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.”