Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There but for fortune

Today in the mental hospital where I work, I met a woman who said she had learned to be all brain and no heart. When she was five, the authorities found out her father was raping her, and she was sent to be raised by her aunt and uncle. They were hands-off academics who fed her mind but not her emotions, and in fifty years she has never had any close relationships. She came to the hospital because she was homeless and considering suicide.

This woman speaks with the richest vocabulary and most careful grammar of anyone I've talked to in a long time. Her intellect is completely sound, and she has clung to it because she has very little else in her life. She is who I might have been if I had been born into a different family.

Before I started work on a locked psych ward, I thought it would be scary to be around people who were totally unlike anyone I knew. Actually, the scary thing is that the severely mentally ill are a lot like people I know. They are people like any other people - professors, parents, dockworkers, students, cashiers - whose brains played them a trick. This, frankly, sucks.

All our brains go a bit askew at times, especially when we dream. You know that dream where your teeth are knocked out, or your finger is cut off, or you have a terrible haircut? That same fear, brought to waking life, is body dysmorphic disorder. You know how in dreams you know something is terribly wrong, even if you can't explain how you know it? That, when you still feel it the next morning, is paranoia. You know how scenes suddenly change into other scenes, and impossible things happen? That, if it goes on for months, is schizophrenia.

All our distancing from the homeless, from the insane - it's to help us pretend the distance is far, but it's not. We need to push them away to pretend it can't happen to us, or that it doesn't suck. But it does.

Remember this when services are being cut. Remember it when you hear someone shouting nonsense from a street corner. If this is not actually your neighbor, your sister, your self - it could be. It is people very much like you. Be kind.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What keeps us safe

My housemates' baby is four months old now. As I watch them bounce, cuddle, and sing their son to sleep, I wonder about how lullabies worked before recording. If you're actually only singing them when your child is so young they can't fall asleep unaided, the child is too young to remember songs. Maybe older siblings hear what their parents sing to new babies, or what neighbors or relatives sing?

There are modern lullabies that obviously never went through the folk process. Take the beautiful "John O' Dreams":

When midnight comes good people homeward tread
Seek now your blanket and your feather bed
Home is the rover, his journey's over
Yield up the night time to old John O' Dreams.

It's lovely, but it's not exactly for kids. It's got four wordy verses which I've sung dozens of times but can't remember. This is clearly not the kind of thing that sleep-deprived parents pass down orally. But why write a lullaby for adults?

The other shoe dropped for me recently in a lecture on self psychology. Self psychology is cursed with terrible nomenclature - almost none of its terms accurately describe what they mean. So the "idealized parental imago pole" of the textbook sounded like mumbo-jumbo until the professor explained: "Our lifelong task is to find what feeds us and keeps us safe." We never outgrow the need to feel that we are protected by someone wise and strong. People may get this from religion, from idealizing a romantic partner, from hero-worship. And it's okay, because it gives us ideals to strive towards as well as a sense of wellbeing.

Children are born without much ability to self-soothe. Parents do it for them with sounds and touch. Later children carry around objects (blankets, dolls) to comfort themselves with when the parent isn't there. Still later, we repeat verbal assurances we have heard from others. (The first time I took a city bus alone at age fourteen, I repeated the phrase "It's going to be okay" under my breath for the duration of the trip.) The need to be comforted doesn't go away, but we learn to parent ourselves.

One of my favorite experiences is falling asleep while other people are awake and making music. It feels comforting in the same way that reliving childhood pleasures is comforting, except that this wasn't actually something that happened in my childhood. I think it's the sense that I can relax because all's well in the world. I've heard other people describe this feeling while falling asleep in a car with someone else driving.

This is why we have wordy lullabies for adults. This is why 25% of businessmen take their teddy bears with them on business trips. This is why Guns N' Roses wrote "Sweet Child O' Mine" as a joke and it topped the charts. Even if our parents will never literally hold us and comfort us again, we have to get that feeling somewhere.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

On suffering

My social work internship this year is in a psych hospital. Today I heard a patient explain her view on suffering.

"My angels think suffering is something holy, but I don't think so. Like Christians hang a cross with a dead Jesus on it over their beds. That's sacred to them, but I think it's creepy. I don't think Jesus had to die at thirty-two. I think he should have stayed alive and raised his daughter. Did you know he had a daughter? It was on the History Channel."

She echoed almost perfectly the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

¡Cantar de la tierra mía,
que echa flores
al Jesús de la agonía,
y es la fe de mis mayores!
¡Oh, no eres tú mi cantar!
¡No puedo cantar, ni quiero,
a ese Jesús del madero,
sino al que anduvo en el mar!

Song of my homeland,
that throws flowers
to the agonized Jesus
and is the faith of my ancestors!
Oh, you are not my song!
I cannot sing, don't want to
to this Jesus on the cross,
but to him who walked on the sea!