"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Talking About Mental Illness–OK, Just Not Too Much

Tom Chivers writing in The Telegraph (11.26.13) thinks that perhaps and finally the stigma against mental illness is slowly disappearing.  If we can discuss physical injury, disease, or damage, then we certainly can bring up the formerly taboo topic of mental imbalance.  Just look at the sports pages, Chivers suggests, and read about Jonathan Martin, the NFL football player who was reduced to tears because of bullying and then admitted it.  Now, anyone 350 lbs. 6’5” tall and working in an industry whose stock and trade is maiming, hurting, and debilitating others; but who is upset by some locker room trash talk has got to be a little off his rocker. 

Martin’s teammates, a pack of trained killers, fueled by off-the-charts hormones and a drive for respect and supremacy honed on the mean streets of Detroit, of course went after him, the ugliest duckling in the posse, the weakest link, and tried to chase him out of the pack. Martin could have thrown some of his weight around, bust some chops, and do some damage just like he was taught to do on the playing field, and the whole sorry affair would never have come to light. I don’t feel sorry for Martin nor am I critical of Richie Incognito, his supposed tormentor. What their colleagues have said, in careful but obvious terms, is that it is a jungle inside the locker room, so man up.

However, we are supposed to feel sorry for Martin who was bullied.  Little Jonathan should never have to defend himself on the playground, learn real-world survival skills, take a few kicks in the ribs and come up swinging. Wrong.  He should learn in fifth grade what he will eventually learn as a lawyer – win at all costs; and use sticks and stones, cheap shots, scurrility, and ad hominem attacks as long as you can get away with them.  He might as well learn right out of the gate that the world is a pretty rough place, no one is going to do you any favors, and that a lifetime of scraps, pissing matches, and behind-the-back ploys awaits.

We are also supposed to celebrate Martin’s honesty about his weakness.  Obviously although he thought he was wired for mayhem, he was not.  His wiring was defective. There was a  a stuck relay, or a bad transformer that made his knees knock uncontrollably when he was razzed, taunted, and called a faggot.  His mind was as defective and useless as that of a palsied passer.

Chivers also cites many other examples of outed mental illness.  Super macho Tony Soprano had the willies and sought help.  See, we are advised, there is nothing wrong with mental peculiarities, and as long as it doesn’t get in the way of business, it’s OK. So Tony gets some counseling so that he doesn’t go to pieces over a hit, a shakedown, or a protection money bomb through a store window.  The movie Analyze This with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal as mafia boss and his psychiatrist tells pretty much the same story.  How can De Niro kill people if his emotions get the best of him?

There is a difference between these caricatures and the real-life world of depression, schizophrenia, and mania in which people see things, suffer painful episodes of mental misery, and want to kill themselves or others.  It is this real illness which deserves attention.  My aunt lived for many years with clinical depression, but she was afraid to admit it.  She made life miserable for my uncle and my cousins.  She sat for hours in dark, airless rooms, brooding and angry.  Not only did she suffer but made everyone around her miserable. They were the cause of her desperate unhappiness.  They were the ones who unfairly criticized her, never loved her, and dismissed her as irrelevant. 

Many years into this extended period of gloom and desperation, she needed a pacemaker. The cardiologist, following a well-established post-operative protocol asked her how she was feeling, and whether or not she felt depressed.  It is common, he told her, for women to feel down in the dumps after getting a pacemaker.  An intimation of mortality.

This was the socially acceptable moment she had been waiting for for 20 years.  Hers was a medical condition, not a mental one.  Yes, she said.  In fact she was not feeling herself these days.  From then on she took Xanax for her ‘chemical imbalance’ and the curtains that had for so long closed her in a dark room were opened.

Between the two poles, however; between the Soprano/Martin caricatures and the seriously ill, there is an unbelievable range of wackos, nuts, and creeps.  At my own gym, for example there are some truly scary people.  One guy dresses and acts like Ghost Dog.

He always dresses in black, never takes off his hoodie, never smiles, and is just plain creepy. He straps on Inquisition-style belts and harnesses, runs on the treadmill all trussed up, and then sits and looks out at the gym floor filled with eager but timid 30-somethings and matrons keeping the tummy tuck tight.  Everyone at the gym gives him wide berth.

There is another member who suits up in racing silks like a jockey.  Under then he wears layers of rubber and foam insulation.  He wears a ski hat and thick leggings.  He talks to himself on the stationary bike.

I know a man who absolutely, positively cannot run counter-clockwise around the indoor track.  He is perfectly fine otherwise.  In fact after the gym he heads down to a K Street law firm and goes home to a wife and two kids.  It’s just that there is a screw loose upstairs and no matter how hard he may try to tighten it, nothing works.  Because the track direction reverses every other day, he only runs when the flow is clockwise.

There are legions of hypochondriacs wandering the streets of Washington.  I see them on the Metro rocking in mid-aisle, doing pirouettes to avoid touching the center poles, the seats, or the doors. Perfectly ordinary businesswomen avoid touching the lines on the sidewalk. I see panic attacks in the elegant lobby of the Willard; nervous hives on the bus; and irrepressible bursts of solo laughter on the elevator.

All these people are nuts in one form or another.  I never paid them much mind until sharing your disability became popular.  I took tics, funny mannerisms, twitches, and minor paranoia in stride. We all have some kind of quirk or oddity. Only when it gets weird do we notice. It is common, for example, to wonder whether we have turned off the gas and to run back into the house before heading off for the weekend; but when a friend has to make two or three trips to make absolutely, positively sure, then the screw needs tightening if not replacing.

I know one woman who has a routine established to cure her of this turn-off-the-gas obsession.  As she is turning off the burner on the stove, she holds the knob tight and says out loud, “OK.  Now I AM TURNING OFF THE BURNER!”  This bit of theatre never works, of course, and not until some trigger in her brain is pulled – perhaps after the fifth or sixth trip into the kitchen – can she quit.

For a while I could put up with her gas burner compulsion; but soon whatever was eroding the wiring in her head affected other circuits.  No sooner had we gotten onto the Beltway when she said, “Stop the car.  I’ve got to check something”.  She would not let me wait for a proper turnoff or a rest area.  I saw the panic in her eyes and knew that it was curtains for me if I didn’t stop. 

In this confessional age of ours, everyone is coming clean, apologizing, or admitting something that by rights they should be keeping to themselves.  “I have erectile dysfunction”, a friend casually told me.  Now, that was something that a few years ago was not even whispered; but in today’s Viagra climate, anything goes.  Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there.  “I could get it partially up”, he confided, “but not all the way.  Now, with Viagra, I am as hard as a steel rod”  This was far more than I wanted to know, particularly since I had to look at his withered dick and shriveled balls every day at the gym.

All this hoopla does not create a concern for serious mental illness but trivializes it. There are people who are truly and legitimately so afraid of heights that they cannot cross the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore.  They are crippled by their anxiety, and cannot make it either to the beach or to New Jersey (Delaware Memorial Bridge) because of it.  So when someone leans over one of the bridges over Rock Creek Parkway and says that they suffer from acrophobia, I have no patience.  Everybody is afraid of falling from precipitous heights, and it is a good thing that they are.

Too many normal people tell me they are taking Xanax or Prozac, seeing a psychiatrist, or having psychological counseling. They are trying to sort out a bad marriage, a bullying boss, or insidious co-workers and need to talk about it.  Talk about what? Sign the divorce papers, call out your boss to Senior Management, and start spreading vicious rumors about your colleagues. Just don’t run crying to the shrink and then tell me about it.

Brains go wrong just like kidneys, says The Telegraph’s Childers; and so we should pay them the same mind.  Yes, but within limits.  I would hope that all seriously mentally ill people seek help, and perhaps public discussion of the problem can help to dispel the social opprobrium around it.  It’s just the self-centered whiners that bug me.  I wish that my friend would keep his erectile dysfunction to himself, and that Jane Thompson would simply not lean out over Buffalo Bridge.  There are so many wackos wandering around that it takes work and strategy to try to not look at them.  I have changed my gym hours so that I don’t have to watch Ghost Dog do his Inquisition number on the treadmill. Oops.  Perhaps one of my own screws is now loose.

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