been forced into hiding, and those whose symptoms are so conspicuous they cannot hide. No. My beef is not with them.
It is, instead, with a cultural norm propagated through the media, promulgated by politicians, and perpetuated by the inhabitants of Not Me. That cultural norm is unspoken because no one really has to say it. Everyone knows the mantra already. That mantra pretty much goes like this: Fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em because they are criminals who drive drunk, sell dope, and steal shit so they can drive drunk and buy drugs more often. Fuck ‘em because they lay in bed all day complaining that they are depressed and not contributing to the motherfucking Gross National Product and what’s up with that? Fuck ‘em because they are on disability because they can’t control their weird behavior from 9-5, 5 days a week. Is that so damn hard? Oh yeah, and fuck ‘em times ten because they aren’t…well, you know…normal.
Screw the 5.7 million Americans who suffer from bi-polar disorder. Screw the 2.4 million schizophrenics and the 23.5 million addicts and those 14.8 million people who lay in bed all day whining about how sad they feel. To hell with the anorexics and bulimics and agoraphobics and the 33,000 people who commit suicide every year. Besides, don’t some of these staggering figures just represent the same people? Aren’t we counting the drunk schizophrenics twice? That’s cheating, exaggerating, a gross misrepresentation of the numbers! It’s alarmist propaganda, it’s pandering, it’s…it’s… bad form. And besides, aren’t half those people faking it anyway? If you listen to psychiatrists, everyone has a mental illness.
Thank you very much. I have already heard these arguments and I am, to say the least, nonplussed. The number of people in this country who suffer from a serious mental illness that even a child (not a precocious child who has memorized the entire DSM-IV, but just, you know, a regular kid) could diagnosis is somewhere in the millions. It’s a big number even adjusting by some arbitrary factor to account for dual diagnosis and flagrant malingering. If we had millions of people suffering from plague or leprosy, you’d see people marching in the street, demanding action, storming Capitol Hill. There would be a sense of urgency and something would have to be done about it.
It is an old saw, often used when discussing national priorities, but I’m going to bust out the rusted blade here and start cutting. Based on the response of pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists, I am absolutely certain we must have had an imminent erectile dysfunction crisis on our hands at some point in time, else there would not be such easy access to Viagra, which flows, yea verily, like water from the fountain pens of our health care providers. As a society, we act swiftly when our boners are at stake. Where, then, is a similar response to mental illness?
I leave you with a question that, as of today, has no answer. And as long as we continue to ignore the question, the suffering will continue in deep, immense, and immeasurable silence.