I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just A Little Unwell – A blast from the past post 10/12
So, are writers mentally ill?
By whose definition?
Look, part of the whole problem with the deinstitutionalisation of the mentally ill, which goes all the way back to the early seventies at least, and as far as theory is concerned probably a lot further, is that health professionals started, DELIBERATELY blurring the lines between mental illness and mental health.
Part of this was – I think – a genuine effort to make it possible for some people classified as “mentally ill” to be able to make a go of it in the community. A lot of new psychiatric drugs had been discovered which, while they didn’t heal, masked the symptoms of mental illness and therefore made it possible for these people to integrate in normal society – provided they would take their meds (more on that later.)
The other part – I know, my SIL took the mental-health portion of her MD in the late seventies – was the insane “equivalence brigade” which tried very hard to convince themselves that the US too did EXACTLY the same things the USSR did. Since the USSR put political dissenters in mental hospitals, then the people in US hospitals MUST be also political dissenters. This was hard to prove, since the Soviet system provided ideological support for mental treatment of dissenters: i.e. the Marxist system was perfect, so anyone disagreeing must be mad, while the American system mostly tried to get people off the streets who would do harm to themselves and/or others. However the medical profession found their justification in an upside-down of the Marxist system. Since Capitalism was bad for humans and other living things, then everyone who went mad under capitalism were, ipso facto, political dissenters. So, if you happened to be a woman who liked to throw rocks at strangers and go into bizarre monologues on the subject of cabbage, you weren’t mad, you were a feminist protesting male aggression.
Now I have no proof this was intentional or a coordinated AGITPROP operation. It’s entirely possible it was (merely) the predictable mix of ill-intentioned agents and well-intentioned idiot fellow travelers.
However the end result was making people too crazy to live alone into political victims and incidentally to give the USSR room to claim the capitalist system created homelessness.
Fortunately or not, the intervening decades have brought more and more evidence that a lot of mental illnesses have a physical basis.
Also, curiously, just like the “freeing” of women has resulted in a lot of them behaving like Victorian maidens who demand special protection from those all-masterful men, the blurring of boundaries has worked in the other direction too.
I’ve mentioned here before that … must be… 14? 13? Years ago, I had a UTI that didn’t let me sleep for a week, and then on my birthday, all the sixty stories or so that I had out came back rejected. And I had a cold. Also, Dan was in the middle of one of those projects that caused him to work eighteen hour days. He got out because it was my birthday, in time to take me to dinner. We had a babysitter. As I got in the car, Dan looked at me and said “You look dead. What’s wrong?” When I told him, he said, “We’re going to emergency.”
So, there I am on my birthday, getting prescriptions for various ailments and knowing when we got out it would be too late to go to dinner (which I’d been looking forward to for weeks) and the doctor tells me “You look depressed.” I said “I am a bit” and explained why. And he told me “No, no, You misunderstand the process. Depression is caused by an imbalance in your brain. If I give you Prozac you’ll feel better and that proves it’s chemical.”
My answer was unprintable, and I think I called him a witch doctor. BUT he was absolutely convinced of what he was saying.
Since then, older boy has taken psychology. I read his textbook (you can’t trust these critters.) And guess what? ANY fluctuation of mood is now described as bipolar. Apparently we’re supposed to be on an exact even keel all the time, like robots. External factors are discounted and it’s all “brain chemicals.”
I think witchdoctoring is light.
But what this means is that more and more, I keep finding the “clinicalization” of perfectly normal conditions.
I mean, I knew growing up that dad was of what we could describe as a “depressive habit.” Not that he moped, but he read a lot of history and he had this tendency to think our most principled days were behind us. I also knew mom was bipolar and SHOULD have been on meds, because she could get outright scary. One of these things is not like the other. Dad was inclined to be saddish and think the world a sad place, but he never talked about killing himself. To be honest neither did mom, whose stronger cycles are maniacal and involve things like painting half a house overnight. BUT to the untrained eye it was very clear who could do harm to him/herself and others, and who wouldn’t.
Even for someone of a depressive habit who might have suicidal thoughts, if never acted upon, it’s probably not a concern (at least if they’re over thirty and aren’t doing anything else related to depression.) But go to any doctor and admit you’ve thought of opening your wrists in a warm bath, no matter what the provocation, you go on the happy drugs. EVEN if they had to prod and poke and ask if you ever had the slightest suicidal thoughts, and even if the thought was twenty years ago.
And my kid once quoted Ray Bradbury in a school essay to the extent that “I’m seventeen and I’m crazy. My uncle says both happen together.” Mind you, he went on to explain he was only fourteen, but he felt that adolescence was a difficult time period. You guessed it. They sent him to a psychiatrist without telling us. Fortunately the younger kid is sane as a rock (literally. He’s so stubborn and so sure of who he is at his core that he’s like solid rock) so the psychiatrist told the counselor she was making a storm in a teacup.
I would suggest (because I can, because this is my blog, d*mn it) the old definition of mental illness from the village – you might have all sorts of crazy beliefs in your own home, on your own time; you might believe that there is a miraculous shrine of the Virgin formed by mold on your wall, and you might pray to it everyday; you might think your dog is your kid’s reincarnation; you might think you have to wear purple or the demons get you; you might still be mourning your husband who died forty years ago. No one cares about any of this, and people will laugh a little behind your back (sometimes. Unless they’re crazier) but you’re still a functioning member of the community. HOWEVER if you believe you see the devil in your kid’s (or dog’s) eyes and go after the creature with a knife; if you decide you can no longer wear clothes and start wandering the streets stark naked screaming judgment is coming; if you think you’re an onion and start taking slices off yourself, the village elders (after being prodded by their wives) are going to put you in a car and take you to the asylum, because you can’t function as a member of the community. (Turned out the gentleman who was going around naked did so because he was convinced from the neck down his body wasn’t his, and that someone had replaced it in the night. Turns out that this isn’t mental illness, but the result of a stroke. We didn’t know that, and yes, mistakes will happen. But mistakes will happen either way because we’re human. He actually went around screaming “This isn’t mine.” And yes, he died in the asylum, something that upsets my older son very much.)
So, are writers crazy? Let me say right up front that even if you go by historical standards, no creative person seems to have his/her head on quite the right way. I mean Da Vinci? Van Gogh? In the composers, it’s entirely possible Liszt was sane, but I’d like proof of that. Among artists, writers are almost sane. Or at least we can pass. I mean, I could make guesses about Jane Austen, but no one around her seemed to think she was nuts.
Is this because we’re sane? Look guys, leveling with you: I’ve had characters appear fully formed in my head and speak in such a compelling voice I had to write it (Lucius Dante Maximillian Keeva of A Few Good Men was one of those. So was the Athos of the vampire musketeers.) This can’t be normal. I’ve had books come to a grinding halt, because I wasn’t getting the dictation right. This can’t be normal. I’ve had stories haunt me and hunt me down for years till I write them. I write 4+ books a year. THIS CAN’T BE NORMAL.
And yet, I raised my kids no worse than anyone else. I keep the house clean(ish). I have been known to curse/throw things at the TV, but only during political campaigns, and who hasn’t?
Am I crazy? Probably. Certainly I’m very different from the norm. However, I can function as a member of the community.
And I’m not going to say that without MY peculiarities society would lose a great deal. I’m just going to say that without the peculiarities of most artists – if those were cured or masked instead of tolerated, society WOULD have lost a great deal.
So, there is a method to madness, or at least a use. And if it doesn’t impair your other functions, only a madman would try to “fix” it.