An Unpeaceful Mind

The 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was written by Oregonian Ken Kesey; it was later made into a blockbuster movie, starring Jack Nicholson.  It was filmed right here in Oregon, at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.  The grim hospital, with its dark, decrepit, smelly atmosphere, made a perfect setting for the film featuring a mental hospital, with very little modification.  I know because I was there.

My mother’s first hospitalization was in OSH in 1969, when I was five.  She was rehospitalized when I was eight, and instead of being shielded from the gory details, I was brought to visit her there.  To this day, I vividly recall the dark, smelly hallways, the silent drooling stares of those strapped into chairs as I walked by, the smell of urine and disinfectant, and the tiny windows in steel doors, which did little to muffle the sounds of screams.  Nobody smiled, not the patients, not the families, not the staff, nobody.  Behind one of those steel doors was my mother, strapped to a table for her safety.  To this day, even after the exterior has had a facelift, those buildings are very hard for me to look at.  I still picture hell inside.

The other night, as I was scrolling through people’s facebook posts, I saw a status that started with, “You are in a mental hospital…”  It turned out to be a “joke,” with a list of things like, “the person licking the windows is…” and you tag your top seven friends to assign them their role in the situation.

I found it hard to find humor in this.  My mother’s mental illness colored my entire childhood, and made finding my way as an adult very challenging.  Not only did she attempt suicide twice, once right in front of me, but her ongoing behaviors were confusing, frightening and embarrassing.  After her shock treatments in the early 70’s, she was no longer the poet, artist, musician and den mother my older siblings knew.  I grew up with a different mom, a strange, sedated, mentally absent mom.  I grew up hearing snide remarks from strangers and seeing people roll their eyes around her, and my violent alcoholic father was unable to help me understand her illness.  Nobody thought to explain to a small child that to “commit” someone meant to put them in mental care, so when family members said they were going to commit her, I was kneeled by her side, sobbing and screaming.  I thought it meant they planned to kill her.

Over the years, other family members have struggled with mental illness and suicide attempts, and each time has brought unimaginable grief to our family.

So when I saw this post, I felt like I had been punched in the gut.  I had to say something; not to would be a betrayal of everyone who has felt this pain and grief.  I will never be able to find humor in jokes about mental illness, no matter how many times I am told to “lighten up,” “get a sense of humor,” etc.

My comment on this post was, “This is about as funny as a concentration camp or a child sex abuse ring.  A mental hospital is a sad and horrible place.”

This drew a flurry of horrified remarks about what a sick person I am and an idiot with no sense of humor, and HOW COULD I??  Comparing it to child sex abuse?  Why that’s horrible and there’s no comparison.

My point was that nobody jokes about child sex abuse.  It’s not funny, and it’s traumatic.  Are concentration camps funny?  No, they are not.  There are just some lines our society won’t cross because it’s hurtful and horrible and minimizes the experience of the victims.

Instead of understanding this, people lambasted me as some sort of pervert.  Since I don’t know them and they don’t know me, I’m not losing a whole lot of sleep over it.  They apparently didn’t see the irony of them attacking me for pointing out something was offensive, because my comment offended THEM.  The person whose post I commented on was hurt and puzzled by my remark.  I felt bad because she is a friend and it was never my intent to hurt anybody.

Perhaps child sex abuse wasn’t the best example, but then again, maybe it was.  As a child sex abuse survivor, I feel a little qualified to understand the pain involved in that situation.  If someone posted a joke about molesting children, I would be the first one to say, “That is not okay, and not funny.”  I hope I would not be told it’s just a joke, and to lighten up or get a sense of humor.

Maybe the best analogy would be a cancer ward.  How many people think cancer is hilarious?  Cancer is something that could strike anyone, at any age.  It’s not contagious but can be hereditary.  Some forms of cancer are particularly difficult to treat, and very deadly.  In any family affected by cancer, the entire family is affected.  It leaves a path of destruction, death, and sadness.  People die every single day from cancer.  EVERY ONE of these statements can also be made about mental illness.   Two major differences: cancer treatments are more likely to be covered by health insurance, and cancer victims don’t suffer the stigma and blame for their illness.  With mental illness, sometimes it’s very hard to separate the behavior from the illness and marriages and families are completely destroyed. 

As with cancer, nobody asks to become mentally ill.  People aren’t made fun of for having cancer, or called names like crazy.  You won’t see people joking about the behaviors of patients in cancer wards, even though the patients in mental wards cannot control their behavior.  Mental illness carries a very unfair stigma in our society, so much so that I was treated like a pariah for speaking out when I saw people laughing about hospitals treating these patients.  Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable and funny to make fun of others who are sick… if it’s a mental illness.

As a child, I was unable to help my mom, but I can speak up now.  It’s not funny, it’s never been funny, and it will never be funny.  I was disappointed that not one person “got it.”  They were all fixating on my comment about child sex abuse and missed the whole point.  I was the bad guy because I pointed out that the post wasn’t funny, and they didn’t like the way I did it.  While I might have taken more time and more thought to use the cancer analogy instead, they didn’t take time to think about the main point I was trying to make, because they were too busy worrying about how I said it.  They certainly didn’t take the time to worry about being offensive themselves.

I want to stress that this person is a very good person, who helps at-risk kids, and has worked hard her whole life.  Her own family has been impacted by mental illness.  She never meant to offend anyone, and uses humor to deal with her past.  I understand that.  She felt hurt and attacked by my comment, which was not my intention.  I’m not sure I was heard, but I don’t regret saying what I said.  My only regret is hurting a friend.  It wasn’t my intention to embarrass her; I felt I needed to say something.  While my comment wasn’t graceful, it was well-intentioned.

I just hope someday as a society we evolve to the point that we can all have a little more respect.  I might post something I think is hilarious, but if someone points out to me that it’s offensive, I will at least be willing to look realistically at it and be open to criticism.  I might change my mind or remove the post, or rethink the situation.  I know it wasn’t posted with the intention of meanness; it was just thoughtless, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that.  In the meantime, this is a passing fad that will make its rounds and go away.  I look forward to that. 

If you’d like to learn more about mental illness, what it REALLY looks like, here is a great link to a list of common stereotypes about mental illness and the actual facts. 

Education is a great weapon against ignorance.

Father's Day

I spent this last Father’s Day in silent, burning rage at my dad, and it’s taken me three months to sort it out enough to write.