The days have gone, thank God, when we simply couldn’t talk about mental illness. When families had a dotty aunt whom they hid in a suite in the back of the ancestral home. When the errant son who got into trouble was written off, banished, never mentioned again.
It wasn’t that long ago, though, when anybody with a disability was shipped off to a separate school for the blind or the deaf. When mental illness wasn’t even considered a disability -- it was a disgrace that reflected badly upon the family.
It’s not that way anymore. But yes it still is.
When someone breaks a bone, gets an infected tooth, or has surgery to remove an appendix, we don’t think any less of that person for their “illness.” But a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or autism instantly diminishes that person’s value.
Brain and mind
A marvelous thing, this human brain. We can live without one or more limbs. We can live without an appendix, a gall bladder, a spleen. We cannot live without a brain.
Although we don’t know yet what a mind is, we know that it requires a brain.
And we also know that some brains run on a different operating system. It’s almost inevitable, now, that episodes of violence in the news -- whether domestic or mass murders -- will be blamed on some kind of mental disorder.
They must be mentally ill, we reason, even to contemplate killing innocent people. They must be mentally ill, we think, to fall for the lies and propaganda of terrorism. They must be mentally ill, to get satisfaction out of beating up their spouses, their children, their parents.
And so the cry goes up for mental health services, to recognize and treat these “illnesses” before they’re no longer dangerous.
Because they’re not normal.
Crossing a boundary
We need to broaden our definitions of “normal.”
Earlier this week, I briefly crossed over a boundary between normal and… and… well, not normal. From what I could learn from Google and the hospital doctors, I had something called Transient Global Amnesia, or TGA. That’s my diagnosis; don’t hold me to it.
One moment I was joking with a dental hygienist. I had no pills or anesthetics.
Then I got up from the dental chair, put on my coat, paid my bill, walked down the stairs and out the front door. Except that I can’t remember any of it.
A while later, I called my wife. I still knew who she was. I knew how to use my cell phone. And apparently I said to her, “I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know how I got here.”
“Call 9-1-1,” she said.
I think I had a pleasant conversation with the dispatcher. I read some street signs to give her my location. I think I had a lucid discussion with the paramedics in the ambulance when it arrived later. At the hospital’s emergency department, I knew my name, my address, and my birthdate.
But when I glanced at the clock on the wall, I was shocked that 90 minutes had gone by, time that I knew nothing about.
“Don’t try to figure out what happened to that hour,” an emergency nurse told me. “It’s gone forever.”
Hard on my self-esteem
Ordinarily, I pride myself on keeping a clear mind. I can remember details that others forget, or never noticed at all. I can (or could) transcribe an entire interview from memory, when my tape recorder broke down. I think of myself as calm, reasonable, logical.
If my mind can shut down, if only for an hour or so, how can I look down on people whose minds don’t work well all the time?
I even hesitated to write this column, fearing it lose me some respect.
By coincidence, that same week, I had been reading the book by Steve Lopez, about his friendship with a schizophrenic black musician named Nathanial Ayers. You may have seen it as the movie The Soloist.
Ayers was unpredictable. Erratic. Brilliant. Difficult. But he was a human being, who wanted, who needed, friendship without judgement. Compassion. Love.
I find it hard to extend non-judgement even to myself. I feel that I should have seen this episode coming, somehow. That I should be able to identify a clearly defined cause, so that I can avoid it in future.
Just as I used to think that the down-and-out and homeless, like Nathanial Ayers of this world, should be able to turn themselves around. Take some initiative. Hoist themselves by their bootstraps, as the saying goes.
I’m all right again. But I have a lot more sympathy for people with mental illnesses than I used to have.
I hope you will too.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last Sunday’s column was about the delight some of us (Canadians, that is) feel about Donald Trump’s impeachment proceeding through the House of Representatives.
Several Americans wrote in support.
Ruth Saver wrote, “Impeachment won't resolve any of the myriad problems caused in, for, and about America and Americans by the current president. There is hope, however, that the process will prove that there is at least some floor at which toleration of cupidity, cruelty, and criminality finds a swift and painful stop before there is no action too low for an American president and his/her administration to take with impunity. Even if there is no resolution before the 2020 election, the weight of evidence made available to the public may swing this country back toward more rational leadership that is not bent on making America an authoritarian state.
Roger Graf had similar thoughts: “As much as I would love to see President Trump impeached and out of office, I don’t believe there is any chance this will happen in the climate of our Congress. Impeachment hearings do bring out the offences that Trump has committed, but that won’t change his continued misuse of his power. I worry that the impeachment hearings will go on for months, even into the election next year. All of this will take our representatives away from doing important business that our country needs done, addressing issues that need addressing, and trying to pass laws that that will offset some of the actions that Trump is doing like re-uniting caged children with the parents, stopping the raping of our national parks, protecting the rights of immigrants, and stopping all the conservative people appointed to be life-time judges.”
Jane Wallbrown had a challenge for my spellchecker: “Who is Eisenhauer?”
She went on, “Americans like to think we live by the rule of law. My hope is that all the current shenanigans will end up at the Supreme Court and sanity will be restored. Balance will be achieved. THAT balance is what has made USA great. No one branch can think they are better than the other. Currently Congress and Executive are battling it but battling it increasingly through the courts. Slowly but surely the third part of the balance....judicial...is getting involved. In my view there are many, many examples where Trump has behaved as if there was no law...that he was beyond the law. Not only has he behaved that way, he has expressed that very view. It takes great people to keep a balance. It means compromise; working together for the greater good. It will eventually become the Supreme Court's turn to bring everyone to heel.”
Isabel Gibson agreed that impeachment was “political theater all round.” Then she added, “A quibble with your assessment of why Clinton was impeached. I believe it was not for his sexual activity in the Oval Office but for lying to Congress about it.”
Ruth Buzzard wrote with some heart-warming incidents from her recent travels in the U.S., and summarized, “Donald Trump may be their President, but average Americans have not lost their kindness and generosity.”
Steve Roney wrote, “Have to agree with you about impeachment. It is an expensive process that will leave government less able to function for many months, and whatever you think of Trump, it will do nothing. Other than discredit the Democratic leadership in the House.
“So what exactly is the point? You suggest it is to embarrass Trump. Have you seen any evidence that Trump gets embarrassed?
“Even suppose that by some miracle it succeeds—that he is both impeached and removed from office. This is all happening barely a year before the next presidential election. Obviously, if he has done something egregious, the proper course is to let him face the wrath of the people. To proceed now is therefore to deliberately subvert their will and express contempt for democracy. The electorate is surely likely to respond by voting him right back into office.”
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ALVA WOOD ARCHIVE
The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.