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Monday, March 26, 2012

Crazy Train

Common FB forward
   My sister and I like to assign individual ring-tones on our phones to our family members. "My" personal ring-tone on her phone was Ozzie Osbourn's "Crazy Train". No, I wasn't offended, and of course she knew that.  I love to laugh at myself, at the occasional absurdity of life and especially at the sometimes literal craziness that I live with. Making everything serious sucks all the fun out. Allowing things to be too serious can also serve to let them take over, be all-encompassing and an unwanted, primary focus. Laughing at 'the crazy' takes away a lot of its power, freeing me up to live my life focused on other things; things that actually deserve my attention. Even so, I have come to accept that, yes, sometimes I'm going to bring up the 'disability' topic. Based on the numbers, you all don't mind reading about it anyway. It's part of my life. Not the most important part, but a relevant part. I think I mentioned that I had a tough winter.

   Every once in awhile I read something that makes me go "Huh?" It is usually my habit to just be dismissive, but when I see the same annoying thing over and over again and it's supposed to be something that represents me in some way, I can't stop myself from saying something about it. The sentiment expressed in the photo on the right gets passed around Facebook a lot. While I get that it's supposed to be supportive and promote awareness, I have an exceptionally hard time with the idea that mental illness is the result of "having tried to remain strong for too long". I can't speak for everyone of course, only myself, but...huh? I understand fully that it's certainly not a sign of weakness, but I guess I don't get where illness is the result of 'trying to be strong'? I prefer to look at physiological (No, that's not a typo. I meant to say  physiological) problems from a more scientific position: Brain chemistry is a heritable, physical thing. Because it's a 'brain thing', it manifests in emotional/behavioral ways. Like any physical illness, if someone with a predisposition for a specific illness is exposed to the 'right' (or wrong) set of circumstances, the illness manifests. Think: Someone with a hereditary predisposition for diabetes who eats a steady diet of sugar and carbs.

   Because I can only speak for myself, I can easily say that I inherited a predisposition for certain issues. I can see aspects of different issues in most of my family members to varying degrees, and have heard about some pretty severe manifestations of issues similar to mine in some of my close relatives.  I know from my experience with animals that temperament definitely has some heritable characteristics. It's really not at all surprising. But here's the deal: Take two people with the same predisposition. First, you take one person with a predisposition, let's say for debilitating anxiety, and you set them up in an unhealthy environment during a crucial developmental stage, then put them in a position of daily, constant stress. From there take away the few things that provide security for that person, make them struggle to meet their basic need for years, add more responsibility than that person is really able to cope with, leave them alone to manage by themselves, add a healthy pinch of judgement and stir. That person is going to fully express heritable anxious tendencies because the environment that this person exists within supports that. It's not a matter of 'being strong for too long', it's a matter of putting an anxious person in a situation that would make an average person anxious. It's feeding sugar to a diabetic.

   You take another person with the same temperamental makeup and put them in a supportive, nurturing environment, allow that person the safety of knowing that needs are going to be met and though the anxiety isn't going to disappear, it certainly isn't going to manifest as forcefully. Given enough time, this person may even be able to manage their anxiety to a degree that it ceases to be debilitating. Just like changing the diet/exercise patterns of someone who is borderline diabetic, it becomes much easier to manage the illness, or even reverse it. Unfortunately for our hypothetical people, the longer they remain in unhealthy circumstances the more difficult it can become to get healthy again. The more time that goes by, the sicker that both the anxious person and the diabetic are likely to get if nothing changes. That's life, unfortunately.

  Somebody told me the other day that mental illness is a choice. People can choose to be anxious or not. People can self-talk their way out of panic attacks if they try. Sure, in the same way that a person can talk their way out of kidney disease or cancer. Unfortunately, that ignorant point of view is as pervasive as it is inaccurate, in spite of all the information to the contrary that exists now. Who would choose to be mentally ill? Seriously?

   Many people go through harrowing life experiences without ever developing mental illnesses, in the same way that some people go their whole lives eating crappy food and never develop diabetes. But we are all individuals. If a person can self-talk their way out of panic or sadness, they aren't experiencing mental illness, just normal human emotions. And they are not the same thing.

   A predisposition to ANY illness is not a character flaw, a weakness or a sign of laziness. It is not an excuse to judge someone or assume they are somehow 'less' in any appreciable way. Mental illness is an illness; the malfunctioning of a specific organ or system within the body. It is not the result of being strong for too long. And it is most certainly not a choice.

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