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.

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