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.


Bowlin’ with Jesus – a meditation

So first of all, let me just say that it doesn’t have to be Jesus. It can be Mother Nature, or Buddha, or Sigmund Freud. It can be Mother Teresa, or Kurt Cobain, or your Guardian Angel. It can even that crazy uncle who passed away ten years ago but whom you fondly remember because he once mooned the mayor right in the middle of a town hall meeting. Here’s the thing though. It has to be someone to whom you have a deeply spiritual connection.

Here’s what you do.

Every night before you go to bed, mentally wrap up your day. Gift box that bad boy and put a ribbon on it. Throw all the junk in there that you really wish would go away – an embarrassment, a social slight, a grudge, guilt, shame, remorse, pain, sadness. Now take your box and hit the celestial highway.  At the end of the road, your bowling buddy awaits. Go on – give ’em a hug. No, no. Hug ’em like you mean it. Not one of those sideways, one-armed guy-hugs. The real deal.

OK now you have to sit down and open the box. It’s pretty damn full, but you and your friend are sitting there on the – well, hell – I don’t know what you sit on when you are roaming around in other dimensions, but for God’s sake, just park it. The box pops open and laying right there on top is the coffee you spilled all over yourself in the middle of an important meeting. Sitting next to it is the coffee that flowed off the edge and onto your boss. Jesus/Buddha/crazy Uncle Bob picks it up, looks at it, and chucks it into the nearest Black Hole. Why a Black Hole? Because nothing ever comes out of a Black Hole. It’s like an intergalactic trash compactor. Now it’s your turn.

What’s this? Guilt? That’s a heavy one. Forgot to call Mom and it was her birthday. Snapped at your spouse when you couldn’t find the remote. Accused the kids of leaving the front door open and then remembered that it was you who didn’t shut it properly, and while you are at it, you know your hubby has been asking you to fix that doorknob for six months now and you still haven’t gotten around to it. Flipped off the guy who cut in front of you just before the intersection and made you miss the light (yes he was an asshole, but you went half a mile out of your way just to catch up to him so you could flip him off. A little over the top, yes?) Now that you’ve inventoried all the shit you did wrong in the past 24 hours, wad the whole thing up into a big ball and aim it right into that Black Hole. In fact, find one a bit more distant because after all, you can’t let Mother Teresa out-bowl you. You have trophies for fuck’s sake. Mother Teresa doesn’t even own a pair of bowling shoes.

What’s next? Loneliness. Some folks look forward to going home to a silent, dimly lit house where they can sit in the dark all night listening to Wagner and weep copiously. You don’t (although that’s pretty much the story of your life). Instead, you were kind of hoping for a night out with the girls but they didn’t even invite you. You are painfully aware of the fact that this is because the last time they invited you out, you turned them down. And the time before that too. And the time before the time before that, you did go, but got shit-faced and threw up all over the inside of your friend’s beloved VW Beetle. But it still hurts to be left out. Well that’s a pretty heavy one too, but Jesus just laughs and throws it half way across the space-time continuum hitting a Black Hole you can’t even see. Credit where credit is due. Nice one, Jesus!

Now here comes some sludge from the past and damn if it isn’t your turn. You don’t even remember why you thought of him today. You sure didn’t summon him, but there he was. Dear old Dad, smelling rank and calling you stupid because you failed your fifth grade math test. And there he was again on your sixteenth birthday telling you that you were too ugly to get a date. And then he showed up at that meeting with the coffee incident calling you a fucking idiot. And the bad part is, you love him and you think throwing him in a Black Hole…well, how can you even think of throwing your Dad in a cosmic compactor? But Mother Nature is looking pretty smug over there. She thinks she’s got this game wrapped up because she’s ahead and you are still sitting there waxing maudlin over a pile of sludge. Sorry, Dad. The game’s at stake and it’s time for you to go. And as he sails through the heavens, you can vaguely hear crazy Uncle Bob chuckling, “I never liked that old bastard, anyway.”

So now you’ve emptied your box for the night. Wrap it back up and take it back to more earthly realms. In the morning, you can peek inside and see that what is left is the things you learned from the day before so you’ve got your morning meditation covered. You can decide to leave your coffee back at your desk next time you have an important meeting. You can decide not to snap at someone you love over a stupid remote control. You can decide to ask your friends to come over for a night of Wagner and weeping. Or you can begin acquiring cats. Either way, you got this loneliness thing under control. As for Dad, while he may come stumbling back in through the back door again, you now know you can make him leave.

So instead of carrying your pain into the next day, you are carrying only the constuctive stuff. After a few nights of doing this you’ll start to notice patterns.  If you are feeling weighed down by guilt every single, damn day, Jesus has it covered. Let him do the heavy lifting. If you keep coming back with loneliness, hand it to Mother Nature. She’ll give you back a stray cat, guaranteed. And if you open the box every night and Dad keeps popping out, just let Uncle Bob deal with him. He never did like the old bastard anyway.


Insatiable curiosity

Where to begin?

In the middle, perhaps. Skip the intro, skip the formalities and plunge into the deep end where the wild things live. In this case, that means my brain, an untidy collection of unlabeled boxes that may contain just about anything. Half the time I don’t even know what’s in ’em which means I am endlessly confounded by the contents. My brain is like the perennial Trickster god of folklore, leading me down one path until I am just starting to feel like I know where I’m going and then pushing me off the edge of a – surprise! – waterfall. I picture it peering thoughtfully over the edge as I go rocketing down into the abyss and musing, “I hope to hell she can swim.”

You see I am insatiably curious. Not in the normal sort of hmmmm-that’s-interesting sort of way, but in the “holy-shit-tell-me-more-right-now” sort of way – a way that sometimes causes even my closest friends to begin frantically pulling things out of my medicine chest and begin muttering something about locating my psych meds.

Curiosity is an aphrodesiac to me. It’s the drug I give my mind after work. It’s a structure-free, self-organizing storm of pure synaptic pleasure that leads me down Google-lane riffing effortlessly from music to ethology, from neuroscience to religion. It takes me to all the “Keep Out” places when I am hiking. It neatly bypasses my childhood “Don’t touch that” programming. It mercilessly plows through social norms and concerns of future consequences. It’s almost like a Tourette’s tic, which incidentally gives me the additional perverse pleasure of knowing that the “You may also like” section of any given website is totally screwed when it comes to applying arcane algorithms to produce my personalized ad offerings.

And speaking of tics, (or in this case, ticks), today I am celebrating insatiable curiosity with a shout-out to Tony Goldberg. Whether  or not Tony goes down in the annals of history as a renowned scientist is a subject for the trained professionals who give out science prizes. For the moment at least, he shall have to settle for the meager satisfaction of winning the Debut Blog Post Insatiable Curiosity award.

Tony is a patho-biologist who wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled, “Experience: I discovered a new species up my nose” which landed up on my facebook wall today. A National Geographic blogger wrote about this incident in October, so apparently the information has been out there for awhile and doubtlessly passed around like a communion plate, but nonetheless it was new to me.

Two things fascinated me about the article.

First, there is the discovery of a new species of critter that has evolved specifically to burrow beyond the reaches of even those most dedicated nose-picker or social groomer. This, alone, is one of those things that makes me say “Well played, Mother Nature. Well Played.”

Second, there is the intrepid scientist, Tony Goldberg, resisting the temptation to run screaming from  the house, pawing at his face and yelling, “Get it out! Get it out!” Put yourself in his shoes – I mean really, really visualize it – and tell me that you would have the presence of mind to gather the proper equipment for a delicate DIY tick extraction, then drop the little bugger (forgive the corny play on words) into a Ziploc, mail it off for DNA analysis and then, after receiving the results (“Eureka! A new species!”), publicly thank the tick for inserting itself into your nasal cavity. Insatiable curiosity trumping inherent fear. That, my friends, is a noteworthy achievement.

I hope you will all take the time to read the article and give the man some mad-ass props in his comments section because it is an interesting piece and worth the read, if only to use as inspiration for your own scientific inquiries.

For the inquiring mind, there are 899 species of ticks worldwide according to Purdue University. Certainly enough material to keep a budding entomologist or epidemiologist busy for a lifetime. And for you homeschoolers, particularly if you live in a rural area or like to hike, share the Purdue page with your kids. It does contain information regarding the proper way to remove a tick (practical application)  as well as interesting information about its life cycle (science lesson material).

Question of the day: Why do you think nose-picking is considered such a gross violation of social norms, scoring as high on the scale of repugnant habits as. . .oh, say. . .farting in a crowded elevator? It seems logical that one would be more unacceptable than the other, however we humanoids have viscerally lumped them both together. I wonder why that is so.