The madman in the dungeon speaks

Most people react to mental illness with one of two responses: the write-off and the blame.

The write-off is: This person is crazy. Crazy people are other. Crazy people do scary things. Normal people can’t communicate with crazy people. Crazy people don’t get better. Perhaps craziness is contagious? Stop all association.

The blame is: That person is really messed-up and neurotic. That’s a character flaw. People with character flaws need to change their character. If they don’t or can’t, they’re morally lacking. People whose neuroses don’t get visibly better are not trying hard enough or not doing what they are expected to. People who are having big problems but are not in an approved therapy program or taking approved drugs are not dealing with their problems. These people could be okay if they did things differently and were more like me. If they don’t get better on my schedule, they’re probably not trying very hard.

In the first case, people refuse to see that the very disturbed and ill person is even of the same species, and treat the sufferer as a wild animal or demon.

In the second case, the ailment is transferred from the medical to the moral sphere and then can be turned into a judgment. This shows a lack of empathy.

I get the impression that a lot of people see a neurotic problem and think of it like one of their own difficult days. They wonder why the person with the problem can’t overcome it the way one overcomes a headache or a crappy day at work, and just move on. Somehow, being told that it’s not that simple doesn’t penetrate, even when it’s a professional with experience who’s doing the telling.

Trying to improve a head problem is like this for me: I have this huge tangle of fuzzy yarn and bubble gum and nuts and bolts and sleeping kittens and sharp spiky things, about the size of a cow. My job is to untangle it all without cutting the yarn, losing nuts or bolts, or hurting any kittens. I slowly untangle bits of yarn, occasionally setting aside a bolt or freeing a kitten or cutting myself with one of the sharp spiky things. This goes on for years.

Occasionally someone will wander in and ask when I’ll be done, or explain that I’m doing it wrong. Some of them shake their heads and walk away mumbling about how fucked I am. More rarely I can pay someone to sit down and work on the project with me.

It’s not clear if I’ll get much of this untangled before time’s up. But I didn’t make this tangle, you know. None of us did.

8 thoughts on “The madman in the dungeon speaks

  1. Trying to improve a head problem is like this for me: I have this huge tangle of fuzzy yarn and bubble gum and nuts and bolts and sleeping kittens and sharp spiky things, about the size of a cow. My job is to untangle it all without cutting the yarn, losing nuts or bolts, or hurting any kittens. I slowly untangle bits of yarn, occasionally setting aside a bolt or freeing a kitten or cutting myself with one of the sharp spiky things. This goes on for years.
    So it’s like Katamari Damacy in reverse?

  2. i love the “oh, you feel badly? why not just stop feeling that way, and change the way you feel?” approach. gosh, yes, that is clearly the answer. it IS all my fault that i am this way, and it would stop if i only took the initiative. i wonder why i have never thought of that!
    i like your yarn tangle analogy. i feel like i am inside the tangle, most of the time. the kitten parts are nice, though. i kept one and named it darth vader.

  3. i just want to say i am here and wont ever abandon you even tho i dont really know what you are going through and dont really know how to help. but i am here if you need someone to talk to! and i read everything you write and empathize as much as i can

  4. That was what it was like for me for a long time, until somehow things got clearer, by some magical combination of the right meds/therapy/miracle/who knows what.
    I think another problem is that people like to equate “mental illness” with “problems that require therapy and maybe some medication”. Do you know what I mean? So when they see success in the latter they expect success in the former. Because it’s all therapy and medication to them, and unless you’re a raving schizophrenic who is clearly off his rocker and not fit for public consumption, you too can do it!!!
    But I do think there is some good in guiding those in the latter group to get help. Not blaming, but encouraging and supporting. For some, it’s not a matter of neuroses but of learned behaviors, and some patterns and learned behaviors can be unlearned-ish (I speak from experience). Not that there’s a magic cure, but if a person is on a miserable, even self-destructive path, why not say, “Hey, I am getting help on my stuff. Maybe it would help you?”
    Example: I didn’t have any childhood trauma, at least not at the hands of my parents. The childhood trauma I had at the hands of the horrible bitchy jr. high girls would probably have been easier to handle had I not been about to blossom into a bipolar adolescent. But I need therapy and medication for a long time because of my list of mental illnesses. I have what’s called a manageable illness – sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The joy of mental illness is that while you’re tinkering in one area, the other ones are re-gumming themselves up and finding new kittens to play with. So yes, people who say, “Why don’t you STOP obsessing” or “What’s wrong with you, you were fine 20 minutes ago, snap out of it” may get cut with one of those spiky things. I am lucky to have people in my life who give me encouragement and support, and who tell me how much progress I have made, but sometimes I have to tell them that I’m still exhausted because I know I will never been done. I always fear I am like Sisyphus. The rock has been pushed very far up the hill – but whether the hill keeps going, whether I go over the other side, or whether it crushes me on the way back down is anyone’s guess.
    However, someone who does not have a diagnosable mental illness (at least not any more than anyone else who roams around passing judgment on the rest of us) but who has had childhood traumas is a different story. Not that those things are necessarily easier to untangle. But sometimes they are. I believe that some traumas can never be fully dealt with and some people never get all the way “better,” whatever that means. But for those whose demons are more the result of other people’s actions, I also believe it’s worthwhile to try and understand where the behavior comes from and whether it’s possible to build new behaviors. I just don’t see the point of living one’s life in misery if there’s a possible way out of it, especially since some of us don’t always have that choice. So I have been that person who encourages someone else to get therapy and who says “Look. You need to work on this. This problem is not only destroying you, it’s destroying your relationships with others.” I have done this with people very close to me, and I have stood by them in the process. They told me it helped.
    My psychiatrist, whom I quite like, said something lovely to me on our first visit (as opposed to the truly awful thing a psychiatrist said to me on a first visit years ago). She said, “You know how when you go through the woods, the path that’s worn down is clearly much easier than going through the brambles and bushes? That’s like your brain. Your behaviors and patterns wear down neural pathways, and it’s very comfortable to continue traversing them. Making new ones is very difficult, particularly when you’ve got chemical issues working against you. But it’s possible.” I know I’m more of a pollyanna in this whole endeavor than you, maybe because I’m 10 years behind or maybe because of my family or maybe because of my experiences.
    Anyway, I don’t know why I wrote this whole thing, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t piss anyone off. Especially since it took me an hour of careful writing.

  5. Ideally, you’d be able to leave out some catnip that would coax the kittens out of the tangle and to safety. Then use a magnet to pull the nuts and bolts free without cutting the yarn. Then hire a kindly grandma to use the sharp things to knit the yarn into a nice sweater. Then wear the sweater while you enjoy the bubble gum.
    Unfortunately, contemporary medicine has not yet found effective catnip or magnets, and the kindly grandmas are too expensive.

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