Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ocean and boat

While I hope to be as serene as Yoda when I’m in my seventies, right now I’m rather cranky and sick of a lot of things.  I am weary of people’s learnèd absorption in foreign matters, as though neurotic demagogues deserve more attention and intellectual gravitas than the corner convenience store robber or used car con man.  At the risk of fitting the curmudgeon stereotype, I’m eye-rollingly ennui’d that each new generation, both sexes, rediscovers and endorses the feminine as a decorative piece of meat.  Often what looks alluring to them looks like pure cartoon caricature to me.  I’m tired of the righteous cyclically amnestic herd fickleness that turns on the political party in power every four or eight years because your imperfect father figure didn’t buy you enough candy or make you feel consistently good – but the other party's candidate will.

Mars Attacks!

And, I’m sick of the culture that talks about “mental illness” as if it were a strange occurrence or disease entity that some picturesque minority suffers from.  An NIH website states: “An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”  Congressional Research Service cites the National Survey on Drug Use and Health’s estimate that “the 12-month prevalence of mental illness [is] 40.3% among adolescents” and the “12-month prevalence of mental illness excluding substance use disorders was 18.6% among adults aged 18 or older.”

Mental illness is not what most people want to think it is.  It is not a diagnosis.  It is not a grouping of symptoms that add up to a label like depression or anxiety or anorexia or pedophilia.  Mental illness is a change – any change – from the normal integration of thinking, feeling and acting that is the starting gate of most, and early life of many, children.  Seen holistically that way, mental illness is present whenever you are not: when you are distracted from normal integrated functioning by mood, attitude, pain, numbness.

To be holistic is to be natural, and there is the valid question: Can anyone grow up that way, unhindered by culture’s censoring and painful straitjackets?   I’d say “hypothetically yes,” because a parent may not be in pain, and therefore would not inject pain into her child.  A parent may not be depressed, and therefore would not foster repression in her child.  Compassion, respect, benevolence and resilience would thereby be the products of human contentment, not the result of “molding” and restraint.

Mental illness is to have thoughts in your head when you’d like to be quiet.  It’s to not know what you want to do with your life in your twenties or forties.  It’s to want power and control over others.  It’s to eat when you are not hungry, to smoke, to cache money you won’t need, to daydream through your classes.  It’s uncomfortableness in a group, fake laughter, accommodating a bully, arrogance, fear of a parent when you’re an adult, needing to be perfect.  It's "guilt" with no discernible reason.  It’s to value hard work for its own sake, to be ingratiating as a trait, to just feel confused about yourself.  It is to question meaning (Freud said, “The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick”), and to believe things that aren’t true.  It’s the need to be popular, to have prestige, to have honor.  Obviously it is to kill for “honor,” which means against shame; and mental illness is to have shame to run from.  It’s to be polite at age four, responsible at eight, intellectual at twelve, cynical at fourteen.  It’s to never smile, and to have a fixed smile, to love your husband but have little to say to him, to marry a deadbeat, to be driven to “success” or to want nothing.

Mental illness is to live with the effects of any splinter in the heart.  It gives us pain, or gives us pause – sometimes a perpetual pause – during which we miss life at its best.

There is of course a danger when the psychotherapist perceives people through the wide telescope of diagnostic labels and entities.  Fuzzier complaints such as “I don’t know who I am” or “I don’t get that much out of life” are ignorantly concretized, reduced to career choice or loneliness or medicable depression.  But to see – almost – life itself as mental illness, as I do, is to sometimes give clients choices they don’t want.  When I was twenty-six and about to fall into a sick marriage, I went to a psychiatrist.  For the first time I’d noticed the vague ocean within that fools would call depression.  The psychiatrist offered nothing; I didn’t know how to address, find words for, this feeling mystery, and the treatment ended quickly.  Now, I don’t know what he might have said but for “Start your life over again.”  Such nonsense dramatics would actually have felt better than to question everything about myself.  But that’s what mental illness is – the everything – the ocean, not the little boat in it.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.