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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tics, Radio Waves, And Military Turns On Broadway–We Are All A Bit Demented

Mental illness is nothing to laugh about.  Millions of people wake up at night in a cold sweat, tormented by their demons, alone and afraid.  Millions more are catatonically afraid that they will never make it off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, unable to step on sidewalk lines, and petrified of prairies, plains, and rangeland. Legions of Americans have tics, nervous twitches, and dry coughs.  They are afraid of touching doorknobs, riding on the subway, or going to the movies.  Many more are so obsessed with dying that every step is their last, and they will never make it to the top of the stairs.

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There is a woman who makes precise military turns on Broadway between 115th and 116th Street.  As stiff and regimentally correct as a Marine, she strides from one end of the block to the other, then pivots sharply and returns up the other side.

A man who visits the bird house of the National Zoo every day wears a multicolored beanie with small propeller on top, a metallic-colored vest festooned with aluminum streamers, a steel codpiece, and high equestrian boots. He hears voices beamed through radio waves; and although he has armored himself against them, every ten minutes he will stand up, shake his hand at the bird-filled net, and shout, “No more.  No more! I will not do what you say. Never, never, never.”  He sits down on the bench, composed, even dignified, and waits for the next burst of low frequency energy.

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The only reason there are not more demented people on the streets, more people with twitches and tics, and more hysteria, neuroses, and manic depression is because of Zoloft, Prozac, and ten thousand other psychoactive drugs available today. In fact nearly three-quarters of Americans of all ages take some prescribed medicine, and anti-depressants are Number Two on the list.  Mental disorders, then, are way ahead of diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and arthritis.  The only drugs prescribed more often are antibiotics.

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It is hard to imagine what would happen if malicious geeks hacked all the world’s major pharmaceuticals and gummed up the works on assembly lines producing psychoactive medications.  Not only would there be one crazy black widow doing military turns on Broadway, there would be hundreds. The thousands of borderline schizophrenics who would join Radio Man in the birdhouse.

Lights would be going on at 2am in houses up and down the block as neighbors woke up with existential panic, a fluttering heartbeat, and the certainty that they were about to die. Managed tics would become full facial grimaces, and mysophobia would not stop at a quick swipe of kitchen counters but turn into a permanent disinfection of the whole house. Fear of death, kept in check by medication, would become epidemic; and Armageddon and the Apocalypse would become not just probabilities, but certainty.

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America would become a zoo.  It is of course not politically correct to make fun of the mentally ill, but one has to admit that there is something very funny indeed about Radio Man or the Black Widow. 

I had a colleague once who had a well-kept but paranoiac fear of magenta. God only knows what childhood trauma had precipitated such anxiety – perhaps a sexually abusive mother who always wore a magenta-colored dress when she bathed him; or the magenta-painted walls of his bedroom which he associated with the monsters and demons which visited him every night – but the fact remained that Henry Perkins was a normal, predictable, and routine a man except when he saw the color magenta.

 Image result for images Fifties woman in a magenta colored dress

It was fortunate for Henry that magenta is not a common color especially on institutional walls, but it did pop up on a retro Fifties sweater or on a boubou worn by one of the Senegalese women he worked with in Dakar. On the advice of his doctor he took no medication – no reason to dampen his vitality because of one, very limited and precise anxiety – but if the color caught him off guard, he had to leave work and self-medicate.

Another colleague had a nose-twitch like a bunny; and whenever the boss of our department came into the room, it started.  It began innocuously enough, barely noticeable and no different from the common involuntary stop-sneeze reflex; but as the boss began to lay into us for lagging sales or customer satisfaction, the twitch became more and more pronounced until his eyes shut, his upper gums showed, and his cheeks contracted.  He was simply unable to control himself.  He looked like Sid Caesar doing a routine on The Comedy Hour.  

So what has happened to all of us?  It is hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson with a nose twitch or Alexander Hamilton waking in a night sweat concerned about his mortality when he had the French to worry about.  It is even harder to imagine the Pilgrims, the pioneers, or the soldiers in Andrew Jackson’s victorious army beset by anxiety and debilitating fear.

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For one thing death came early, often painfully, and many times horribly. It is hard to read Tolstoy’s account of the Battle of Borodino without wondering how Russian troops, knowing they faced almost certain death (70,000 soldiers were lost in the battle in only one day of fighting), managed to fight with equanimity and even humor.  Tolstoy recounts the camaraderie and surprising levity among the men before the battle.  If they didn’t die on the battlefield at 21, they would certainly die of consumption, the plague, infection, or accident before they were 30.

The uncertainty of death – our sense that death may come; but we can hold it off until we’re well into our nineties – makes us more anxious and more frightful. Choice – that unhappy alternative given to us by God and mercilessly challenged by Dostoevsky in The Grand Inquisitor – makes life more upsetting.  When there was no question about faith, belief, obedience, morality, ethics, or responsibility, we lived out our lives predictably and routinely if not necessarily happily. Now that everything is questioned, how could anxiety about the future, one’s place in the order of things, and ultimate meaning not be common?

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Most of us, of course, deal with this existential angst and bewildering choice quietly; but there are those whose troubles gurgle up to the surface, get transmogrified and twisted into tics, twitches, and unreasonable fears.

Fortunately there are only a relatively few true psychotics in the world – Radio Man and the Black Widow are good examples – and although what they do is funny, it is just as hard to imagine their torment as the equanimity of the young Russian soldier before battle.

Yet we are all unmistakably animals in the same zoo.  Some more ferocious, others more languid or jumpy; but we all have our quirks, mental anomalies, and absurd behavior.

Take preppers, for example.  These generally normal people are convinced that the United States government has secret plans to establish a military socialist dictatorship in the country; and all freethinking citizens must arm themselves. Their basements are better-stocked than most small town armories.  They carry, carry openly, and diversify their arsenal.  A Glock 9mm for the holster; a .22 snub-nose for the ankle; an AK-47 above the bed; and a variety of Uzis, Berettas, and Brownings everywhere else.

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I met a prepper in a small town in Mississippi a few years ago, and after I got to know him, he invited me to visit his ‘man-cave’.  Not only had he enough weaponry to arm the National Guard, but he had levels of bottled water, canned goods, and medicines to last him through the longest siege. After twenty minutes of listening to his theories about federal plots, collusions, and international conspiracies, I knew he was batty.  He might not have qualified for psychiatric admission or even Zoloft; but he was as nutty as a fruitcake.

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A distant relative was a member of a millennial cult in Idaho which believed in nuclear Armageddon which would result from an all-out exchange with the Soviet Union.  The leader of the church instructed all members to help build a warren of underground shelters and to supply it with enough supplies to last until the nuclear winter finally warmed.  They would then emerge and repopulate the earth.

Once again, none of the congregants would ever be classified as mentally disturbed; but there was no other way of describing them.  Anyone who would welcome a nuclear holocaust so that they could be resurrected in the name of Jesus Christ as the new Chosen People was as loony as anyone on the planet.

Image result for images moses leading the jews out of egypt

My cousin gets a bad feeling every time she passes a Catholic church, thanks to the Little Sisters of Mercy who had scared the wits out of her with their talk of sin, Satan, and the certainty of eternal hellfire. A close friend has never gotten over the slights she endured as an ugly child in a cohort group of blonde, blue-eyed Americans. Another cannot shake a preternatural fear of bones, thanks to her father’s innocent, joking reference to a hambone he said was from the thigh of a 19th century pirate.

I know scores of men who have an exaggerated sense of their own attractiveness and importance. One is a clueless jerk who thinks that he is the smartest, most insightful and perceptive person in Culver City. He is a bore and a pest.  He is just as batty as all the preppers, holocaust-enviers, and fearful, skittish, and unrealistically timid people I have met in my life.

It is clear that we are all have a few screws loose.  We are either just a little bit off-plumb or truly wacky; but it seems that no one escapes. No, I stand corrected.  I know one person who is completely centered, rational, practical, and solidly normal.  Nothing phases her. She sleeps like a baby, knows how to fill time productively, takes reverses in stride, and never looks either backward or forward.  Where did she come from?  What felicitous combination of genes and upbringing made her the most remarkably sane and untroubled woman in America?

Everything in life falls somewhere on some bell curve, and she must be on one of the asymptotes – far from the crazies at the apogee and probably with a few bits of the irrational stuck somewhere in the cracks; but noticeably well-adjusted and happy. 

So there are normal people out there; but you have to traipse through a three-ring circus to find them. 

Image result for image 19th century barnum and bailey three ring circus

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