Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Unquiet Mind (and toddler)

So it seemed no small coincidence* that I've been thinking a lot about mental health the past few weeks and while driving home from a visit with family in Virginia today there was a show on NPR's TED Radio Hour called "The Unquiet Mind."

On the show, various TED speakers shared stories of straddling the line between madness and sanity. 

These days, I feel blessed to have a very wide line to walk between madness and sanity. Two-year-old Lily does her best to wheedle away at that line. She has this thus-far unproven theory that I'm a servant capable of fulfilling multiple, dissimilar requests instantaneously. If said requests aren't met with speed and enthusiasm, then obviously, she wasn't clear, and the only way to be clear is to repeat herself. Again and again and again and again. 

"Mom, I want chocolate milk in my Dora cup."
"OK, Lily, one minute."
 "Mom, I want chocolate milk in my Dora cup."
"I said I'd get it for you, two seconds."
 "Mom, I want chocolate milk in my Dora cup. ... Mom, I want to read 'Bambi and the Butterfly.' "
"OK Lily, I have to get your milk first."
"Mom, I want to wear purple dress."
"Here's your milk."
"Mom, I want 'Bambi and the Butterfly and purple dress.'"

I share this partially in jest. 

My logical brain knows that all Lily really wants is my attention and that if I just stopped whatever I'm doing and focus on her, the endless stream of requests would stop. 

But the part of me that can't see past the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink feels the anxiety creeping into my stomach and the tension grinding my jaw with each demand. If it's at the end of the week or I haven't gotten enough sleep I actually do begin to feel desperate and a bit manic. And sometimes I yell at her. 

"LILY! What did I say? I said I would get it for you. Just wait a minute." And then I tell my 2-year-old the most ridiculous thing ever:

"You need to be PATIENT!"

I'll pause now to give the veteran parents out there a chance to recover from their eye-rolling laughter.

I bring this up not because Lily is any sort of toddler savant at testing the limits of my patience (I'm pretty sure she has a large network of other 2-year-olds who chat online during naptime ala the E*Trade baby about all the different ways they mess with their parents) but that because in the thick of the moment I do feel a bit crazy. 

And it's in those boiling-point episodes that all moms have that I think we all connect with that more feral part of our brains -- even if it's just for an instant.

One fascinating segment of the show tells the story of Elyn Saks, a USC law professor who also has schizophrenia. Does anybody ever hear stories about someone with schizophrenia going on to become a respected academic and be happily married? 

I feel like the more common narrative is that the person is diagnosed and goes on to live a difficult life, going on and off their medication, going in and out of psychiatric care, and leaving family members to pick up the pieces of their psychosis until they die. 

At least, this was the case with my aunt. 

But Saks does have schizophrenia. And she is a professor of law. And she is married. She wrote a book about her experiences called "The Center Cannot Hold." 

After graduating from Yale Law Saks had a mental breakdown. One of her friends came to visit and found her living in a pitch black room, unbathed, gaunt, delusional. He sat next to her in that dark room in silence for hours then took her on a walk to get fresh air. Eventually the episode ended. 

I love this image. Whether we're mentally ill or not, we've all all sat in the darkness of our minds at one time or another -- after a bad day or work or for prolonged periods of depression ... or whatever. And we've all needed someone to sit quietly with us and guide us gently back into the light. 

Saks also talks about being in and out of psychiatric care and how she resisted taking medication for a long time for the same reasons many mentally ill people do -- they don't like the side effects and they want to prove that they can be healthy without it. She eventually came to the conclusion that the medication (in conjunction with intensive therapy that continues to this day) helped restore her to her true, authentic self. 

Her friend said he never doubted that she would make it out of the darkness. He said she had a tremendous life force and the will and intelligence to do anything she wanted to do.

Saks is courageous to share her story. And even she admits that she waited to share it until later in life because she was scared about how those around her would react. But I hope that we as a society can get to a day when telling the story about surviving with a mental illness doesn't require courage. That it's as accepted as telling the story of surviving cancer or a shark attack. 

"We celebrate and venerate athletes and public figures who overcome cancer and other diseases, we don't really talk about the people who overcome mental illnesses," the producer says in the story. He described keeping the secret of being mentally ill as "a terrible burden on top of another terrible burden."

We need to shift our view of the mentally ill; they are not the one-dimension of whatever disease they have. We have to nurture their life forces, strip the stigma and allow them to live out in the healing light with the rest of us. 

Saks offerd some final words of wisdom:

"The humanity we all share is more important than the illness we do not."


* If you'd listened to to the This American Life show on Coincidences a couple weeks ago, you'd know that stories about coincidences tend to be self-centered affairs ... one academic study found that we have an ego-centric bias to our own coincidences; we find coincidences that happen to us much more surprising than those that happen to other people. So maybe the whole thing wasn't a coincidence, afterall. But I still think it is.


  1. In working with people who have severe, persistent mental illness, I discovered that we in the "normal" part of the spectrum are more like the mentally ill than we are different.
    Farmer Jim

  2. Thanks Jim. I agree. And if mental health were as acceptable to discuss openly as the flu, we'd all realize that.