Monday, December 17, 2012

What We Fear Most

After urging the Gentlemen In Congress to STAND UP earlier today, I sat around in my jammies, drinking coffee and watching the heartwrenching CNN reporting from Newtown. I ate some of Lars's Famous German Potato Salad. When time was running out before I had to pick Benjy up at school I took a belated shower.

I did not do any work on the essay I'd planned to write today. I made no medical appointments, bought no groceries, cleaned no kitchens, and walked no Hellacious Hounds. (I did take one out for a quick pee during a commercial break, but that was the extent of my dog-walkery.)

What I did was, I thought. And here is what I figured out:

When my sister was dying of breast cancer at age 36, I did not blame her for it. I was not angry that she would soon leave some young children, a husband, and a lot of other people who loved her behind. And no one else was, either. We were sad, of course, but not angry. Because everyone understood that her cells had gone haywire, that her body had betrayed her. Everyone knew she would have preferred to see her children grow up.

Even when I could not bear to look at her bald and wasted body, I did not shun her. No one did. She was helpless in the face of her body's disease and disorder.

When I encounter a person with a prosthetic limb, I do not blame that person for his or her loss. I do not feel shame for them, nor do I think they should feel shame.

A person with heart disease does not seem culpable in my eyes, nor in the eyes of most others.

It's true that when I was a young girl with Tourette's, and I had my assortment of oddball tics, I was ashamed, thought myself a lesser person, not worthy of friendship or respect, because other people seemed to think so. I don't feel that way anymore but perhaps others do. Because Tourette's is maybe a little scary. It's not necessarily recognizable, the way cancer or diabetes are, and it is also a very, very public disability.

But no one who has it chose it, that I can assure you.

Like Tourette's, mental illness is scary. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes them want to look away.

Not only that, but it is often mysterious. Where did those voices in Aunt Gertrude's head come from, anyway? Why is Jack so deeply depressed? No one in the family has ever been so depressed, at least not that we know of.

Then there is the problem of treatment. Oh, you broke your leg? The orthopedist knows just what to do, how long you will need to wear the cast, and when you will be walking normally again. If he doesn't, he can come pretty darn close.

Oh, you have gout? Here's how we treat that. Here's what you ought not to eat. If you dine like a Victorian gentleman your sore foot will get worse, of this we can be sure.

But what about the kid who sneaks off into the basement and cuts herself? Who bangs his head against the wall? What about the kid who sits with her head on her desk all day long at school? Who cannot stray more than a block beyond his house?

Sure, there are medications for these things. There is therapy and psychiatry. Often they work, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes mental ailments go away and come back again. And this is hard to understand, especially for a nation of people who like quick fixes. Who do not do well in the gray areas of life.

If you are not accustomed to seeing a person with waxing psychosis you are probably going to want to walk the other way, fast. You will not want to look too closely at that person.

But here's the thing: we HAVE to look. We have to begin to understand.

If you are not ashamed of your mitral valve prolapse, your slight hearing loss, your endometriosis, then why should I be ashamed of my Tourette's? And why should anyone be ashamed of -- or blamed for -- their mental illness?

It's because most of us don't understand it that mental illness is stigmatized, underfunded. That the (probably large) segment of our population who suffers from some sort of mental health disorder is underserved.

This much I know is true: Benjy is as much to blame for his depression/anxiety/mood swings/etc. as my sister was for her cancer. Which is to say, not at all.

A discussion has begun. I see it taking root on the internet. In blogs and on Twitter and Facebook. People are beginning to speak out about mental health. Some of those people are angry about what seems like a lot of mentally ill men with machine guns. I am angry about that, too. Not about the mental illness, but about the guns and the fact that these young men have slipped through some very big cracks.

Let the conversation continue! And for god's sake, DON'T TURN AWAY.


  1. A wonderful, thought-provoking post. I pray that this is a wake-up call to America -- it's more than past time we stop demonizing and start being constructive. More posts on this issue as it unfolds, please!

    1. Yes, Diane. Yes. Thank you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.