I read up a lot about mental illness, mostly because most of my life I was feeling like I was on the verge of going crazy. Except, I could never quite go completely over the abyss, which I often thought might prove to temporarily relieve me of the social expectations placed upon me.
My family liked to tell me I was insane. When I was 11 my sister almost had me convinced that my mother was going to have me institutionalized and given 21 shots because I was so crazy. This was the same sister who chased me around the house with a large kitchen knife, and broke through the screen of my bedroom window, knocking over a figurine of a girl on horseback, one of my most favorite treasures. And, no, I don’t remember the outcome of that incident. That’s right where my memory of it ends.
Yeah, who was the crazy one?
It’s taken me until now, mid-way through my 42nd year, to really grok* that people use the labels ‘crazy’ and ‘mentally/emotionally unstable’ as a way to manipulate and control others’ behavior, mainly by projecting a large portion of their issues onto other people. We certainly buy into the labels every time we run to the pills or alcohol to medicate the ‘crazy’ right out of us.
[* grok is a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land and means to understand profoundly]
But what if we aren’t really crazy? What if we are responding quite sanely to insane expectations? What if everything you’ve been told about yourself, and everything you have believed about yourself, has been based on a lie someone told you and you simply accepted it as gospel truth? Pretty frightening, huh?
Some food for thought:
“Mental illness” is an expression, a metaphor that describes an offending, disturbing, shocking, or vexing conduct, action, or pattern of behavior, such as schizophrenia, as an “illness” or “disease”. Szasz wrote: “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”
~ Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness
Only after we abandon the pretence that mind is brain and that mental disease is brain disease can we begin the honest study of human behaviour and the means people use to help themselves and others cope with the demands of living.
~Thomas Szasz, Coercion as a Cure
A good read:
Madness, myth and medicine; Ron Roberts on the continuing relevance of Thomas Szasz from the Center of Independent Thought.
And an interesting summary of R.D. Laing’s work (a Scottish psychiatrist who himself struggled with schizophrenia as a result of his difficult and strange childhood) .
A sane response to an insane situation. This is Laing’s comment about what “going crazy” entailed. Applying Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind, in which anything a person does leads to one or another kind of punishing consequence, he observed that some children are faced with the dilemma of having an identity defined for them that is fundamentally different from who they experience themselves to be. Their alternatives are to either give up the parental approval and caretaking they need to survive, in order to be truly themselves, or to give up their own sense of their identity and comply with parental demands. Faced with this dilemma, most people choose to give up their own identities and adopts those that are handed to them by parental figures. In some people faced with this situation, the response is to “go crazy.”
Believe it or not, I attempted to rebel, though there were parts of me that were indeed “going crazy”. I’m still feeling the effects of those terrible fights I had with my mother. I still get down on myself, because I’ve been mothering for 11 years without a map and without a sense of what a “good mother” is.
I gave up parental approval and caretaking. I ‘ran away’ from home three times before I made it permanent. I can’t say I’d ever truly became myself, but I fought the double binds and over-control with everything I had. I think though, that I’d inadvertently married someone who, for a while, created more (and in some ways more serious) double bind situations for me. No, I don’t believe for a moment he meant to. He didn’t realize what he was doing any more than I did when I was struggling with PTSD triggers. He was a product of his dysfunctional conditioning, too.
And my own highly sensitive daughters have had their issues as a result of their own wiring coupled with our marital problems. It’s hard on me, because while I’m striving for peace and compassion, I’m being challenged every day by my daughters’ lack of emotional self-regulation. Sensory issues, possible AD(H)D, possible Asperger’s, anxiety, meltdowns, angry outbursts. I can’t blame them for the conditions they inherited, nor can I blame them for any difficult behaviors they acquired while in our care. It’s just a combination of factors that added up to a lot of triggers for my PTSD (which left me with my own meltdowns and angry outbursts).
And those intense feelings in me and feeling helpless in the face of my own inexplicable emotional outbursts set me on a journey to understand emotion and so-called mental illness, both from a medical point of view as well as a spiritual one.
I tend to believe now, from my own experiences, as well as what I know about Kazmirez Dabrowski’s work on personality development and positive disintegration, and what I am learning through communicating with others who are struggling, what is said about Laing in the wikipedia page:
It is notable that Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, madness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveller could return from the journey with important insights, and may even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result.
I tend to think about it like that too, although I must admit I, too, get caught up from time to time in the labeling process and I long for a ‘magic bullet’ to make things “all better”. But I know the “all better” won’t happen without a lot of internal changes. I didn’t get the mothering I needed, husband didn’t get the fathering he needed. We need to learn new ways of being so that we can give our daughters the compassion and care we didn’t even know was our birthright.
I recognize there is a serious set of problems in my family which I’m working to find solutions for that don’t include medication. I know of three families who medicate their strong-willed, slightly oppositional children, and medicate themselves (with anti-depressants or alcohol). I know of my own coping mechanisms. And I don’t believe temporary coping strategies will fix the underlying problem we all face – how to cope with the unrealistic demands we are asked to face on a daily basis.
And I wonder, if it’s a journey to higher development that we are on, then trying to medicate it away is exactly the last thing we ought to be doing. Maybe this ‘going crazy’ is part of the process of ‘enlightenment’…perhaps a burning away of the self-centered ego through suffering so that we may develop the internal resources to bring us to a more compassionate place where we can utilize our gifts for the betterment of all.
Maybe medicating ourselves is interrupting our own evolutionary processes.
Do you think maybe it could be like that?