Sunday, March 27, 2016

Understanding and explaining 'normal'



The hardest part, I guess, is understanding and explaining "normal."
As Dr. Seuss notes, "Being crazy isn't enough," and  “The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over,” says Hunter S. Thompson in "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, according to Thompson. He should have known.
Figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI), say "One in four adults — approximately 61.5 million Americans — experience mental illness in a given year. One in 17 — about 13.6 million — live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder."
The first memory of an encounter with mental illness that I can point to, is when I was very young.
Carl and Fay Massey were "Salt of the Earth" people that lived behind the house I grew up in in Dolores in small little house of their own. Sometime in the late 1960s, a nephew or some relative visiting them had a terrible episode of substance abuse and was up on the hill raving at the neighborhood, threatening suicide, homicide, etc...
Police were called. Maybe mental health professionals, too? I don't know.  But, he was talked down off the literal and figurative ledge, and neighborhood normalcy was soon restored.  It did, however leave an impression.
The raving, incoherence, and sense of something amiss, I came to understand later in my own family.
At least twice in my childhood, my mother suffered "episodes" and was committed (I think voluntarily) to the Colorado State Hospital, in Pueblo.
This is the same place that sported the original cornerstone reading "Colorado State Insane Asylum," which now resides in the museum there.
Aside from the strangeness of the experience itself, there was also stigma attached to having 'craziness' in the family, and all of us were reluctant to talk about it. We still don't, really.
I remember one misguided childhood acquaintance telling me, that he didn't think my mom was "crazy," but the rest of us in the family were.
He never saw her wind up after sundown, however.
"Every person is distinctive, a particular individual with his own ideas and his own ways of doing things. The mentally ill seem special only in that they are more distinctive," writes Dr. Fredric Neuman, M.D. in Psychology Today. 
"They are idiosyncratic or eccentric, even peculiar; yet in their strangeness there is nothing unrecognizable. They experience no impulse nor longing that is foreign to a normal person, and they suffer no illusion that a normal person has not known. The symptoms of mental illness are embedded in, and grow out of, the normal personality. Since life is varied and complex anyway, it is hard to determine where normal behavior leaves off and abnormal behavior begins. In retreat from this tantalizing ambiguity, some psychiatrists have chosen to take the position that there is no such thing as mental illness. In similar argument, one might contend that since orange blends closely into red, there is no such thing as orange," Neuman says.
After all, orange is the new black.
Perhaps it is easier to say what is not meant by normal than what is.
One of my strongest influences as storyteller comes from fellow Colorado native, Ken Kesey.
Kesey famously volunteered to take part in what turned out to be a CIA-financed study known as Project MKULTRA at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital as a night aide. The project studied the effects of various psychoactive drugs, and his experiences there fueled the muse for writing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Kesey's experience with patients, sometimes under the influence of the experimental hallucinogenic drugs, led him to believe that society had pushed them out because they did not fit conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. 
Still one of my favorite depictions of mental illness, I identify with the idea that sometimes, the treatments are worse than the "cure."
But knowing just how someone deviates from the average is important in understanding, I guess.
Dr. Nueman says that is true for three reasons:
"1. Although a particular behavior may not be in itself abnormal, it may be part of a pattern that reflects an abnormal process. Sleeping less than average, for instance, is sometimes associated with severe depressions and other psychoses. Also, if someone is extremely far from average in some respect of behavior or attitude, it is likely he will turn out to be emotionally ill by some other criteria.
2. Someone who is significantly different from other people may be under special strain as a result, for in order to be with people, it is necessary to do pretty much the things other people do.
3. But most important, an individual is most himself at just those points where he is different from others. Knowing what is special about someone is knowing, at least, what is worth paying attention to for a therapist and what to ask about."
My father, who in many ways and for many years, administered to my mom and her mental illness, late in life suffered from his own. In the form of dementia, or just general confusion, he became unsure of what was real, and what was Memorex.
A pillar of stability for most of his life, I never really understood that until he complained of the county moving the roads on him. Maybe the county did, but somehow I knew then, he was descending into a place he had never been.
I think I am like a lot of people, in that, is where the fear resides.  What if I go there, too?
Perhaps that is the edge that Thompson speaks of.  'Normal' doesn't mean you are adjusted, and perhaps it doesn't even last forever.
Even if it does, is 'normal' all it is cracked up to be? Or, is mental illness something we all should talk a little more about?

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