My friend Matt, from California, texted me this week to say how much things like the Orlando shooting affect his moods. I understood what he meant. When I’m not doing well, I literally can’t read the news – any news – because the bad news (most of it) will inevitably send me spiraling downward.
Rather than heed the internal voice that told me to stay away from the news about Orlando, in an attempt to make my own life miserable, I did the equivalent of a diabetic eating nothing but donuts: I started sharing my political views on Facebook. There’s a reason people suggest not doing this, and now I know what it is: people are fucking crazy. And illogical. And mean. And, well, stupid. (Not you, of course!)
Not to mention the “me” part of the equation: I’m hypersensitive, opinionated, liberal (with lots of conservative friends), and mentally ill. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I realize that I am not emotionally equipped to have “spirited” debates about things like whether or not a 9-year-old should be allowed to take her AK-47 to the playground for recess, but 40 years haven’t done the trick. I STILL think, “this time, I’ll be fine. My brain is in a good place (which it’s not, actually)…I can deal with a little backlash.” So I post something nice and benign, something Gandhi would probably post, like this: “I think semi-automatic rifles are helpful…for identifying the people with the smallest penises and the greatest need for a therapist who specializes in daddy issues.” Oddly, people react negatively, and then guess what? I get my feelings hurt because I’ve been misunderstood. Again. (For the record, I do like the idea of the post above, but what I actually posted was a good deal more nuanced and generous.)
But completely seriously, I’ve discovered yet again how bad it is for my brain to get into debates without some really safe boundary lines. I only have a few people in my life with whom there is enough trust and safety that I know we can discuss anything openly without me losing my shit at some point. It’s true that perhaps the quickest way to send me over the edge is to make me feel misunderstood about something I am passionate about. I still can’t entirely identify why it makes me so angry to feel like someone isn’t hearing me out or catching my drift, but aside from threatening my wife or children, it’s the quickest way to see my very worst side. Please don’t try it!
In talking with my mentally ill pals, what I’ve discovered is that this sensitivity is a common theme. Our brains are already hardwired for chaos, fear, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, etc. We don’t need any help going down rabbit trails that are unhealthy. So when a “friend” calls us “willfully ignorant” or “just another liberal who espouses tolerance while being intolerant,” we are not able to, as some seem capable of doing, think to ourselves, “Oh well, that’s just X’s opinion. We’ll agree to disagree.” Instead, we lay awake at night going back and forth between mentally drafting angry responses to wanting to cry for how misunderstood we feel. And this, my friends, has been my week: attempts at dialogue leading to arguments leading to hurt feelings leading to lost sleep, anxiety, incessant what if questions about how to proceed, withdrawal from family, extra doses of Xanax, and so on.
So the first point I’d like to make is this: If we are going to take care of ourselves as mentally ill people, we have to be willing to set different boundaries than our “normal” friends set. So often I am guilty of berating myself for not being able to do things like so-and-so does them, and my friends tell me this is true of them, too. But we have do some inner child work here. We would never tell a five-year-old that he should be able to do what a fifteen-year-old does. Likewise, we must parent our own inner, mentally ill child and reassure him that it’s okay to not be like the other boys and girls. It’s okay that he can’t handle the madness of Facebook the week after another massacre. If Sally can handle it just fine, let her. I’m not Sally. I will do what’s best for me. It’s not so different from alcoholism. The alcoholic has to forgive herself that she can’t hang out at bars with friends. Sure, the rest of her friends can do so, and sure, she wishes desperately that she could. But the bad too far outweighs the good, and she has to gently, lovingly care for the inner child that simply isn’t capable of handling the temptations of a bar.
There’s another angle on the Orlando shootings in regard to mental illness, though. It has to do with the “all of these mass murderers are mentally ill…that’s the problem we should be focusing on” utterances of this week. On a practical note, and for the record, anyone who says, “THIS is the issue we must focus on” is oversimplifying the problem. It’s never just one thing. But the reality is that virtually every shooting is perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. I once talked to a very experienced therapist who made the point that he didn’t think anyone who WASN’T mentally ill even had the capacity to commit murder. It may just be that, in order to kill someone, by definition, one must be mentally ill.
This week, yet again on Facebook, during one of these, uh, er, discussions I was having on Facebook, someone pointed toward mental illness as the thing we really need to be talking about. I whole-heartedly agreed. But I don’t think I meant what she thought I meant. I wouldn’t put mass murder at the top of the list of reasons why we need to address mental illness in this country.
First on my list would be simply the quality of life for mentally ill people…then maybe preventing mentally ill people’s suicides…and so on. As horrific as these mass murders are, what might be even more horrific is the daily trauma faced by millions of people who suffer inside their own minds and can’t find anything to make the problem better.
It’s amazing to me that we can send a rover to Mars that communicates with earth and we can send an email to Japan that takes less than one second to get there, yet despite the collective thousands and thousands of years those of us who participate in this blog have spent seeking mental health treatment, many of us are more hopeless than ever. We’ve tried the drugs, the talk therapy, the shock treatment, the magnetic field treatments, the deep brain stimulation, the support groups, the illegal drugs, the alcohol, and yet, we are still DESPERATE for something that provides even just a little bit of relief. People who like to point to the mental illness crisis as the reason for these mass shootings may mean well, but if they really knew what they were talking about, they would sound this drum day in and day out on behalf of those of us who grimly hope that we will one day be the victim of a mass shooting. Many more lives are being lost at the hands of mental illness than the victims of shootings. Millions of people right here in America have lost their lives in an entirely different sense. Let’s talk more about how to help those people.