17 May 2015

Not Crazy About the Mentally Ill -- But Empathetic

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” -Scott Fitzgerald

I was leaving the platform of the BART station taking the escalator to the exit and there was a crazy lady who was engaged in simultaneous laughing and raging. She was a middle aged woman not badly dressed. It appeared as though she had been athletic and attractive in her younger days and had only fairly recently gone off her nut. I didn’t give her a wide berth as many people were doing because I’m pretty good at differentiating between dangerous crazy and harmless crazy. The unfortunate thing about my brief exposure to her was that I had on my iPod at the time and was listening to The Spinners sing, “It’s a Shame.” So it was a shame I missed the vocal accompaniment to her gesticulating and fussing over a dropped water bottle. You know when you insulate yourself as I was doing you risk missing those moments. They’re precious.

Seems like there’s a lot more insane people wandering the streets then there used to be. It was a rarity to see them when I was a kid so much so that they genuinely freaked us out. Of course that was a before a horrible ex actor became our governor and closed the mental institutions (the same crank later attained the U.S. presidency and preceded to run the country into the ground for eight miserable years). But not only are there more loonies than 100 years ago when I was a child, there are more than 25 even 10 years ago. Sometimes it's difficult to tell which ones are just drug addled burn outs and which have serious mental issues. Of course some are both.

(By the way, not only crazies roam our streets, some manage to land positions as commentators on Fox News. It would be funny if it were not also so sad.)

I have great empathy for our kooky citizens. As previously discussed on this blog, my own dear old ma was a nut and I myself have walked the very very very thin line between normal and round the bend. I actually believe that dipping one’s toes into madness has some real benefits for providing perspective and understanding and insight, assuming one is self aware enough to manage it.

Most of the mentally ill encounters on the streets these days live on those same streets. I’m sure that a fragile mental state is made far worse by the horrors of being homeless.

My students — who come from all over the world and stay in San Francisco for anywhere from a few weeks to a year —express astonishment at the number of homeless in this country. They further express horror at how aggressive and seemingly dangerous many of them are. Some don’t merely seem dangerous but in fact are. It is indeed a scathing comment on this nation and its priorities that we have so many desperately poor people and so many folks in desperate need of help who are left to fend for themselves.

I didn’t laugh at the woman in the BART station. She was amusing but her plight is nothing to laugh at. (Then again maybe it’s nothing to be amused by either.) Given her clothes and general mien there seemed little doubt that she had been functioning reasonably well in society for most of her life. Maybe there was hope for her yet, she’s not too far gone, she just needs a medication. Maybe she has a support system in place, family who could look after her. Based on her appearance I very much doubt she’s homeless. Maybe just recently so.

Sometimes I look at crazy people and want to reason with them (I’ve had fantasies about convincing Hitler and Goebbels that their racial views were terribly wrong, I guess that’s the same thing). I want to tell them that it’s no good talking — or screaming — aloud to themselves, that they need to calm down and seek help. Of course other times they annoy the hell out of me and I want to tell them to shut up already. Bad enough I had to shout that at my mother a few times when she was raving nonsense, now my sensibilities have to be assaulted while I’m walking home. Tolerance isn't easy, my friends.

The ultimate insanity is not being able to see the reason of another position, to not be able to consider opposing views or acknowledge that they even exist (like those totally crazy Fox News commentators) and to not be able to see the reality of your own life. The truly insane think they’re fine. Many of us borderline cases think we’re worse off than we really are. We’re just in tune with what’s going on. Decades seeing psychiatrists and sitting in 12 step meetings will make you introspective to the point of pain. In a no pain no gain sense.

It's like Socrates said,"the unexamined life is not worth living" and if you examine it closely enough and spend enough time snooping at the way the world is you're bound to seek a little refuge from reality. It's like an even greater philosopher, Groucho Marx once said: “I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal.”

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