Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mental Illness can be downright disturbing

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading that I am mentally ill.  Depression, and ADHD I've been diagnosed with.  Asperger's I'd argue isn't actually a mental illness but simply me occupying a different spot on a spectrum, a spectrum on which all human beings can be classed, than most people.  Others occupying a similar position argue that it is a mental illness and long for a cure.  There are some other things that might exist as well but in small enough amounts not to merit a diagnosis (then again that was the case with ADHD until the depression got out of its way.)

So I'm sort of "Mentally Ill Person Ahoy!"

And yet, at the same time, I can be just as freaked out by other mentally ill people as anyone else.

For example, today in one of my classes, while we were discussing sophists and rhetoric and a speech by a sophist in defense of Helen of Troy made just because he felt like making such a speech, the person next to me stood up and said that she had had enough and was leaving, she believed that it was clear that the teacher was making less than complementary references to her as a sort of undertow to her discussion   A hidden meaning just below the surface, at first she was adamant on this point and began to pack up her stuff, the teacher repeated several times that she (the teacher) had been doing no such thing.

The student asked for reassurance multiple times, something like, "You're really not?" repeatedly.  To which the teacher repeatedly said, "I'm not."

Then the student, having been calmed, sat down.  Let me remind you, right next to me.

And I was disturbed for the rest of the class.  After she left at the end of the class, still disturbed.  A feeling somewhere in my gut of deep unease in a place that I used to call my stomach until I learned that that's not actually where one's stomach is.  I don't think it went away until I was out of the building.

Was there any reason to believe that she was dangerous?  No.  In fact by demonstrating that she was (probably) mentally ill she placed herself in a category that I've always been told is less likely to do violence than the population at large.

I was none the less very disturbed.

As were other members of the class.

In fact I worry that if she thought she was being singled out beforehand people's reactions to her afterward might have confirmed that in her mind, because (however irrational such feelings may be) she was suddenly the scary person in the room.

I would have been more comfortable if she hadn't been talked down and had stormed off believing that the teacher was sending secret, and insulting, messages her way.  I wasn't the only one.  Is this uncharitable on my part?  Absolutely.  Were I a Christian there are any number of Bible verses you could slam me with to prove that I'm a horrible person for feeling that way.  I'd hazard a guess that other religions have similar prohibitions against putting your comfort over another person's well being in your manner of viewing the world.

It was clear that she was in a world the rest of us didn't occupy hearing things, or at least interpreting things, the rest of us couldn't, and that break from what I'm going to hope was reality was downright disturbing.

And it is interactions such as these that perhaps color people's beliefs about mental illness.  Not the statistics, not the reality of the situation, not the fact that she is presumably a normal person most of the time and this break from reality could likely have been prevented with appropriate care just as a hairline fracture can be prevented from becoming a much worse break in the bone if it's recognized and treated while still a hairline fracture.  Not the reality, but the feeling in ones gut.  The discomfort, the unease, the deep-felt belief that something very, very wrong just happened.

And that's assuming that people have any encounters with mental illness that they recognize as mental illness in the first place.  Otherwise they're just bombarded with the news people saying that every heinous act or belief is "crazy" or "insane".

But as human beings I think we need to be able to rise above gut reactions or abuses of language.  The girl sitting next to me in class disturbed me greatly, but that is no reason that I shouldn't wish her well and speak out in favor of her and all like her getting help.  That is no reason I shouldn't vote in her best interest whenever it is in my power to do so.

Even though I hear terms for mental illness used in the news to describe everything from the ill advised to the downright evil that doesn't mean that I should ever take my eyes off the fact that the news stories in which these terms are used are almost (but not quite) always about this misdeeds of sane people.  And, it must be added, doesn't mean that I shouldn't flat out reject any proposed solution that ignores the actual problem (sane people do bad things) and instead tries to shift the focus onto mental illness.

When someone has a break from reality, as the person next to me did today, it is downright disturbing and can result in an unpleasant visceral reaction.  But that doesn't change the fact that the only real problem is that she's not getting the medical care she needs to not misinterpret ordinary classroom talk as coded attacks.  It also doesn't change the fact that, if left untreated, she would almost certainly be able to make a better contribution to society than I would if left untreated.

My mental illnesses generally don't draw attention to themselves or me.  Without treatment I become the invisible person, the one you're vaguely aware is there but don't remember much about.  And that's assuming I'm able to show up in the first place.  I don't really know the girl I was sitting next to, I pay attention to class in class and don't tend to make much small talk before or after so my classmates remain largely unknown to me, but my best guess is that even with the occasional bout of paranoia she's still able to accomplish more than me when not treated.  I assume she's not treated now, but even if this semester has been her on good treatment, I still think that she'd do better than me in the absence of treatment for the both of us.

Similarly for the person who doesn't know anyone with a mental illness... well first off they're almost certainly wrong.  They probably know multiple people with mental illnesses, they're just unaware that those people have them.  But second, it's important for them to not let themselves be confused about where the problem lies when the sensationalist non-fact-checking thing that the news has become reports anything as crazy or insane or any other synonym for mental illness.  It's important to remember that the vast majority of the time the problem is sane people misbehaving and react accordingly whenever someone suggests that the solution to the problem of sane people misbehaving is to restrict the freedoms or invade the privacy of the mentally ill.


  1. It is a visceral reaction. And part of the problem is having to accept that there is nothing wrong with being on your guard; but being on your guard doesn't have to mean shunning, reviling, and so on, it just means taking a bit of care.

    (And yeah, like everything in biology, it's not binary - you can't divide all of humanity into "the mentally ill" and "the mentally well" any more than you can divide it into "male" and "female", even if some members of it are very clearly in one box or the other.)

  2. We offered a schizophrenic acquaintance a place to stay, some years ago. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, in large part because of the issue you describe. Once you realize someone is not following one rule, even a small rule, or is not seeing the consensus world, even a little bit, you start to wonder--what other rules? what other areas of disagreement? How safe am I really?

    It turned out that I was physically safe but at risk of property damage and lies. Nothing I couldn't live with, and yet it was incredibly hard to live with, not knowing where the boundaries would be--so it's property damage today, what about tomorrow? So today she's telling people she slept with my husband, what might she say to the police tomorrow?

    When she came to us she had a sheet of 11 things she had to do as a condition of her release from jail. She didn't do any of them. I sat with her one day and listened to her explaining why she didn't really have to do them. Nothing I said made any impression. So at the end of two weeks she went back to jail. I don't know if that helped. She did settle down a little bit a few months later, enough to find a place to live and keep out of immediate police trouble. I don't think she's getting the treatment she needs, but without her consent there's nothing to be done.

    The community she and I belonged to wanted to help her, but there didn't seem to be much we could do. I couldn't have lived with her for much longer. And she had been raised to hate and fear mental health professionals (her parents were Scientologists) and whatever different ideas she had learned as an adult left her when she became severely ill. I guess the only thing I could find to do is lobby for better education and better public attitude.

    1. I need to remember to save things before I try to post them. My home internet connection seems to suck and always seems to cut out at just the right moment for me to lose what I said. As, you might imagine, just happened.

      Anyway, better education seems to me to be the solution to just about everything, provided you're thinking long term (which, a lot of people can't because they have problems now.) That includes a better public attitude. In the long term better education can do that.

      The problem is that it never seems to be that simple. If you say, "Country X is doing better than us on education, why don't we look to see what they're doing that we're not?" American Exceptionalism seems to dictate a response of, "No. We don't need to look at anyone else, we can solve all of our problems with solutions we come up with ourselves." I don't really know why that is, it would still be American Exceptionalism to say, "Yeah. Because anything X can do we can do better. So, let's see what they're doing, do it ourselves, and beat the pants off them." It would just be American Exceptionalism that drove us toward solutions instead of away from them.

      It also seems to always end up that saying, "We need to better fund and support our public education system," is met with, "No. We need to privatize and have voucher programs that take funding away from it, and crush the damn teachers' unions."

      Everything is political, nothing is ever, "We can all agree that for the common good we should have [whatever, in this case a better educated populous]."


      If I can get up the courage, and I don't know if I can (I have enough trouble initiating a conversation when I don't have a visceral, if irrational, discomfort with the person in question), I think what I'm going to try to do is to tell her about my experiences with University Counselling Services.

      I worry that anything suggesting she get help will come off as, "I think you're crazy," which I don't think will result in her getting help. But if I can make it enough about me, "I've had good experiences with them. When I feel attacked talking to them can help me. Going there helps me," (all of which is true) then maybe she'll see me as coming from a similar place which (with many caveats) I am and maybe that will get her to seek out help for herself.

      I don't know though.

      Maybe there's nothing I can do to help. Worse still, maybe trying to help will make things worse.

    2. As far as I can see, if one simply says "schools shall have more money", there's no shortage of people who are willing to skim that off before it gets turned into competent teachers and books and things. Some of those people certainly work for teachers' unions. Others work for local government. Others work for producers of educational materials (the price doubles, at a minimum, just because it's "for schools"). And so on...

  3. Someone I knew in high school* told me about how he convinced a schizophrenic friend he had to take his meds.

    They sat down, had a long conversation, and finally reached the conclusion that the shadowy people only his friend could see, and only then when he was off his meds, were real but that his friend was better off not seeing them. Thus his friend decided to take his meds.

    It would be nice if everything had a solution that simple.


    * He was not a teacher but someone with a similar position in terms of age and authority. Instead of teaching classes he specialized in helping people like me, and people worse than me (those with learning disabilities; those with mental disabilities of whatever kind.)