Is What I Have, Who I Am?

I began the week by being told by a psychiatrist that when it comes to mental illness, I am “naïve.”  He told me that I do not have the same belief (or words to that effect) in mental illness that I do in physical illness.  As he was talking I kept saying to myself: “yep, yep, yep, that’s true, I don’t.”  He was clearly missing the fact that I am proud of that conviction.  I don’t deny the existence of mental illness, but the unspoken context is too often “permanent damage.”  And even if that were true, the deeper, and key, context always seems to be that damage to the psyche is the same as damage to the person. Folks don’t talk that way, of course, but they don’t NOT talk that way.

To wit:  “He has cancer” or “She has heart disease” or “I have diabetes”.  The cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is not identified as the person.  On the contrary, the person has these physical conditions.  But watch with mental illness: “He is schizophrenic” or “She is bi-polar” or “I am an addict.”

There is some overlap, of course: “I am diabetic” or “He has post traumatic stress disorder.”  But mostly, it seems to me, the language of our culture says that we “have” physical illness, but we “are” mental illnesses.  Interestingly, despite the apparent truth that lifestyle choices bring on many physical illnesses, we seem to recognize that they could happen to any of us precisely because they exist outside of us as people.  However, mental illnesses, being something that folks “are” could not happen to us because we “are not” schizophrenic, or bipolar or an addict.

Once we move from “have” to “are,” the personhood of the person in question simply disappears.  I am not saying that this is taught.  I am saying that it is the reality of how we speak, and how we think, and therefore, how we respond, far too often, to the person who “has” a physical disease but “is” a mental one.

In the field of foster care adoption, it is this thinking that allows folks to give up their already adopted children, rather than focusing on solving the problem of living with or at least relating to these very difficult children as their parent.  Within their social circles, I can’t imagine an adoptive parent getting away with telling folks that they gave up their child because he had heart disease, or because he had diabetes, or because he had cancer.  Such people would be looked upon as disgusting and shallow folks.  But giving up a kid who doesn’t relate to us as we expect, or want, or understand?  A whole different ball game.  All we have to do with our friends, our families, and ourselves even is to tell a few stories of the behaviors of these kids – perhaps their coldness, or their apparent consciencelessness, or their dangerousness, or even their abusiveness.  Then, everyone is with us and we can give our kids up fully justified and supported by our people.  Of course, we have already first given up, and very slickly so, the idea that they are “our” kids.  That’s what allows the rest.

Yet, every regular old parent has dealt with any one of those pathological behaviors in their regular old children: when the children were two years old.

At Family Focus we are currently doing a retrospective of what we have learned over the 25 years of our existence.  It is a lot.  But in looking at that very long list, I have been trying to figure out what is the most important reality that we have recognized. It is probably this:

A normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance appears abnormal, while an abnormal reaction to an abnormal circumstance appears normal.

“Appears” is the operant word here.

I don’t deny that “mental illness” exists.  But I insist that there is a person, exactly as worthwhile as me, existing beyond that illness, just as there is a worthwhile person existing beyond any physical illness.  And I don’t, and won’t, trust any psychiatrist who doesn’t make it clear that they recognize and respect that.  Hell, I don’t trust any person who doesn’t show me that same recognition and respect for that core truth.  Which, of course, comes back to this core truth: there is nobody who is better than anybody else.  As people we are each exactly equal in the dignity and respect we are each entitled to.  And that is true despite any behavior we exhibit, or any illness  – physical or mental – that we have.


P.S.  For an example of a trustworthy psychiatrist, one who gets it, and shows that he gets it, one into whose care I would easily leave my children or grandchildren, or yours for that matter, please look up Dr. Bruce Perry and his wonderful book with the very revealing full title: “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.”



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2 Responses to Is What I Have, Who I Am?

  1. Rich B-N says:

    Thank you for this, Jack! For years I have been cringing, and then correcting, whenever I hear someone make the ridiculous statement, “My son is ADHD.” I don’t think of it as a slip, or just a cultural thing, I believe that at that moment, for whatever reason they are bringing it up, that is a statement of the truth of how they are viewing the child, the entirety of him: I may be proud of my son, or frustrated with him, or pointing out how much he (read “I”) must overcome, all with the understanding that he IS ADHD. I can only hope that by pointing it out, maybe -just maybe – they will examine how they are thinking about their child.

  2. Jack,
    There is much that is profound and absolutely true in what you say. Unfortunately, even in the world of PHYSICAL illness, people are often defined by their illness, rather than by the essence of who they are.

    As a psychotherapist, I see clients who are very ill. Some do not look ill at all. On person I discussed my work with, a travel agent who arranges travel for disabled people, defined my clients as having an “invisible illness”. Poorly understood and often blamed for their cognitive deficits, one of my goals is to help them and their families NOT define themselves by their illnesses. I call it making their illness SMALLER, even as they are dealing with it on a daily basis.

    Your post relates to the issue of blaming. Those who are mentally ill are often blamed for their illnesses, set apart, isolated. Those with an invisible illness often are treated the same way. The blaming leads to the isolation, increases the anger and self-blame that those with these illnesses experience.

    I attended the NY Metro Area “Abilities Expo” in Edison, NJ over the weekend. It was wonderful to see the resources available to disabled people, including various workshops. I’ll bet some of the families attending, whose children were profoundly disabled, felt more normal in that large convention center than they do in their everyday lives.

    We do not live in a society where people are seen as whole, despite their obvious, or not so obvious, “illnesses” or “disabilities”. Our society is not safe for most people. Some adjust and play the game better than others.

    Sandy Berenbaum, LCSW

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