Lent III: Calling Names

I encountered someone yesterday who was deeply horrified by mental illness. Now, I don’t know that she meant mental illness generally or the particular variety that televise well in a 24-hour news cycle, but I suspect the latter. Her barbs, framed as questions, merely cast around the term “mentally ill” and “you know what they are like” an variations on that theme. To her defense, she was terrified for reasons it took me 45 minutes to draw out, but I feel for her–living in that kind of terror must be exhausting.

As she spoke about mental illness and the inherent dangers therein, she, at one point, assuming I agreed with the discussion generally I guess, called me reasonable. This was the kindest of the name-calling that would happen in this discussion. I sat there, rather unable to say anything directly to her for a few moments. Mentally ill is dangerous. I am reasonable. Even in the midst of my compassion for her terror, that obnoxious imp in my brain made me make eye contact and think: “oh, honey. If only you knew.”

I am pleased that after all the training and medication I have received, I did not say it.

It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this rhetoric in this particular place. I’ve found it in surprising enough people that I found myself seeking out a trusted, gentle soul to make sure this wasn’t as pervasive as it felt. That discussions of forced medication on a general population were the stuff of misunderstanding, misinformation, and, as with she of yesterday, fear. That the names I heard where only matters of ignorance.

I was shaking after the 90 minutes with her, even as much as I had been months ago when I sought out my friend. While I would like to say that my reactions are about the nature of social justice in this particular realm, many of them are entirely selfish. Self-protective. Hey, what about me? Am I dangerous because? Do I get a free pass for being white, female and well-educated? For being, apparently, reasonable?

Bringing in a diagnosis in the midst of such conversations is merely a gotcha and pretty useless as rhetoric goes. So, I don’t. Or, so I like to tell myself. It is also a matter of safety and of fear–if I tell, what will happen? Consider the framing: lock ’em up, medicate ’em, keep ’em away. I have the privilege of access to medication and medical assistance and the ability to pay for it (I’ve seen what those meds cost without insurance. Yes, privilege–but that seems too weak a word for this). My crazy (usually) can be packed away when it creeps out with a long, fast run. Or a phone call to someone who will call me back to reality. Who knows my name.

Ok, I admit it, I never thought I’d find myself referencing Maxine Hong Kingston in the middle of this (read Woman Warrior. No, seriously. Go read it. Then read Tripmaster Monkey. Because everyone should).

When I was diagnosed, I can’t say anyone (myself included) was surprised. Perhaps the only “surprise” was that I accepted it, since I had fought for years to avoid, deny–I had bought into some manners of fear. I preferred to consider myself odd. Weird. Which is not to say that neither of those is true, mind. When I told one of my closest friends of the diagnosis, her response, in her fine and wonderful deadpan, was, though I have forgotten the exact wording, “you think?” She’d seen it. She could have probably predicted the swings–she could damn sure identify them.

When appropriately medicated and engaging in self care (sleep, for one), I am relatively ordered, mentally speaking. When either of these are not the case, I am various shades of mentally disordered. I have a treatable mental illness and the means to engage that treatment.  But the encounter with this woman leaves me contemplating these gifts–having moved from a place of “you think?” to relative peace.  I am not quite sure where to move from here. Another set of teachings and teachers tell me I need to pass on a message of willingness to seek help–as the mentally ill or as the afraid.

How can I reach my hand in to help to stem the fears? My voice to call their names?

For 90 minutes her entire body appeared to be filled with terror over the images her mind insisted that she see. I could see her trying to hold her shaking body still in spite of that terrible fantasy that she wrapped herself and draped over her face. A fantasy-world built on an event that has come to define her every interaction. Every assumption. Every action. My heart hurts for her. I wish I could give her the gifts given to me–you don’t have to listen to your own head. Let the thoughts go by. Let them go. I hope she has someone who knows her name. Who can call her back to a reality not so soaked in blood and fear.


Zacky Vengeance playing "Seize the Day"

Zack, Knoxville, TN. May 2014

I think I’ll call this one contemplative. It captures more or less how I feel right now, save for the whole onstage with guitar thing. I mean he looks deep in thought, doesn’t he?

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