If Mental Illnesses Had To Recruit

Autism Rocks

I am proud of all the brave individuals who help stamp out stigma by going public with the details of their mental health challenges. However, lately I’ve been tormented by the strangest hypothetical scenario. What would happen to the most popular mental illnesses if everyone simply shed their embarrassment and shame, opting out of quiet suffering in favor of actively seeking out qualified help at the first sign of trouble?

The potential impact on emotional damage resulting from mental illness would be incalculable, leaving behind a small army of unemployed bartenders, phlebotomists, drug dealers, psychiatrists, bookies, self-help gurus, pharmacists, escorts, acupuncturists, and life coaches. One man’s meat, as the old saying quite possibly goes, is another man’s foul; and in the land of unintended consequences no good deed to a model home goes unpunished.

In the interests of clarity, I digress. It may surprise me to tell you that the military was not always voluntary, indeed, young men were arbitrarily entered into a draft and called upon to serve whatever global mischief the government was indulging in at the time. Those who refused were given three options, jail, Canadian citizenship, or conversion to Quakerism – (sometimes known by the more formal handle – Society Of Friends). Faced with such horrific alternatives, even the most weak-kneed raw recruit begged for immediate transfer to Paris Island.

Back then the military did not need to advertise the way it does now. With the arrival of an all-volunteer army came a brand new form of advertising. In a mad scramble for America’s youth, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the really creepy military branch we’re not supposed to know about – whoops – outdid each other with ludicrous and disingenuous promises of advanced degrees, travel to exotic vacation spots, all night poker games, and retirement packages so lavish they would bring a blush to the cheeks of even the most avaricious and bloodthirsty Fortune 500 CEO.

And so, he said, arriving at last at his point, I wondered what it would be like if mental illnesses became so unpopular they had to advertise. Then I imagined ad campaigns with headlines like these:

Bipolar Disorder: See How The Other Half – Of You – Lives

Odds Are You’ll Fall In Love With Compulsive Gambling

People Can’t Stop Talking About Tourette’s Syndrome

Discover Narcissism – You’ll Find It’s Everything I Thought It Would Be!

Depression! Expect The Worst And You’re Never Disappointed

Come to think of it, might be nice to see these hideous monsters go begging for a change.

Ever-Changing Face Of Drug Abuse

Doctor Cigarettes

Those of us who labor in the heavily intoxicated vineyards of mental illness, mental health, and recovery – those of us who gaze in wonder at the never-ending inventiveness demonstrated by tormented souls scouring the landscape for new mechanisms of self-injury – those of us who chase the lighthouse beacon of serenity as we pitch and toss on a cultural sea of hazards, pitfalls, and demons – those of us who marvel at a world gone mad, a world intent on sabotaging health, moderation, and self-care at every step – those of us who, wracked by ADHD and overburdened by flashy, empty distractions – are united by one profound bit of good news – this sentence is about to come to an end.

Those who followed the recent election probably noticed that pot – also known as grass, weed, reefer, marijuana, and wacky tabacky – is, like the camel that sneaks into a tent one inch at a time – making an impressive play for respectability. Legalization on a state-by-state basis will lead, inevitably, to a national referendum and, with wet finger waving in the wind, one takes the national temperature and concludes that soon Uncle Sam will be dealing dope, elbowing Mexican drug lords off American playgrounds. Thus, an era will end and I, as one who has explored the narrow alleyways of drug abuse in search of happiness, or at least relief, will miss it.

When I was a lad there was really only one way to tell which side of the barricades you were on; did you get high? Pot was our secret handshake, it was more than a mechanism for pretending Grateful Dead music wasn’t appalling, one’s determination to become THC-stupid demonstrated a commitment to outsider status, we showed our determination to undermine the system by rendering ourselves unconscious – it was a sophisticated strategy to say the least. The illegality gave it the whiff of subversion, defiance – we were fearless rebels in the recreation rooms of suburban homes sporting shag carpeting of unimaginable vulgarity.

Ultimately the government always finds a way to ruin fun and such is the case here. Truth be told, pot is really not that interesting, it makes passive, withdrawn people even more passive and withdrawn. Removing the illegality strips it of its most exciting quality. Once it actually becomes legal only the most hopelessly un-cool people will consume it. Can you imagine how dreadfully dull, ordinary and square it would be to line up at the government pot stand so you could get your weed, buy stamps, and renew your passport?

Today’s society is so homogenized that I can only feel sadness for kids who want to be cool because, since their phones do everything for them, the closest they will ever get is by having a cool phone. But there is hope. While pot is doomed to become the exclusive province of the hopelessly uninteresting; you can turn to another weed for the danger and excitement pot once offered. Tobacco.

When I was a kid, if you didn’t smoke cigarettes there was a zero percent chance of you being cool. But the PC police have scared this unattractive habit back to the hinterlands – it now has about as much glamour as leprosy.

Those who crave a taboo drug that says – society, I hold you in contempt – should look no further than the nearest pack of cigarettes, assuming they can find one.

Random Sanity Checkpoints Curb DWI

cops dui stop

It is widely understood that, to legally operate an automobile in the United States, one must possess a valid driver’s license. It is further understood that driving a car is considered a privilege which can be revoked at any time for various reasons.

The individual who drives while intoxicated is considered a menace to himself and society so, to protect the general welfare, police officers are entitled to stop automobiles and administer field sobriety tests. Some jurisdictions even set up Field Sobriety Checkpoints. Inebriated drivers caught in these snares are severely punished, and drunk driving decreases as a result.

Well and good, you say, but what’s being done about the equally chilling danger of DWI – Driving While Insane?

Sadly, the answer is – not much! However, that’s all about to change thanks to the imminent introduction of Random Sanity Testing and Sanity Testing Checkpoints!

Get Ready To Prove Your Sanity Anytime Anywhere

If you’ve ever been stopped for driving under the influence most likely you’ve been given a field sobriety test combining rudimentary questions and deceptively simple physical tasks. Fail this and you’re primed for a breath test able to determine the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream.

Obviously, determining sanity is much more difficult than determining inebriation, so, an ad hoc committee consisting of representatives from a broad range of disciplines including theology, philosophy, healthcare, business and law enforcement was assembled to develop a simple, universally applicable Field Sanity Test.

Here are the questions officers will ask, and directions they’ll follow to interpret responses.

Field Sanity Test

1. Do I know what you think you’re being stopped for?
(Note to officer: If answer is “Yes” – Fail. Paranoia.)

2. Does everyone, everywhere care about you being stopped?
(Note to officer: If answer is “Yes” – Fail. Narcissism.)

3. Were you driving erratically so I would stop you to see if there was something wrong with your car?
(Note to officer: If answer is “Yes” – Fail. Munchausen By Proxy.)

4. What do you think your chances are of passing the test I’m about to give you?
(Note to officer: If respondent gives you odds – Fail. Compulsive Gambler.)

5. Have you noticed I’m naked underneath these clothes?
(Note to officer: If respondent smirks lasciviously – Fail. Sex Addict.)

6. Is this dreadful, intimidating moment an oddly cheering affirmation of the inherent wretchedness of existence?
(Note to officer: If answer is “Yes” – Fail. Clinical Depression.)

7. Am I about to meet the greatest…worst person in the entire universe?
(Note to officer: If answer is “Yes” to both – Fail. Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder.)

8. Would you please step out of the car?
(Note to officer: If answer is “#!%&*%!!!#%@&@!!” – Fail. Tourette’s Syndrome.)

Random Sanity Checkpoints are just around the corner; all that energy you’ve been devoting to mental health is about to pay off!

Mental Health Terminology Demystified

abandoned mental hospital night

Mental health is a world within a world, complete with its very own vocabulary. These idiosyncratic names, phrases and expressions may seem odd, even bizarre, to newcomers and outsiders alike. However, if you intend to successfully navigate the crooked concrete corridors that lead, eventually, to sanity – familiarity with this specialized lexicon is strongly advised.

Below is a list of commonly encountered mental health verbiage, followed by helpful definitions.

1. Cured
This term describes a patient whose health insurance has run out.

2. Tibet’s Syndrome
A patient who believes all mental health maladies can be cured by studying Eastern religion.

3. Mentalpause
The state of being that separates mental play from mental fast-forward. It is characterized by tropical island fantasies and irritability.

4. Paranormia
Paranormia describes an irrational fear of being abducted by aliens and forced to watch tedious, poorly produced movies of their summer vacations. It combines fear of the nearly impossible with resentment resulting from being disappointed by the nearly impossible, even though it hasn’t yet happened.

5. Gazebo Effect
The gazebo effect refers to a strategy in which a physician uses psychology to heal a patient. The patient’s normal medication is replaced with a sugar pill, or “gazebo”, without the patient’s knowledge. The patient is then instructed to sit in an English garden, preferably near a pond with swans. Since the patient believes they are still benefiting from the actual medication, they continue to get better, even though the only force healing them is the illusion that they are a gazebo.

6. Best Man-ic Depression
This rare, awkward condition describes what happens when the Best Man at a wedding considers his sorry existence, (a bleak contrast to the cheerful celebration surrounding him), and becomes so depressed he is completely incapable of performing his duties.

Instead of providing support he spoils the joyful occasion by reciting interminable passages from Nausea and No Exit by J.P. Sartre, all the while weeping voluminously as the bride and groom vainly attempt to console him.

7. Psycholalia
The weird sensation of living inside a giant echo chamber experienced by psychoanalytic patients who realize after some time that their psychiatrists simply repeat everything they say (followed, after an appropriate pause, by a thoughtful “Hmmmmm”.)

8. Sleep Appnia
Individuals who suffer from Sleep Appnia download apps to their iPhones while asleep. (See also Drunk Dialing.)
This is only a partial list, of course; I’ll demystify other mental health terms in blogs to come.

Chuckles the Depressed Clown

Chuckles Depressed Clown

Years ago I was traveling from Philly to L.A. on business and found myself seated next to an unremarkable gentleman – mid-40s, clean-shaven, tall, closely-cropped hair, dressed casually but in all regards neat and presentable. One is captive on a plane and I hoped he understood the difference between friendly and intrusive.

Half an hour later this is what I knew about him. He was a clown who went by the name Chuckles and made a modest living working birthday parties, fairs, etc. Over the past year he had become involved in a legal contest with a rival clown, Lord Chumley, who he’d accused of stealing his make-up.

Chuckles explained to me at some length that every clown develops his/her unique look, as individual as a fingerprint. For one clown to steal the look of another clown was egregious. At this point he’d produced a very slick portfolio containing dozens of photographs showing him in full clown regalia – his make-up was so absolutely generic that I could not imagine anybody stealing it unless the aim was to resemble every other clown in the world.

But, as it turned out, larcenous colleagues provided only the beginning of a sad tale Chuckles told with hideous, obligatory persistence worthy of the ancient mariner. The crux of it was as old as time, love gone wrong, a broken heart. It turned out that Mrs. Chuckles had been wooed by a juggler and abandoned my traveling companion, leaving only a note. As Chuckles began to launch into this part of his story he gradually lost all semblance of composure and soon was crying convulsively, unable to complete a sentence without gasping for breath once or twice between sobs.

I am comfortable with the dark side of humor; but, one has limits. Certainly there was something deliciously ironic about a clown named Chuckles entangled in a copyright dispute with another clown, so shattered by romance on the rocks he could not contain his despondence; yes, but there was also something creepy and disturbing about it – and the flight was long. So, feeling only slightly guilty, I excused myself and found another seat, two rows further back.

For the balance of the trip I watched Chuckles make balloon animals which were passed from one person to the next and retained as desired. I suppose he made about fifty before becoming so lightheaded he had to take a nap. Dachshunds, hippopotami, giraffes, alligators, whales – he really was quite remarkable…and I thought to myself, this is a metaphor for life.

A colleague steals your act, a juggler steals your girl – if you’re the clown for the job, you don’t let it get you. You lace up the inflatable shoes, stick on the red nose, and make your goddamn balloon animals just like any other day. You rock, Chuckles.

But what I remember most from that trip is what happened after we landed. Row after row of passengers stood up, collected their carry on articles from the overhead compartments, and gathered themselves for the walk ahead. The kids, sure, I got that, and the teenagers too. But even the hot shot executives, smart as could be in 3-piece suits with leather attaché cases – they too all had their souvenir, brightly colored balloon animals tucked neatly under their arms, like irreplaceable, collectible artifacts. They looked absolutely preposterous, of course, especially because, without exception, not one of them was smiling.

Imprisoned Primates Escape Into Addiction

gorilla

When I was a very young lad living in Edinburgh, I would go on perambulations with my mother. Edinburgh is a grand city for walking, and we explored it at length. (As a Dutch woman recently transplanted from Amsterdam I think she found it as exotic as I did.) Edinburgh Castle, with its steep, cobblestone ascent, was a regular haunt. I loved the expansive train station, spewing steam as if the arched glass roof concealed a nest of restless dragons. And then there was the zoo.

It was at the Edinburgh Zoo that I rode my first elephant; and one never forgets one’s first pachyderm; nor do they forget you for that matter. There was no shortage of star attractions, but by far the most popular was Charlie the Gorilla, so named in honor of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Charlie was a 400-pound, silverback gorilla from the Congo. Even as a small child I was moved by his soulful face, power, and imprisonment. But crowds did not gather to marvel at his size and strength; they came to see him smoke.

In post-war Scotland, cigarettes were a scarce and expensive luxury. Even so, working class types would toss lit cigarettes into the cage and Charlie would puff on them furtively, carefully secreting them behind his back when his keeper arrived. (This Heckle and Jeckle routine was as ancient as vaudeville itself. Charlie would exhale clouds flamboyantly, exhibiting satisfaction Bob Marley might have envied. Then, when his keeper looked over, the cigarette vanished into a large, furry hand. The act never got old, and when the keeper knitted his eyebrows in disapproval, the kids howled with delight.)

In those days my parents were barely scraping by, even so, cigarettes were a line item in the family budget. My dad bought them in packs of 5. Later, he smoked the way waitresses chew gum, obsessively, constantly, thoughtlessly. As a youth I quickly came to understand that smoking was something cool people did, and I was physically and psychologically addicted well before leaving high school. Cigarettes were my one, true friend through it all. I smoked in prison and in mental hospitals, on the desolate streets of North Philadelphia at midnight; I even smoked at The White House.

Education, mercilessly delivered at the business end of a Louisville Slugger, pushed vices away from my grasp, as a ship gradually drifts away from the dock. Alcohol and drugs, abandoned over a decade ago, now seem foreign and counter-productive. But smoking clung to me like a tick, it was the last to leave, just a little over two years ago.

I’d like to go back to Edinburgh and tell Charlie, “You’re a 400 pound silverback gorilla from the Congo. You’re fabulous. You don’t need cigarettes to be cool. You’re already pretty damn cool.”

It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Indian colorful religious celebration

Americans have a provincial view of the world revolving around exploitation; that is to say, other countries exist only to the extent that we consider them useful.

Johnny and Ginny Lunchbucket think of China as the place that produces freighter loads of shabby merchandise we consume, India as the place to call if something breaks, the Middle East as a gas station with uppity attendants, Europe as the place with painting, sculpture, and whatnot, and South America (including central America) as our source for drugs and black market plastic surgery.

Johnny & Ginny Lunchbucket consider Canada the go-to place for criminals fleeing justice, while Australia, which was founded by convicts, is roughly equivalent to Cuba in terms of inability to hold interest. Africa, the very wellspring of humanity itself, has failed to capture the imagination of Mr. and Mrs. Lunchbucket at all – to them it is somewhere in-between an outsized petting zoo and a sweet background for Land Rover commercials.

Why review this discouraging self-portrait of complacency and dim-witted myopia? Simple, it helps us understand how much is to be gained by stretching outside of our collective comfort zone and looking at life through the eyes of our fellow global citizens. The potential for benefit is enormous, and nowhere is this more evident than in the world of mental illness.

Mr. and Mrs. Lunchbucket would be surprised to know that mental illness is thought about, and spoken about, very differently throughout the world, and the accompanying insights can be instructive. For example:

The word for Paranoid Schizophrenic in Japanese is  ohayōgozaimasu – which literally translates – “more dinner guests than plates”.

The word for Bipolar Disorder in Chinese (Mandarin) is xuěbēng – which literally translates – “poo-flinging monkey living in dark cave”.

The word for Compulsive Gambler in Vietnamese is tôi bi lac – which literally translates – “fascinated by slow lizard”.

In India, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is known by the Hindi phrase subaha acchā – which literally translates “charming child enjoy chasing mouse under elephant”.

In Norway the term for Depressed is eg har sakna deg – which literally means “as special as a day-old herring” but here is synonymous with the word “normal”.

In Germany the idea of Morbid Obesity is expressed by the phrase kern en zee meer be hilf lixh ziyn – which literally translates “schnitzel enough to strain the stitching on a brand new pair of lederhosen” although the figurative meaning is “yaba-daba-doo!”

This is merely the tip of the iceberg – speaking of which – the Inuit culture – once called Eskimo – has over 200 words for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder!

Perhaps by seeing how other cultures approach mental illness, we can gain some much-needed perspective on it. Sarong!

Dealing With The Loss Of Mental Illness

Waving goodbye to mental illness

All good things must come to an end, according to the sage of old, but did you know this also applies to bad things? That’s right! Here’s the shocker; when it comes time to bid a fond adieu to your particular mental health challenge, you may find yourself dragging your heels, gnashing your teeth, dotting your tees, and crossing your eyes.

Ridiculous, you say? Stifling the urge to cough derisive laughter up your sleeve? Well don’t let a little counter-intuition embolden you overly; allow me to share a personal vignette for illustrative purposes.

As many of you know, Bipolar Disorder is my particular albatross and it ruled and wrecked my landscape like a series of Old Testament plagues. For years, life was defined by my relationship to this demon and I graduated from mere survival to combat to mastery until, at last, it lay in a heap at my feet, vanquished.

(Aficionados will point out that Bipolar Disorder is incurable. While true, I must add that one can reduce it to inconsequence and insignificance so that, for all intents and purposes, it is neutralized.)

When Bipolar Disorder was in full flower it made me zany, newsworthy, and interesting beyond my wildest dreams. This splashy, sensational illness became something like a really bizarre, all-consuming hobby with a huge payoff, continued existence! It even provided the subject matter for my first book, Invisible Driving, the original bipolar memoir. There were times I wondered what I did for entertainment before the onset of my “fine madness”.

Seventeen years in therapy raced by until, before I knew what hit me, sanity arrived and with it, the challenge of adapting to normal society as an insider. No longer shivering in the rain beneath a tattered blanket, marooned on the outskirts of town, I bravely faced a life of acceptance.

The thought of being ordinary was oddly unnerving. It was then that I experienced what trendy psychologists in California refer to as “the wrong goodbye”, grieving for the loss of mental illness.

Remarkably the process broke out over the classic 5-phase grief confrontation process identified by Kübler-Ross in 1969.

1. Denial – I refused to believe that insanity had abandoned me.

2. Anger – I was furious at losing my most marketable attribute.

3. Bargaining – I furiously crafted disingenuous deals with a deity I did not believe in.

4. Depression – I tried to rekindle the illness by immersing myself in depression.

5. Acceptance – Began insisting on being accepted as a sane person and threatened insane reprisals if I was not. 

Only by going through this 5-step process in good faith did I come to understand that saying goodbye to insanity can be a good thing; and that sanity can be a lot more messed up than one might imagine.

When You Meet Your Demon, Please Be Gentle

Barbie Anti-Christ

The summer of 1969 found me in McGrath, Alaska, which is only a little further from the moon than it is from Woodstock, New York. I was working for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) as an EFF (Emergency Fire Fighter), being dropped by helicopters into the middle of active forest fires throughout the state. Specifically, I was on a back-burning crew, traipsing through dry forests with a flamethrower, fighting oncoming forest fires by depriving them of their fuel. I am glad to report this is the closest I’ve ever come to war.

McGrath, at the time, was little more than a Government airstrip, some BLM barracks, and a handful of small buildings connected by wooden sidewalks. The pride of McGrath was a log cabin that served passably as a bar in an area where, with no women to be found, blue-collar men could drink to their satisfaction. A massive moose head, antlers adorned with tinsel, dominated the bar area and the opposing wall featured a full-sized stuffed grizzly bear forbiddingly poised next to the jukebox.

One evening, in-between assignments, I was passing time with Jake, a fellow EFF. We had money, time, and absolutely no responsibilities – consequently, the phrase about idle hands being the devil’s workshop came alive until at last we were drunk; not inebriated, tipsy, three sheets to the wind – not even tight as a boiled owl – just good old fashioned, funky monkey drunk.

Jake excused himself to use The Little Firefighters Room and I was left with the moose who, looking even more glassy-eyed than I did, stared at me with the gloomy insistence so frequently observed among the beheaded. Long minutes later I heard riotous laughter to my right and saw Jake emerging from the bathroom. He lunged, lurched back, and threw himself down on his stool. His right hand, cradled tight against his chest, bled profusely.

“What happened?” I asked.
“I was washing my hands and I stared at the face looking back at me and it was just so fucking ugly I had to punch it.” He laughed enthusiastically until tears began to form.

The bartender looked on wordlessly. I walked Jake back to the barracks and dressed his wounds.

Show Time Is No Time For Mercy

opera house from stage

For twelve consecutive years I occupied space in an academic hothouse we’ll call Throckmorton Academy, an oasis of genteel entitlement located, improbably, in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Germantown. Germantown was very chic in the horse and carriage days, today it is known for its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, urban decay, and crime.

All Throckmorton Academy graduates went on to name-brand colleges and universities, universally admired marquee status institutions. This tradition was accepted as law, like gravity, or the idea that everybody likes Italian food. While quality standards were high throughout, Throckmorton Academy was particularly proud of its music department which enjoyed an international reputation. Indeed, its choir would routinely embark on European tours, working rooms like York Minster, widely considered the world’s greatest Gothic cathedral.

Presiding over the music department with the subtlety Idi Amin brought to the task of governing Uganda, and standing just five feet tall, Abigail Urqhardt – Miss Urqhardt to us – was built like a fireplug. Childless and single she ate, slept, sneezed, and certainly dreamed music which was no mere career for her but a language with which one could express the ineffable, a transcendent world where miracles were always nearby. A merciless perfectionist she beat us like a rented mule inspiring resentment, fear, admiration, and fierce loyalty.

Miss Urqhardt was fanatical about punctuality and begrudgingly endured an endless succession of excuses for tardiness, often penned by doting parents keen to grease the skids for children already suffering from a surfeit of privilege and indulgence. One day during choir practice a young lady swept into the room late and demonstrated a level of contrition insufficient to satisfy Miss Urqhardt. She froze, scanned the entire room silently – chilling us in turn, and spoke at last.

“The day will come when you are on stage performing this piece with a room full of people looking right at you. You will be judged on your performance alone. You will not have the opportunity to say to the audience – I’m sorry this performance isn’t better but my mom had a flat tire and I got to rehearsal late – I’m sorry my entrances are shabby but my brother stole my sheet music – I’m sorry that what you’re about to hear isn’t as good as it could be but I had lacrosse practice. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

We looked at the floor, avoiding her eyes. “Excuses,” she said at last, “are for amateurs” – practically spitting the final word.