Thermometers and Fevers: Reconsidering “Mental Illness”

“We’re all ‘crazy.’ ‘Sane’ just means you figured out how to make your particular crazy work for you and not against you, at least most of the time.”(Robert Davenport, one of my grad school mentors) All Things in a CircleAs mentioned in this space previously, all things impact all things. Our entire mental health system is based on hierarchical, “disease model” principles. Our country approaches mental health in the same fashion it approaches nearly all things: Put all things vast and confusing into neat little boxes so that we feel more comfortable with them.

With mental health, this means taking collections of symptoms and categorizing them into little boxes. The DSM 5 would have us believe that A + B + 4 out of 5 on C = Major Depressive Disorder. While I do believe there is some significant benefit to seeing how different symptoms can cluster in ways that help us figure out what might be helpful to a person, I remain painfully aware that those boxes serve insurance companies, pharmacology companies, education systems and other bureaucracies as a way to support an exploitive version of Capitalism that greatly benefits from people suffering. Just… no.

Moreover, just as with physical health, those clusters of symptoms don’t tell us why a human person is suffering. They do not honor the unique and complex life carried by a hurting person. We will never fit neatly into boxes. Furthermore, we have no obligation to make others more comfortable with our challenges.

At the same time, we don’t have to suffer. There are two sides to the coin of wellbeing.

What If… I’ve been learning quite a lot about the lesser-known history of the people here on Turtle Island, (North America,) in recent years. That study is leading me to completely reconsider many aspects of individual mental health in the scheme of community, national and global mental health. All things in a circle. All things affect all things.

What if we have our thermometers and fevers all confused? I’ve heard it said in various ways that being called “crazy” in a world that is this “crazy” likely means that a person is pretty clear-minded.

Who’s “Crazy” Now? Consider these examples:

Social Anxiety A person is seized with panic in line at a fast food restaurant. They are being bombarded with a slew of overwhelming sensory input: Loud sounds, frenetic energy, harsh fluorescent lighting and supreme demand that they remain entirely engaged in their (linearly logical) Neocortex so that they can spit out an order in the timing and form the person behind the counter expects. All of this, while their bodies are registering the kind of “THREAT THREAT THREAT” that puts us automatically in Sympathetic Nervous System dominance and forces our Neocortex offline.

The person’s symptoms spell out “Social Anxiety.” In order to not suffer more, they will go to therapy and learn skills to manage it. I’m all for that! Not suffering is a wonderful and attainable goal. I’m grateful to have tools that help.

But at what point do we look at the impetus for that person’s Social Anxiety? When do we look at how insane it is to be continually exposed to unhealthy levels of sound and light? To a frenetic pace that exists to serve a food company making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time?

When do we look at this social demand that values assertiveness and fast speech over learning to listen and take thoughtful time with our words? At what point do we stop buying into the myth that words are the best and only way to communicate to begin with? That’s ableist at best and just plain ignorant at worst.

Which party in this scenario is more “sick?” The person who is overwhelmed by an untenable environment that refuses to respect them on their terms? Or the untenable environment itself?

Low Self Esteem I plan to cover this in more depth in a future blog, but have you ever noticed that our country functions like a Narcissist? There are many facets to this, but for now, let’s just look at the nationally narcissistic demand that we all compete for an imagined supremacy on an illusionary hierarchy of humans.

I know it’s different in some other places, but here in the DMV, the second question most people ask when they meet someone is “What do you do for a living?” Considering that a full two-thirds of all workers in the US do not experience their work as contributing to a thriving life, it’s pretty clear that this is not a true “get to know you” question: It’s a way of figuring out if someone is perceived to be of “higher” or “lower” social caste than the person asking. If we don’t answer in a way that seems impressive, we are perceived to be “lacking” or “failing” in some way.

The person asking the question has (very often unknowingly,) made their perceptions the reference point for the answer. Is the person “higher” in “importance” (based on socioeconomic status and/or socially-sanctioned prestige,) than me?

I do not believe for one second that every person who asks this question is a Narcissist. We have been trained to ask this question as a social norm, much like when we ask “How are you?” without even wanting an honest answer. Our narcissistic culture has self-endorsed a narcissistic set of social norms on us. Unconsciously playing along is social survival.

Until life happens and we can’t answer that question in a way that doesn’t “one-down” us (or more,) on the mythic hierarchy. We experience a crisis and drop out of college or lose our jobs. We put the care needs of others above career achievement and take on less-demanding and less-prestigious work to fulfill something that matters more to us than our job title. We don’t find a way to fit our unconventional ways of learning and thinking into the narrow, socially-approved educational system. We have a passion for something that the economy does not value.

The dissonance between what is expected of us by the narcissistic culture and our experiences can easily make us doubt our own worth. We are said to suffer from “low self esteem.” But really, are we “sick?” Or is it sick that our culture evaluates our worth by what we produce and how much money it makes?

Which is more problematic? A person who experiences pain and doubt when devalued? Or a system that devalues humans based on a vacuous demand for achievement based on incredibly biased criteria?

The Revolution Starts Within Looking at the history of social change in this country, it seems evident that effective change tends to happen when people play along with a system long enough to infiltrate and get into positions of influence and power. I believe this is our best hope with mental health as well.

Let’s use and teach the tools that stop suffering, but do it in a way that stays tethered to the truth that our culture is the true “client.” Honor your gifts and Life Mission. Be the healthiest you that you can be, while refusing to play along with cultural demands that threaten to make us all sick. Let’s live our lives wide awake to “All things in a circle.” Refuse shame, hierarchies, or any other manipulative tools of the narcissistic culture that try to make us forget who we are and what we are truly worth.

And most importantly, be contagious with it! I’m here to support you in any way I can.

........................................................................................................................................... Are you suffering in the tension between unhealthy environments and your reality? Are you refining ways that you can subvert our narcissistic culture? Contact Tiffany today. Let me support your personal revolution!