To begin this, I’m going to take a slightly off-kilter tack — instead of a head-on…attack about the topic matter.
Probably my favorite cartoon character is The Tick. Although there have been different versions, from both his original medium in comic books to a live-action take, the cartoon from Fox in the late ’80’s is my favorite.
For most who don’t know, The Tick is an escaped mental patient who believes that he is a crime-fighting superhero – and so becomes one. And, not unlike another cartoon character, Homer Simpson, he often succeeds despite failing – or, succeeds through failing.
(No wonder he appeals to me.)
The Tick convinces a nebbish accountant named Arthur to be his sidekick. As with any great comedy premise, zaniness ensues. Early on in the carnival of mayhem and crime-fighting, the two have a brief exchange which pretty much sums up The Tick’s worldview and Arthur’s part in it.
A visibly shaken Arthur stammers, “I think I’m going crazy.”
The unflappable Tick exuberantly cries out, “You’re not going crazy, Arthur. You’re going sane, in a crazy world!”
What does any of this have to do with this post? Who knows? Maybe, I just like the story….
Here’s an original thought.
Suffering with a mental illness stinks. I mean, really, really stinks.
I have never been diagnosed with one, although I might be if I were brave enough to go to the right doctor. I do see a counselor, not a psychologist or psychiatrist. In addition, I am neither a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Take what I say here not as a professional, but as someone who has seen varying examples of mental illness and other…dysfunction. There is a history of mental illness and alcoholism on both sides of my family – diagnosed and not.
For various reasons, I lived the majority of my life with my mother, right up until this last year when her body died. I saw her at her best, and I saw her at her lowest points. I saw how the people closest to her wounded her at times over the years. Too often, that was me.
In all honesty, though, I was not the worst.
Not to go into the ways that I stood by her and helped her through a trying life, because that’s not what this is about. And, to protect both the innocent and some of the guilty – I’m not going into too many details about my mother’s life. Both for her own privacy and that of others. But after having lived with her for so many years, and seeing how vulnerable she was to people, how she felt “other people’s opinions as pressure”, and witnessing her pain, I can say this much:
No one knows or can understand the bewildering depth of pain and sorrow, loss and loneliness that someone with a mental illness may suffer.
My mother, specifically, suffered from a mood disorder. She was the brave one, receiving treatment for the majority of her life, enduring yet despising the stigma. The disorder was only one aspect of her as a person, and yet it colored everything else, the drop of dye that spread throughout her world. I even hesitate to mention it in such a public forum, because in most people’s minds that puts her in a “category”. A pigeonhole – up in the attic with the aunts, the bats and the belfries.
She was not to blame for the purely chemical nature of her illness – and yet she sometimes felt her emotional susceptibility as a kind of moral failure, a weakness in her character.
She was not her disease, and yet she felt the stigma of it probably most every day after she received her “diagnosis”. That’s how she would often refer to it: “I have a diagnosis.”
And yet, the vast majority of people who met her would never have guessed that she “had a diagnosis”. And most everyone who knew her would recognize her as a wonderful, funny, loving, kind, special person; a gifted musician who touched many people with both the gift of her music and the gift of her generous personality. Quite a few would see her as I did: one of the finest people I’ve ever met or hope to meet.
In part, because of the very struggles which she saw as her weakness. To be unfailingly kind and loving to others, even as you feel so low yourself – that’s sacrifice. To purposely choose to do it day after day for many decades? That’s character. That’s grit.
But the mote of her mood disorder eclipsed that in her own view of herself.
By using the word “mote” here, I am not belittling the pain she endured or the far-reaching effects of her illness on her life. Far from it. But, in her mind that one fact of her illness obscured the much larger landscape of her full personality. It so skewed how she saw herself that she believed other people must see her the same way.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Even as bad as the pain was, if only she could have understood how much she was loved and how much she meant to others, it would have made the pain more bearable, smaller. But she just couldn’t.
That’s what really hurt.
Being in pain is bad – but feeling that because you’re in pain it must be because you are unworthy (or even bad) in some way, and therefore feeling like you’re not only in pain…but alone with it? That can be unbearable.
But speaking about “mental illness” is also speaking about mental health, overall.
With a lot of things that affect physical health, it’s so obvious and “easy”: either your leg is broken, or it isn’t. Either you have a cold, or you don’t. Have a terminal disease – or don’t.
But with mental health, there is a range. Without diminishing the very real fact that there are specific, diagnosable mental illnesses that one can have – there is also a sliding scale of symptoms and magnitude of them, and varying vulnerabilities to and effects of them.
There’s feeling depressed, then there’s clinical depression. There’s feeling out of sorts, and then there’s schizophrenia. There’s being miserable with your life and not enjoying it because your thinking is off – and then there is being miserable because your brain chemistry is wrong and you literally cannot help it. Without help.
As a non-professional observer, it seems that mental illness is a physical illness — in the brain. The fact that it directly affects the mind and thereby much of how you perceive the world around you and interact with it is what makes it so disconcerting to the one with it, and the ones around you. To me, this is the main reason why people differentiate so strongly between a strictly “physical” illness and a “mental” one. People with that kind of “diagnosis” can act unusually at times. It can make you uncomfortable.
It can freak you out.
This, combined with the utterly irrational feeling that it might even be contagious (talk about a lapse in mental health) causes people to shun and – even worse – make fun of people with that kind of problem. This not only isolates those who need love and help the most, but it also ensures that many people won’t take care of their own mental health along that vast spectrum – either for fear of being stigmatized, or simply thinking, “Oh well, since i don’t feel THAT bad, I don’t really have a problem at all. But that person over there? They’re crazy!”
Many years ago, I saw the counselor John Bradshaw telling a story about someone asking him what percentage of families was dysfunctional. He replied, “One hundred percent.” It was all a matter of degree.
I feel this is true about mental health overall. No one is in perfect mental health – any more than they are in perfect physical health. Everyone needs help to a greater or lesser extent, and if anyone thinks their particular brand of dysfunction don’t stink just because it’s theirs…? That’s called denial. Maybe even delusion.
And that’s a mental health issue.
One of my favorite moments on The Simpsons comes when Homer has been placed into the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting. Although he was first brought to the attention of the “rest home” because of having worn a pink shirt to work, the actual reason he was admitted was because of his lazy and foolish decision to let Bart fill out his take-home personality test.
Once there, he asks a doctor, “How can you tell who’s sane and who’s insane?”
The doctor answers, “Well, we have a very simple method.” He takes out a rubber stamp and stamps “INSANE” in red ink on Homer’s hand. “Whoever has that stamp on his hand is insane.”
As I often told Mom when she was feeling bad about herself, “You know what the difference is between you and most people out there? You’ve gotten your diagnosis already.”
Most of us just haven’t gotten our diagnosis yet.