Madhouse Stories

 

No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers, is written by a father whose two sons have been afflicted by schizophrenia. One of his sons committed suicide. The book alternates by chapter between giving a factual history of society’s treatment of the mentally ill and telling the story of his sons’ descent into mental illness. Powers says in the introduction that he initially planned on only writing the factual history of mental illness and leaving his sons’ story out of it. He then realized that he could not tell one story without telling the other. I could not read either of the stories without reflecting on my own or my cousin’s story of mental illness.

***

Last May my cousin Stefan died by suicide. When my mother told me the news I gasped in horror and I cried, and I grieved but the truth was I was not entirely surprised by Stefan’s death. In fact, I had long feared he would die by suicide. Stefan suffered from schizophrenia. I knew the rate of suicide among those afflicted by schizophrenia was high and I knew Stefan had attempted suicide before.

When I told a friend about Stefan’s death she asked if we had been close. We certainly hadn’t been close geographically, as he lived in Romania and I lived in New Jersey. We had not seen each other since I was twelve and he was eleven, when our families spent a vacation together in the mountains of Romania. We never saw each other again after that vacation and for many years we did not speak to each other either. About two and a half years before his death, we reconnected on Facebook. While we didn’t have some of the more traditional markers of a close relationship, we did form a bond over something we had in common: mental illness.  One of the first things he said in his initial Facebook message to me was “I think maybe you and I are the normal ones.” Then he directed me to a song he related to. It was the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy.”

When Stefan first contacted me, he was in a mental hospital in Romania. I was surprised that he was allowed to use the internet from a mental hospital because that had never been an option for me when I was in mental hospitals. I was even more surprised when he posted pictures of the mental hospital, its surrounding grounds, and the other mental patients with the hashtag “madhouse stories” because in the United States that would be considered a serious breach of privacy. Within the mental health system in Romania, he seemed to have a level of freedom that was unfathomable in the United States. Stefan wondered which system was better and said he would go mad in an American mental hospital.

Stefan read my writing about the time I’d spent in mental health facilities. I’d expressed how isolated and dehumanized I felt by my lack of freedom; I’d been put in solitary confinement for days, I’d lost control over what and how much I ate, I was told that I could not hug my mother when she visited me in my prison. He said I’d been treated like shit and that perhaps I’d been treated worse than he had been. I felt that regardless of how he was treated, he had suffered as a result of his mental illness more than I’d suffered as a result of mine, for he had schizophrenia whereas I had depression. Powers says “But even among the many devastating diagnoses of mental illness, schizophrenia stands unique in its capacity to wreck the rational processes of the mind. It is to mental health as cancer is to physical health; a predator without peer and impervious to cure.” (xv)

I know that many, if not most people with mental illness have been treated much worse than either Stefan or I were. Society is not and never has been kind to the mentally ill. In chapter after chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People, we see just how cruelly the mentally ill were and are treated. We see countless examples of the mentally ill being abused, abandoned, neglected, persecuted, demonized and dehumanized.

We see that contrary to stereotypes of the mentally ill, both of Powers’ sons are kind, caring, charming, intelligent, hard working and talented. I remember how charmed I was by Stefan when he was a child and how devastated I was to learn that he had descended into schizophrenia as an adult. Yet I learned that schizophrenia had not changed his essential goodness and that I was still charmed by who he was as an adult.

A chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People addresses the deinstitutionalization movement. On the surface it seemed like a good idea because many institutions were awful places and this would give the mentally ill a chance at freedom but the movement ended up being a disaster because society failed to provide the mentally ill with appropriate supports in lieu of mental hospitals, so many mentally ill people ended up homeless. Stefan told me he feared ending up homeless one day and could picture himself deliberately getting committed to a mental hospital just so he would have something to eat. Both of us were dependent on and living with our mothers as a result of our mental illnesses and the fear of homelessness has crossed my mind.

I always knew a problem in the treatment of schizophrenia is that schizophrenics often decide that they don’t need to take their medicine because they feel there’s nothing wrong with them but until I read Crazy People I didn’t realize that denial of one’s sickness had a name-anosognosia. Anosognosia can strike after long periods of wellness and compliance with medication. It happened with Powers’ sons and I noticed hints of it in Stefan. He told me he’d been free of symptoms for three months and was preparing to start work again but that he missed his hallucinations because they kept him entertained. He posted statuses and messages that I found alarming, but I felt helpless to do anything about it. Those who are much closer to their schizophrenic loved ones often feel helpless as well.

I cannot begin to fathom the levels of pain Powers must have experienced at losing a son to suicide but losing Stefan was hard for me because I’d lost a flesh and blood connection who knew what it was like to walk the lonely and terrifying road of mental illness. I was furious to learn that the Romanian Orthodox church would not officiate Stefan’s funeral because they considered suicide to be an unforgivable sin. He had died from a very serious mental illness and I couldn’t blame him for his death any more than I could blame a cancer patient for their death.

Powers’ surviving son is doing well now. He has recovered from the worst of his mental illness and in many respects is thriving. I’ve also recovered from the worst of my mental illness and am mostly doing well now but recovery is not an all or nothing linear process and I did end up in the psych ER a few months after Stefan’s death. Once the terror of the episode had passed and I realized I was going to be discharged from the ER and returned to my regular life, a second wave of grief hit me as I thought about Stefan and how he would never have that chance. I do not hear voices in my head like those afflicted by schizophrenia do but as I walked into the sunshine of the hospital parking lot, I could hear eleven-year-old Stefan’s voice ringing out through the mountains of Romania.

In the forward of Crazy People Powers says he hopes you do not “enjoy” the book but are wounded by it. Indeed, it would be hard to enjoy a book that depicts such real and bleak suffering and I did not “enjoy” it, but I am glad to have read it.

The last chapter of the book is titled “Some one Cares About Crazy People” and in it Powers takes a cautiously optimistic tone about advancements in the treatment of and attitude toward the mentally ill. I hope those advancements continue, for the sake of people like Stefan, for the sake of people like me, for the sake of people like Powers’ sons, and for the sake of all those who battle mental illness.

Top ten things that are pissing me off right now

1. Sexist men telling me to smile-I posted this friendship anniversary thing on Facebook that showed the profile pictures of me and my girl friend.  This guy comes along and says “You both need to learn to smile, it goes a long way”.  I told him he needed to learn not to make inappropriate comments on womens’ social media pictures, it goes a long way.”  He wasn’t smiling in his profile picture either but of course it’s only women who need to smile to please men. This guy said he didn’t understand why I was so angry over such a simple thing when he was just pointing out that smiling would make us look better and if I had a problem with him I should unfriend him.  I took that last suggestion of his. Bye Felicia.

2. People who are judgmental of suicide victims on National Suicide Prevention Day- I saw all these nice, thoughtful, supportive blogs on suicide, which I appreciated but then I come across this blog where someone says they consider many people who commit suicide to be cowards. Their rationale was that people who commit suicide have low self confidence and self worth and people who have low self confidence and self worth are cowards. They used to believe all people who committed suicide were cowards but then they had a gracious change of heart and decided it’s only the suicide victims who didn’t just reach out for help that are cowards. If they did reach out for help, their loved ones are to blame for their death.  This blogger then assured people contemplating suicide that things would get better and offered a listening ear to those who are struggling. I guess the fact that judgmental attitudes like theirs are what prevent depressed people from ‘just reaching out’ is lost on this blogger. But hey, what do I know, I have low self confidence and self worth, so therefore I’m a coward.

3. Evil stepfathers who steal my dog from me- Lily is gone for the next few days and I miss her. The bastard doesn’t deserve half custody of her and sharing custody of a dog is stupid anyway

4. People who just don’t give a fuck about spelling or grammar- If you’re going to insult me you can at least use proper spelling and grammar when you do it so you don’t look like even more of an idiot than you already do. I know there are people who think spelling and grammar don’t matter on Facebook but I don’t understand how people can have the same attitude about WordPress. How am I supposed to take what you’ve written on your blog seriously when it’s making my eyes bleed?

5. People who deflect from the issue at hand by attacking me with irrelevant bullshit- I’m trying to explain to this guy on Facebook that there are sound ecological reasons for not allowing dogs in certain nature parks and the rules aren’t just in place to ruin his fun when he decides to bring up a completely unrelated  traumatic incident that happened between me and him more than 10 years ago. He claims that I was the one in the wrong then when he was actually the one in the wrong but that incident had nothing to do with anything anyway. Grumpy grudge holding guy got unfriended just like sexist smiley guy did and his grammar was just as bad.

6. Hypocritical Nazi apologists who tone police me-This is  an example of someone unfriending me rather than the other way around but she acted as though I was the one who unfriended her, telling me that I should realize that politics doesn’t define a person, that you can still be friends with someone when you disagree with them politically and condemning someone else for unfriending her over her political views.  She then blocked me because I was “unnecessarily angry and hateful” towards people I disagreed with. Excuse me for getting angry over gross violations of human rights and for not playing nice with racists, homophobes and Nazi apologists. It’s cool to be sympathetic towards grammar Nazis. It’s not cool to be sympathetic towards actual Nazis.

7. The word ‘unnecessarily’- It’s a good word but it’s a bitch to spell and after complaining about people with poor spelling and hypocrites, the pressure was on me to spell it correctly in this blog post.

8. The way everything on the internet is a fucking slideshow these days-Ain’t no one got time for that.

9. People who say to people who are unable to work due to illness or disability “It must be nice to not have to work”-  To these people I say “It must be nice to not be ill or disabled.”

10.Donald Trump-Just fucking everything about him. He’s a disgrace to this nation. In fact, he and the kind of mindset he and his followers exemplify are also responsible for many of the other items on this list.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this unnecessarily angry list of mine and that you also enjoy this picture of me not smiling.

Image may contain: 1 person, tree, outdoor and closeup

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why is a popular and controversial Netflix series that deals with the issue of suicide, which in a way is also popular and controversial. It’s based on the book of the same name.  I’ve read the book and seen the show so I figured I should share my thoughts on them.

Since my reviews tend to get long winded I’m going to start by answering three important questions in the most succinct way possible.

Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good book? No

Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good show? Yes

Does Thirteen Reasons Why glorify suicide? Yes

The story was an interesting one and it held my attention the whole time so I’ll give the book that much but Jay Asher is just not a good writer. It’s a good thing he had a decent editor. At the end of book the original ending of the story before the editor changed it was printed. It was so bad and ridiculous I found myself cringing in second hand embarrassment.

Movies based on books are almost never as good as the books but in my experience shows based on books tend to be better than the books. I wasn’t all that impressed with the book Orange is the New Black (although compared to Thirteen Reasons Why it’s a masterpiece) but I love the Netflix series (although I think it may have jumped the shark at season 5.) The series added all kinds of intriguing details and scenarios that weren’t in the book.

While I wouldn’t say I loved the Netflix version of Thirteen Reasons Why, I did like it.  Just like the Netflix version of Orange is the New Black, it touched on all kinds of details that the book just barely skimmed the surface of. Most notably we got to know the suicide victim’s parents and they filed a lawsuit against the school.

The lawsuit angle raises the question of how much responsibility other people have for someone’s suicide both legally and morally. Obviously the suicide victim is the one who chose to commit suicide and no one else forced them in to it but if you actively encourage someone to commit suicide, it seems pretty clear to me that you’re responsible for their death.  Recently there was a news story about a girl who was charged with manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide and I agreed with that verdict.

What’s less clear is how responsible you are for a suicide victim’s death if you don’t encourage them to commit suicide but make their life a living hell.  In Thirteen Reasons Why this is what the school bullies did to Hannah. The story also explores the ways in which well meaning people who love the suicide victim can contribute to their death, not only through their actions but through their inaction. Most of the people on Hannah’s thirteen reasons why tapes were people who treated her cruelly but the main character, Clay,  had treated her kindly and cared about her.

There has been much concern that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide and I’ll get to that shortly but there was another aspect of it I found concerning that I haven’t seen anyone talk about. There’s a scene where Hannah and Clay start making out and Hannah freaks out and tells Clay to go away. He does so. It’s later revealed that Hannah told Clay to go away because she was scared but she really wanted him to stay and it’s suggested that if he had, maybe she wouldn’t have committed suicide. Clay regrets listening to Hannah and leaving the room rather than continuing to touch and talk to her.

I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea from that scene and think that it’s okay to continue to touch and talk to someone who’s asked you to stop. If someone has asked you to stop touching and talking to them, the proper thing to do is to listen to them, even if you suspect they really want you to continue. In this world of rape culture it is so important to take people at their word and not do anything to them that they haven’t consented to. I’m not going to say that the show glorifies rape or touching people without their consent though because Hannah’s rape and her witnessing of someone else’s rape factor heavily into her decision to commit suicide.

I do think that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide, not because it makes suicide seem pleasant or admirable but because it sends the message that suicide is a way to be noticed, to get your voice heard, to make the people who wronged you feel bad about what they did, to make them suffer for it.  The people who wronged Hannah didn’t seem to feel bad about what they did or realize how much they’d hurt her until she killed herself. They also were not held accountable for their actions until she killed herself.

For people who are not depressed and who are respected and treated well by their peers, I think the message this story sends is a good one and that it has the potential to influence their behavior in a positive manner. If you hold the social power, you should use that power to be kind to others, rather than to be unkind because you never know what kind of a battle someone is fighting or what effect your actions could have on them. Yet I have serious concerns about the effect this story could have on a depressed, tormented, socially rejected adolescent. Those are the people who feel powerless and this story presents suicide as a way to gain power.

Another criticism I’ve seen of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it portrays suicide as a revenge tactic and that stigmatizes people who commit suicide. There was certainly an element of revenge to Hannah’s suicide but I did not get the impression that was her sole or even her primary motivation for ending her life. Her suicide scene was graphic and maybe if I hadn’t heard about it beforehand I would have been shocked and horrified by it but I’d heard so much criticism of it beforehand that it ended up not being as graphic as I was expecting it to be.

I had a lot of sympathy for Hannah but I did not find her to be an entirely likable character. However, I do not see Hannah’s flaws as a flaw in the story. I don’t think someone needs to be a perfect angel in order for their suicide to be a tragedy or for us to mourn the loss of them. The truth is that if someone is suicidal or suffering from mental illness, there’s a good chance they will behave badly, that they’ll do things that others find hurtful and off- putting. That does not mean the suicidal person is a bad person.

It is often said that suicide is selfish. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism because while it’s true that suicide is devastating to the surviving loved ones, the mind of a severely depressed person can convince them that they are so horrible and such a burden to everyone around them, that they are doing their loved ones a favor by killing themselves.

I can personally relate to this story on multiple levels. I’ve never attempted suicide and I’m not sure that I’ve ever been truly suicidal but I have been severely depressed and had thoughts of wanting to die. I wasn’t bullied or ostracized by my peer group much as a child or an adolescent but I was as an adult.  The bullying did not make me suicidal but it did damage me emotionally. I’m not sure that the people who bullied me realized how badly they were hurting me or that they thought of what they were doing to me as bullying.

I’d like to say that I’ve never bullied or been cruel to anyone but that would be a lie. The truth is that when I was in high school my friends and I played a cruel prank on a girl who was emotionally vulnerable. Our prank did not result in the girl’s suicide but I know that it could have. In fact when the teachers found out about our prank we were required to write a play to show that we learned our lesson and I proved that by writing a play about our prank that did result in a suicide attempt. A few years later there was a news story about an adult who played the same kind of prank on a teenage girl and it resulted in her suicide.

The prank I participated in was not something I ever would have done on my own but people tend to be influenced by their peers and to do cruel things in groups that they wouldn’t do individually.  This was an extensive prank that went on for months and there were times when I did feel guilty about my participation in it but I always brushed that guilt aside. I told myself it was just a silly prank so it wasn’t really bullying and surely it wouldn’t hurt her that badly and if it did she deserved it because she”d been mean to me and she wasn’t a very nice person and….we can always think of ways to try to justify cruel, bullying behavior but at the end of the day there really is no justification for it.

As I said before, you never know the kind of effect your actions will have on someone else, whether they be acts of kindness or acts of cruelty. Something that seems insignificant to you could have a profound impact on someone else. At the end of the day, unless you’re a psychopath, you don’t want someone else’s blood on your hands so play it safe and don’t be an ass.  If you see someone being an ass to someone else stand up to them and reach out to the victim.

As Thirteen Reasons Why proves, cruelty and indifference to cruelty can have devastating consequences. I can only hope that the predominant consequence of Thirteen Reasons Why will be a decrease in cruelty in the real world, rather than an increase in suicide.