Friday, May 29, 2015

Those Who Are Not Normal

I've always had conversations with my dogs; real conversations with me saying things and the dogs responding, in words that come out of my own mouth, usually calling me on my crap. And when there's no dog around, I'll talk to the other voices in my head, sometimes aloud.

I'm not the only one, of course, who talks to himself. I live downtown in a city with one of the largest street populations in the nation, many of whom are there because of what we call mental illness, and it typically takes no more than a few minutes to run across someone who his in full-on dialog with manifestations that are invisible to the rest of us. Often they're just muttering, not so dissimilar to the way I do it, but they really draw attention to themselves when they're exchanging heated words with one of the other folks who live inside their heads. 

There's a woman who was hanging around the blocks surrounding our apartment last month, often in outraged dialog, apparently ticking someone off. One morning she awoke me, screaming, "You aren't real! I'm real! You're not real!" It was a declaration that I suppose most of us would view as a hopeful glimpse of sanity, but even while acknowledging the non-existence of her tormentor, she continued to rant and rage, saying some of the most vile things one person could say to another.

I have a friend who has been recently diagnosed with bi-poloar disorder, what we used to call manic depression, a mental condition in which she experiences a roller coaster of high highs and low lows. When I expressed surprise, she explained that I'd really only seen her when she was on one of her highs, full of life and creativity, and that those long stretches during which she disappeared, those were the lows, day-after-day when she really couldn't leave the house. 

Just as we all have had the experience of conversing with the voice in our heads, we've also cycled through highs and lows: it's just a matter of degree. We have come to understand that autism is a condition of degrees, one that we talk about as manifesting along a "spectrum." Maybe it's time we acknowledged that everything that makes us human manifests along a spectrum and we can all be placed along all of them.

Our culture tends to pathologize these things, labeling them as "illness" and the way we treat illness is with medicine and psychiatry, the tools of the allopathic doctor. My friend is happy that her diagnosis lead to medications, which have helped her feel "normal," even as she sometimes regrets that she's trading away the exhilaration of her highs to avoid the lows. I've read that this is common among people who have medicalized themselves in the name of normalcy, which explains why so many of them have such a difficult time maintaining their regimen, often "forgetting" their pills or skipping their appointments, because even if it's not normal, there was still something in there the loss of which warrants regret. 

Many indigenous cultures don't view these kinds of differences as medical problems at all, instead seeing those at the extremities of human spectrums as sacred beings, as messengers from the other side. It sounds a little "woo woo" to our sensibilities, I know, but it's a difference in perspective worth considering. When we label it "mental illness," the goal is to make the patients "normal," which we can sometimes do if the afflicted party has access to quality medical care and the kinds of networks of support most often associated with the middle class lifestyle. We don't typically hope to "cure" these illnesses, but rather to control them, leaving individuals always on the watch for a return of their disease. But, of course, many of these "not normal" people don't have access to quality medical care or networks of support, often due to their being "not normal." These people we marginalize, driving them away from us, into the streets, into institutions. 

How different things would be were we to treat these people spiritually rather than medically. Instead of medicating them, we would listen to them, even learn from them. Instead of pushing them to the fringes of society, we would draw them to the center. What if we removed the stigma of disease and replace it with loving acceptance? Doesn't that make more sense? I expect we would find that the "dangers" we so often associate with mental illness would disappear, revealing themselves as manifestations of our narrow definition of "normal." And I expect we would find that there are depths of wisdom in people who see the world, and perhaps even the other world, so much more clearly than we do.

If nothing else, I think we would learn that normal is overrated. 

I've been a member of cooperative preschools for a long time. The core of what we do is create community because without community nothing else has any meaning. One of the hallmarks of a strong community is how quickly newcomers are drawn into the center which is something we strive to do. I know from experience that there is great power in doing this, opening ourselves up to our core and letting others in, especially those who are not normal.

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Anonymous said...

Good food for thought. My mother-in-law is schizophrenic and often has those loud argumentative conversations with others only she can hear. I don't think she's happy though, and I think if she took her meds it would help her. But she is also an artistic, creative, and loving person.

John S Green said...

Brilliant... what can we do to help the not so fortunate brilliant minds out there with no support group?

Have you seen the movie, 'Mr. Jones'? It touched me deeply... very personal... one of my top ten.

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