Stop Using “Crazy” As A Comfort

A lot has been said these past few days in reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting. For the most part, I have kept my mouth shut and tried to simply take in what everyone else has to say. I am not expressly qualified to comment on this type of tragedy or the broader political and cultural implications at play. But after several days of reading every article I can get my hands on and listening to passionately (if not always articulately) expressed opinions from both ends of the political spectrum, there is one thing I feel I must say: do not make this a conversation about mental illness in America. Don’t get me wrong, that is a conversation we must have. It’s a conversation that we should have been having for years now. A conversation that we should have every year, every day, really. Discussion of mental health and the treatment of our mentally ill should occur the way discussions of general health occur: openly and often and encompassing all manner of past and current concerns, treatment recommendations and implications for both national and global public health. We should be talking about mental illness in this country, regularly, perpetually. And as part of that broader conversation, we should discuss the point where mental illness and gun control intersect. But we cannot turn Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech or any of the other many, many mass shootings into conversations about mental illness alone.

The mentally ill are not your boogeymen. You cannot just suddenly care about mental health every time there is a discussion about limiting access to deadly firearms. The number of Americans who suffer from mental illness is fairly staggering, but the majority of them, the vast majority of us, will not commit an act of violence during our lifetimes. The vast majority of mental health sufferers do not harbor violent thoughts. We do not have blood lust. We don’t spend time pondering what it might feel like to shoot another living being. As a group, the mentally ill are not inherently more dangerous than any other group. Certainly not moreso than a group that regularly shouts at the top of their lungs about their right to own objects that can quickly and efficiently kill other people.

So please, let us not wrap ourselves in the comforting notion that crazy people exist and if we simply focus on controlling them, tragedies like this will become sad distant memories instead of regular occurrences. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to have a serious and purposeful discussion about mental health and illness in this nation. I would love that. But you don’t get to use that conversation as way to deflect from the equally important discussion about gun control. Mental health and illness are complex systems. There is no easy measure for predicting violence. There is no surefire sign or signal that we can point to as an individual’s tipping point for violent behavior. “Better care for our mentally ill” is not some simple, quick fix solution that gun enthusiasts are making it out to be. You know what would be easier? Outlawing access to semiautomatic weapons and significantly limiting overall access to guns. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s talk seriously about gun control.

You don’t get to turn mental illness into the bad guy. Not when everyone knows that every bad guy needs a weapon. Yes, people kill people. And guns allow them to do it more quickly and in far greater numbers. So let’s have that conversation. I’m all ears.

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Infected

I woke up on Thursday morning feeling off. Not sick per se, but more like the energy in my room had shifted and turned into a negative, almost menacing pulsation in the air around me. I felt dizzy, like the entire world was spinning on its axis in one direction and I, in an act of confusion and a desperate need for some kind of control, was attempting to spin the other way. I thought I might tip over with each step, or just collapse with the weight of all the blood in my body rushing away from my head and pooling thick and stagnant around my ankles. It was like every bit of me had been drained into my toes and I moved through the house in a slow, lumbering kind of way that was positively terrifying.

One time when I was a child, I had head lice. Or my brother had it, or perhaps my sister. It didn’t matter. Once one person had lice, everyone had lice. It spread through our schools like chicken pox, like a common cold. Head lice was like a yawn during a particularly tedious test or quiet study period. It jumped from one student to the next, making its way around the room until everyone’s mouth was stretched wide with exhaustion and it made no difference who yawned first, everyone was tired. There is no Patient Zero with head lice. Once you find it on one child, you can be sure there’s already another 10, 15, 2o carrying the bug home, sharing it with their siblings who will then go to school and pass it on to their classes, spreading it from one grade to the next until the whole school is throwing down their pencils in frustration and angrily scratching their heads.

My mother had to strip all the beds. Sheets, blankets, towels, clothes. Quilts that had been locked away in cedar trunks. Bath mats and rugs and every hat in the house. Everything had to be cleaned and disinfected. Cycle after cycle of laundry needed washing. It was like head lice had been genetically engineered by detergent companies. You could go through box after box of Tide and still not be sure the pests were truly gone.

We had to sit in the bathtub and comb a special lice-killing shampoo through our hair with a special lice-killing-shampoo-spreading comb. We had to be extra clean for the days and weeks that followed. No piles of dirty clothes on the floor. No going to bed without showering. It was frustrating and tiresome, but it was also in a strange way kind of pleasant. That kind of dedicated, stripped down house cleansing was soul cleansing as well. It felt like a fresh start, a chance to begin again free from pests and irritations. It required a kind of mindfulness and devotion that is so rarely applied to the mundanities of everyday life.

I woke up Thursday morning infected by a sort of existential head lice, and the only way I could think to rid myself of this feeling of confusion and disconnected self was to vigorously clean my entire house. I swept and wiped down all of the hardwood floors. I vacuumed the bedroom carpet twice until I was sure that every deeply buried speck of dust and melancholy had been sucked away. I reorganized all my jewelry and toiletries. I folded every last piece of laundry, and washed random items, like the slip-on covers of our dining room chairs that had never occurred to me before as being in need of washing. I rearranged the furniture in the dining room to facilitate a better sense of flow from the living room to the kitchen, as if flow was something I had always cared about, but previously neglected. As if flow was something I even understood. I wiped down all the counters and table tops. I dusted the shelves and picture frames. I spent ten ridiculous minutes fluffing the pillows on the couch. I needed to cleanse my life of whatever bad energy had followed me from sleep to waking. I needed to stand in the middle of my house and smell the strong scent of disinfectant. I needed to stand beneath the spray of the shower head and feel the blood return to my limbs and cheeks. I cancelled my appointments and focused solely on the task of cleansing my world, my self. I was Patient Zero and I would not let this bug spread to anyone else.

I felt better. With the floors free of dog hair and the soap scum banished from the tub. With clean clothes neatly stacked in my dresser drawers and my brightly colored scarves hanging organized on the same rack that held my earrings. I felt the air in the house slowly stop trembling and pulsing. I felt my feet resting ever more steadily against the floor. I don’t know what it was that infected me on Thursday morning, but I knew that I had to wash it away. I had to purge it, scald it, bury it under a spray of household chemicals. I had to strip away everything that felt disorderly, chaotic and begin again fresh, free from the pests and irritations of my psyche.