Mental Illness: When We Can't Make Sense of the Senseless
By Jane Gassner on December 03, 2008
There is no hard and fast test for mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which is the bible of the mental health field, can do no more than categorize the propensity for certain symptoms as being probably indicative of certain conditions. If the fellow down the street has at least two of the following-delusions, hallucinations, odd speech, odd behavior, or seems emotionless-chances are he may be schizophrenic. Or maybe not.
This is what makes mental illness such a will ‘o' the wisp within the medical profession. And what makes it so frightening to those of us who view it from near or from afar. Michael Greenberg, a widely published writer who lives in New York, has had the near and up front view. When his daughter, Sally, was fifteen, she, seemingly without warning, suffered a psychotic break, or as Greenberg puts it, she was "struck mad." The official diagnosis ultimately was bipolar disorder, manic depression as it used to be known. Hurry Down Sunshine is Greenberg's retelling of that break. It is unique in that it focuses not on Sally so much as on her family, on what mental illness looks like from the other side of the dinner table.
That this memoir is well-written goes without saying; Greenberg's publications include the Times Literary Supplement, The Village Voice, and The Threepenny Review. What fascinated me about it, however, were not the stylistic qualities nor the psychiatric specifics. Rather, this memoir brought front and center the ways and means in which we all will go to avoid reality. Even when mania is blaring in our faces, there is a human propensity for explaining it away.
How we do that is, it seems to me, a function of our cultural bias. One of the courses I had to take when I was doing my Master's in Psychology was called "Human Diversity." There I learned that our ideas of what psychological health and illness are vary from community to community. This is fascinating when we're talking about the ways in which non-Western cultures name mental illness. In Southeast Asia, for example, there is a condition called koro, in which the sufferer believes his penis is shrinking and disappearing into his stomach. In Mexico, they have susto, a soul loss disorder caused by a sudden shock. So crucial is understanding the cultural vagaries of mental illness that the DSM-IV lists these other such culturally specific mental illnesses as diagnostically important.
However, what Hurry Down Sunshine reveals is the cultural biases within the Western world. How we approach-and deny-mental illness is a function of our particular world view. How important is it to us that behavior be consistent and explainable? Is there a god or a spirit or a something-else-inside that guides us? What guilts follow us through our life and how do we assuage them? These are all things that affect how we-and Sally's family-view her breakdown.
The Greenbergs are, in the main, of that particular genre of New Yorkers who are intellectual, spiritual, and burdened with questions about the meaning of meaning. Woody Allen has done the type very well, but Hurry Down Sunshine is real life, not film script and as such, it begs to be taken seriously. Thus Sally's mother smuggling a homeopathic remedy called "Skullcap" into the locked psych ward and measuring drops of it into her daughter's mouth is not some out-of-touch New Age weirdo, no matter how easy it would be to explain her away as such. Rather, she is a tortured mother who only has her own belief systems to draw on to help her daughter. And Greenberg himself, who has, by his own admission, "a high intolerance for aberrance"-was this what enabled him to miss his daughter's impending psychosis, or is it what gave him the grit to remain with her throughout her ordeal?
That I had these and other such thoughts as I was reading Hurry Down Sunshine is testament to how adept Greenberg is at drawing the reader into the their world. We all, characters in the memoir and reader, are constantly asking: why did this happen? Who was at fault? How can we avoid it in the future? What Greenberg has so ably portrayed and evoked is our intense discomfort with mental illness. When faced with it, we are driven to explain, to blame, to conjure cures and might-have-beens. What we're driven to do, actually, is to make sense of senselessness. An impossible task, that, but one we all face at one time or another, even if it's just with the babbling fellow we see down the street.
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