The days have gone, thank God, when we simply couldn’t talk about mental illness. When families had a dotty aunt whom they hid in a suite in the back of the ancestral home. When the disturbed son who got into trouble was written off, banished, never mentioned again.
It wasn’t that long ago, though, when anybody with a disability was shipped off to a separate school for the blind or the deaf. When mental illness wasn’t even considered a disability — it was a disgrace that reflected badly upon the family.
It’s not that way anymore. But yes it still is.
When someone breaks a bone, gets an infected tooth, or has surgery to remove an appendix, we don’t think any less of that person for their “illness.” But a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or autism instantly diminishes that person’s value.
A marvelous thing, this human brain. We can live without one or more limbs. We can live without an appendix, a gall bladder, a spleen. We cannot live without a brain.
Although we don’t know yet what a mind is, we know that it requires a brain.
And we also know that some brains run on a different operating system. It’s almost inevitable, now, that episodes of violence in the news — whether domestic or mass murders ‚ will be blamed on some kind of mental disorder.
They must be mentally ill, we reason, even to contemplate killing innocent people. They must be mentally ill, we think, to fall for the lies and propaganda of terrorism. They must be mentally ill, to get satisfaction out of beating up their spouses, their children, their parents.
And so the cry goes up for mental health services, to recognize and treat these “illnesses” before they’re no longer dangerous.
They’re not normal.
We need to broaden our definitions of “normal.”
Earlier this week, I briefly crossed over a boundary between normal and… and… well, not normal. From what I could learn from Google and the hospital doctors, I had something called Transient Global Amnesia, or TGA. That’s my diagnosis; don’t hold me to it.
One moment I was joking with a dental hygienist. I had no pills or anesthetics.
Then I got up from the dental chair, put on my coat, paid my bill, walked down the stairs and out the front door. Except that I can’t remember any of it.
A while later, I called my wife. I still knew who she was. I knew how to use my cell phone. And apparently I said to her, “I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know how I got here.”
“Call 9-1-1,” she said.
I think I had a pleasant conversation with the dispatcher. I read some street signs to give her my location. I think I had a lucid discussion with the paramedics in the ambulance when it arrived. At the hospital’s emergency department, I knew my name, my address, and my birthdate.
But when I glanced at the clock on the wall, I was shocked that 90 minutes had gone by, that I knew nothing ahout.
Ordinarily, I pride myself on keeping a clear mind. I can remember details that others forget, or never noticed at all. I can (or could) transcribe an entire interview from memory, when my tape recorder broke down. I think of myself as calm, reasonable, logical.
If my mind can shut down, if only for an hour or so, how can I look down on people whose minds don’t work well all the time?
I even hesitated to write this column, fearing it lose me some respect.
By coincidence, that same week, I had been reading the book by Steve Lopez, about his friendship with a schizophrenic black musician named Nathanial Ayers. You may have seen it as the movie The Soloist.
Ayers was unpredictable. Erratic. Brilliant. Difficult. But he was a human being, who wanted, who needed, friendship without judgement. Compassion. Love.
I find it hard to extend non-judgement even to myself. I feel that I should have seen this episode coming, somehow. That I should be able to identify a clearly defined cause, so that I can avoid it in future.
Just as I used to think that the down-and-out and homeless, like Nathanial Ayers of this world, should be able to turn themselves around. Take some initiative. Hoist themselves by their bootstraps, as the saying goes.
I’m all right again. But I have a little more sympathy for people with mental illnesses than I used to have.