Funny in the Head

This is National Suicide Prevention Week and like many others who care about mental health issues I am turning my attention to this most terrifying – and taboo – of subjects. I have been living with bipolar disorder, and substance abuse issues, all my life. When you inhabit this environment as long as I have, suicide is no longer a dirty secret, a shameful fate that happens to others - it is simply an element of routine reality. In my world everybody knows someone who committed suicide; I’ve known dozens. Many of us have attempted suicide ourselves. This forbidden act is simply part of our scenery. There are as many ways to commit suicide as there are reasons. In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous – (in which I have found shelter for the past 12 years) – we speak of “the death of 1000 cuts” and “suicide on the installment plan”. These concepts apply to individuals who have a strong death wish but lack the commitment to see it through to its logical conclusion. They would rather torture themselves and their near and dear until, at last, they’re used up.
Unpopular social subsets like illegal aliens (I mean beings from other planets), lawyers, and mentally ill people (MIPs), tend to attract bizarre, completely untrue mythology. For example, have you heard the popular myth that space aliens are lactose intolerant? This is simply untrue, and mean. Maybe you’ve heard the myth about lawyers eating their young. While not entirely untrue, it happens far less often than people believe. When it comes to MIPs (Mentally Ill People), silly rumors and superstitions are rampant, which only contributes to an atmosphere of superstition, fear, and stigma. So, let’s have a look at some of the most persistent myths about MIPs (Mentally Ill People) and separate the square biz from the flapdoodle.
Back in the day, political prognostication was a lot less scientific than it is now. It was said that if it rained on Election Day the Republicans would win, because they had cars. For decades in Chicago it was believed that – the results weren’t official until the cemetery vote was counted. Such cavalier sentiments seem charmingly old-fashioned in an age where spin and opinion are routinely measured to a sub-molecular level. This year’s Presidential circus, I mean election, which will be ending, mercifully, in a few months, is no exception. Using the very latest in digital resources, pollsters plumb the depths of voter opinion, ever amazed by the complete lack of connection to anything factual. That political sentiment would be based entirely on prejudice, irrational fear, and magical thinking is no surprise to these seasoned professionals; but what did catch them with their drawers drooped was the increasing importance of the mentally ill as a voting block. Indeed, Chumley Throckmorton, President & CEO of Opinion8, a Bermuda-based consulting firm, think tank, and laundry said, “Mentalators are the ones to watch in ‘12, they could decide the outcome.
Popular animals have long been associated with products, institutions and causes to draw attention, increase likeability, and help fix key ideas in the public imagination. One need only mention Smokey The Bear to make the case convincingly. Sporting a broad-brimmed ranger hat and gazing with unblinking, unforgiving eyes, Smokey warned us that we were the only ones capable of preventing forest fires. One had the sense that Smokey was not a bear to be trifled with, and yet, showing his vulnerable side he revealed that – as tough as he was – without our cooperation he, and his forest companions – deer, moles, ticks, woodchucks, badgers, marmosets, Thompson’s gazelles, beavers, polecats, and salamanders – and moose – were in serious trouble. This concept, that an enormous, fierce bear was depending on little old us, had currency – and the campaign lasted not just for years but for decades. We liked Smokey, and we wanted to help him.
As many of you know, I am a devotee of quotations – those bite-sized nuggets of wisdom summarizing great truths of life quickly and with wit. Some years back, in a cold, dingy room choked to the gills with cigarette smoke, bad coffee, tattoos, and incomprehensible blather uttered badly by battered bikers, businessmen, beauticians and stay at home moms, united in anonymous terror, I first heard this said. "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Later I found that this pearl of wisdom is credited to everybody’s favorite patent clerk, Albert Einstein. However… The more time I spent on the Internet the more I realized that roughly half of all quotes found there are bogus. Some are real but credited to the wrong author; others are totally made up and attributed to a famous, credible person.
For decades, academics from various disciplines have sought to identify a quantifiable link between manic depression (bipolar disorder) and artistic creativity. Admittedly it is not possible to do a comprehensive work-up of Beethoven, for example, and consequently a diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on the second-hand descriptions of bill collectors, cleaning ladies, and piano-tuners would seem like reaching – at best – and twaddle, at worst. However, the idea’s tremendous appeal has caused it to persist despite overwhelming improbability. Perhaps this is because true artistic genius is so difficult for squares and apple-pie eaters to understand that the only plausible explanations are divine inspiration or, something equally incomprehensible, madness. Since artists are almost universally disliked, it may also be a convenient way for Jim & Joanie Lunchbucket to belittle their accomplishments. Extrapolating a bit further, it might support the idea that art itself is an essentially pointless exercise since it is frequently the product of people so far short of a full deck that a game of solitaire would be a love song to futility.
When the Newark School Of Psychiatry asked me to give their commencement address I knew I’d been granted an important opportunity, the chance to influence idealistic young men and women who will help shape the future of mental health care. As I walked on stage the sound of pigeons coughing mingled with scattered golf applause. I began.
Like it or not, mentally ill people need to find employment just like everyone else. This leaves many of us wondering – precisely where might a mentally ill person slip into the workplace undetected? Indeed, what kind of jobs are mentally ill people even capable of performing? Well, the answer might surprise you! Obviously, even the most seriously impaired in our midst are qualified for positions in The State Department, House Ways & Means Committee, Senate Sub-Committee For Overseeing The Oversights Of The House Oversight Committee, and Halliburton. But, beyond the rarefied world of insider politics - where nothing consequential occurs and receiving money simply for demonstrating the ability to appear busy while basking in incompetence and indolence - is a world of real labor, populated by skilled professionals accomplishing meaningful tasks. It’s true!
If you’re anything like me, and I hope for your sake and the sake of your children that you are not, you’ve wrestled with your mental illness secure in the certainty that society cared about you only to the extent that it fervently wished you would excuse yourself from the room and be scarce in the way voles are scarce; that is to say, demonstrate your respect for “nice” people by remaining invisible to them. Frankly, there is something soothing about looking at the ladder which leads up and up to society’s golden promises only to realize that the first few rungs of yours have been sawed in half and you won’t even have a chance to fall off, much less climb. Soothing because, in life, it is comforting to know where one stands, or, as is the case here, doesn’t stand. If you aren’t shocked and surprised by every disrespectful snub and injustice, you cannot be disappointed and consequently, will harbor no resentment. (To put it differently, it is the illusion of a just world that causes heartache, not the sting of an unjust one.)
Response to my recent audio blog welcoming applications for the position of summer intern was overwhelming! (Who knew so many people are interested in the rapidly expanding field of mental health humor!) Finalist names appear below. Our Finalists 1. Nigel Frampton 2. Priscilla Scintilla 3. Chumley Throckmorton 4. Isadora Doughnutz 5. Pasquale Pontevecchio 6. Salma Chanted Evenning 7. “The Quandary” 8. Polly Purebread 9. Marcel “School Spirit” Witherspoon Congratulations to all of these plucky contenders – and to every one who entered. You’re all winners! (Okay, technically, you’re all losers but as part of today’s PC climate we have to put a positive spin on things.)