Please Excuse My Mental Illness
or Plea of a Barnacle to its Boat Owner
[While the narrator of this piece happens to be female, Jewish, and one who suffers from mood swings (particularly depression) she could be anyone who finds herself marginalized by the dominant culture in which she lives. She could be an artist or worse! The dominant culture could be materialistic, paternal, and/or commercial. And while, in the following, she is addressing an employer in her mind, she might as easily be addressing a landlord, father, husband, banker, policeman, therapist, or judge (or any other macho icon, including a dominating, or overly-rational female.)]
"There is a crack...in everything, That's how the light gets in."
I want you to like me, I insist on it. But whatever you do, for God's sake don't get rid of me just because you don't understand me, along with my uses to you. (I haven't figured that out myself! But perhaps I wasn't put here for your purposes anyhow. Just an idea, no offense intended....)
Hey, I respect you, really; you are in charge, you man the great boat to which I cling. You are in and of the world of things (and that's good!) You know the value and uses of materials (and people.) Your rig isn't dented; it is never out of oil and the windshield-wipers always work. You're responsible and in control: You read directions and put things away. You always rewind tapes. You are not a fugitive from the video store or the library. You've never bounced a check. You are good at keeping secrets. You can hold your tongue; hold onto your assets, your spouse, your home and your job. You own your house (and mine). You always know where your children are and you haven't wrecked any (at least, not in obvious ways).
However, and forgive me for saying this, but sometimes (only once in a while of course) you tend to overlook others. Naturally it's not your fault. It's just that you can not always see the little guys like me, until either you fall in, or your great rig is out of the water. Of course you'd prefer confronting me on your turf, the land. Which isn't so great for me, however, since as at such times, I feel quite (unbearably) vulnerable. I'd even claim feeling "skinless", if that's a possible feeling for the likes of me.
Your discovery (me clinging there where you might have expected it to be smooth and shiny) could be traumatic, and to us both. Personally (and I hope you don't think I'm over-reacting when I say this) I'll be at your mercy! For, not only will I already be risking drying up (from over-exposure) but there is a chance you might think I don't belong on your boat. I just hope, that when that happens, you'll shrug your broad shoulders and just ease me (still safely attached) back into that water.
Another scenario that makes me just about psychotic, is that it might be simple for you to rid your rig of me because it may appear to you that I'm not alive. And even if you don't do that, I worry that you'll judge me intrusive and rude. So, let me assure you that I am alive, and that while I can seem stuck up, the truth is, I'm just stuck. I can't help it, though. You see, I get panicky under your scrutiny. I feel about as unwanted in your world, as obvious and helpless as a beached whale. (I wish I weren't dependent on you, but being attached is my nature.)
Look, I know that you don't find me useful to you...that you might even look at me and think, "what's the point" of keeping me. But, please! I beg you not to discard me. There are lives (even whole colonies that you just can't see) that aren't hurting you. Besides, we have character. Why not think of me like your antiques: fragile, a rare remnant? You see, I, like you, have a hard time with rejection (or maybe you don't, I didn't mean to sound assuming). It's just that, while you man this great modern boat of western civilization, I am only a small thing, attached to its underside.
Listen, be a good guy, I mean, you are a good guy, right? You're conservative, reasonable. You take care of things. So, why not just think of me as one of your things? If you spill something, you clean it right up, you don't get rid of it! And take into consideration how, being privileged as you are, might morally require you to be charitable to us less fortunates.
You may think that since you can handle problems, I should be able to stand on my own feet. But isn't it worth some consideration that I don't even have feet? Please consider how my problems aren't the same as yours. Don't tell me I'm feeling sorry for myself. The particulars to which I'm referring just don't occur unless you live in a fluid world. See, down here edges are blurry and feelings uncontrollable. Up where its dryer and you aren't allergic to the atmosphere, you have luxuries I am not afforded. For instance, you aren't fussy about air and water. So naturally, unlike I, you can wait until you get home from work to act out and misbehave. Or until you are dying, for that matter. Meanwhile, being attached to your stuff, I am always struggling for survival.
Now, I don't have to remind you, do I, that just because you're not like me, that's not a reason to disregard my rights to love (if not thrive) and, perhaps even some day, find happiness?
Yes, I do have my faults although they may be totally unlike yours. You want more evidence? Well, when you make mistakes you probably don't automatically groan and go lie down because it means you can't get the simplest tasks right, that you are a total failure and everyone knows it.
Look. You are a man of the world. You live a productive life with many assets to prove it. Your mistakes aren't indelible. You are boundaried and you don't leave tracks when you visit. Indeed, you never wear out your welcome, because you have your own home. You never splashed ink or coffee upon your parents' expensive furniture and if you did it was too long ago for them to remember. When you went to stay at your step-father's cousins' he didn't reassure her about putting you up by saying that she could expect a well behaved bulldozer. And when she told you what he'd said, you didn't feel flattered and ingratiated.
Now, you wouldn't want to be known as a fungus-plant abuser, would you? You, who always have fresh flowers and plants around your house? And, incidentally, the animals don't eat them. Your pets are quiet, well-trained, and don't chew up the house. You don't consider tag-sales and clothing bins the responsible way to shop because you regularly replace couches and chairs. You keep dogs or cats, not reptiles, birds, or monkeys. Your pets don't have pets of their own. They don't own you. And you don't prefer them to people.
You can exercise constraint, and don't take stray people home for the night. Nor would you ever take in somewhere between six and twenty animals, depending upon the dosage of your medication. And I do understand that you only take medications for physical things and you never feel a need to speak of them (except to nurses and doctors, whom, incidentally, you see regularly.) You trust doctors and bosses, and they trust you as well. And no doubt, you have regular bowel movements and you don't write or talk about them, either.
I comprehend that, above all else, you work for a living; instead of concentrating on your breathing. But no one ever told you to do the world a favor and stay home. And you aren't at risk, even when alone in your own house. You're efficient and organized: You don't burn things every time you cook, even water. You know where your glasses are and you clean them often (and you don't buy them in sixes at the dollar store and loose them within two weeks). You're good at math, realistic and objective. You haven't lost count of your sexual encounters. You are neither frigid nor out of control. You find sex simple and don't ascribe metaphysical meanings to it. You neither confuse intensity with intimacy nor sex with love. You don't find the simple act of mating as bonding as super-glue. And if you do bond, it's by choice. You marry that special someone who is happy to marry you (and not because she's pregnant.)
You keep essentials well-stocked. You don't knock on neighbors' doors to borrow toilet paper, making sophomoric jokes about returning it in its entirety when you are done using it.
Every decision doesn't seem arbitrary. You don't constantly begin things in the middle, trying to make meaning from chaos. Projects and relationships have clear beginnings and proper endings. Your actions are planned and carried out to completion. You haven't brought fire, floods, and pestilence into your home.
And I'm sure that your boss, if you have one, never told you that the only thing that is consistent about you is your inconsistency. You have the endurance and fortitude to work at the same place for years. And I understand how rewarding it is to get paid well out there in the real world, where life is tactile, visual, audible, and not always easy or forgiving. Your production flow is not as unreliable and unpaying as an affair with a married person. Furthermore, your bed is not your office. During work breaks you don't whip out a vibrator. Your thoughts and speech are appropriate and logical. You don't sabotage your jobs by insisting on telling your supervisor what you think, or worse, showing him what you feel. You aren't at the mercy of instincts and impulses. Thoughts, rather than feelings, control your actions.
You are an all-round, great guy! You are a person of carefully chosen words, a being of meaningful silences, and quiet nuances. You can be extroverted at will. Getting where you want to go doesn't depend upon the moon and shifting tides. You don't find getting out the door of your house to be as challenging an ordeal as jumping naked into the ocean in February. Traveling on top of the world (not inside of or under it) on the highways in nice cars, you are a real "mover and shaker." You are not a vibration in the soil, a misplaced strand of memory, or an animal spirit. You don't need to compensate by reminding yourself and others that in another culture you'd be a Shaman.
You are out and about, moving freely; not stuck inside your head, unable to get to a door, a captive of your fears and your house. You don't feel your only salvation is in obsessively trying to recall and put on paper dreams and inspirations that evaporate in mid-sentence. You have a good understanding with your computer, and you and your printer are still on speaking terms.
It's easy for you to be normal, consistent and trustworthy. You make your bed and exercise regularly. You jog and like it. You rise up to meet the challenges in your life. Your mind is well structured; you don't catch on fire with ideas that fizz and go out before they ever get off the ground. You've never smoked pot, or if you have, it was a brief experiment.
You don't have to see a therapist because you are too honest. (You don't have to see a therapist at all, for that matter.) Your neurons aren't continually misfiring. Your hands aren't freezing on a warm Spring day. Your central furnace purrs when it's cold, and the fire in your belly is not out. And you don't confuse people by using culturally- irrelevant metaphors.
Furthermore, your family and friends are respectable. You don't have a partner or housemate whom you must remind to put on some pants when he goes out on the deck for sun (for that matter, you don't have housemates.) You understand your role in organized groups and don't have to watch your mouth.
People don't answer their phones when you call by asking immediately what's up. You are a team player who not only knows the rules but observes them. Your life works! Your friends include those from your childhood. The kids call on weekends and when they visit, they return to their productive, busy lives. They observe appropriate beginnings and endings (especially endings.)
You donate both money and energy (of which you have plenty) to important causes. You know all of your teenage son's classes and teachers' names and you always read notices and return report cards on time. You are on a first name basis with that principal because he knows of your contributions to the community and respects your work, not because of the times your child almost got expelled when his pot pipe dropped out of his knapsack in class, nor the time he told the teacher to get out of his space.
You get enough sunshine, don't sit in front of colored lights with a towel over your head. You don't talk about emptying out your head as if it were a bathtub. Or about getting enough Melatonin. And you don't need to worry about the mechanical condition of your thinker.
You don't need a support group to give you the courage to open your mail. You enjoy paying bills which you open immediately, and you regularly balance and manage your checkbook in accordance with your budgetary needs, of which you are well aware. You eat and sleep for health purposes only, maintaining a well-balanced diet and schedule. You are not a traumatized person who can't get up till Wednesday. You spell out words fully and correctly.
But me, I live in my head. I can't get out from under the weight of all this liquid. I have to either dodge fast-spinning thoughts or function somehow with a leaden body and head. The roller coaster within me constantly threatens to unravel what's left of my life. I dream my car has gone off the edge into water, my mind keeps slipping away. I go too far, say the wrong things, have the timing of a drunk. Just living interferes with my life. Working regularly and keeping a schedule seems to me to be both over-rated and an unattainable luxury.
Being a barnacle, I seem to think we're all one. I don't seem to see the edges of roads or of people until I ram into them. I think I'm Moses or Tich Nat Han. I try to improve people with my advice until they scream out for mercy. I'm more pathetic than an aging hipster expecting a handout while boring passers-by on the streets, by playing off-tune Dylan songs on a beat-up, dead guitar. I have the audacity to tell my dreams to people in cafes, innocent people who are trapped behind counters. I tell my problems to strangers in nearby booths who happen to look up while trying to drink their mocha lattes.
But still, I still want you to -- insist that you -- try to understand me: Someone is playing with the volume in my brain. Which should explain why voice gets too loud in cafes and restaurants, if not why I do what I do. I can't help but expect clemency for my misdeeds. Pity. For, while I can swim, or float, or go deep, I'm always afraid of being cut off or somehow being swallowed by what's above or behind me.
I'm a woman and I'm too sensitive, one of those -- you know the kind: intense and interesting, but you wouldn't want to marry me. Well, guess what? Neither would I. I'd even leave me if I could, saying "Adios, kid, see you when you grow up," if I had any choice in the matter. But I don't share that luxury with you (nor do I want you to share it with me). Sure I'm interesting, but like a specimen. Unique too: "You're -- well, different!" I'm told. Oh yes. When I'm out of water, I'm a hot potato alright, but I get so hot it burns. And that's why I must stay immersed.
I envy you, you know. You're mild mannered, even keel. You're normal. And why not; this is your home, the world. You think it's boring being so normal, but I think you're lucky, and not only that, but I secretly believe that you owe me. And that's not right, that makes you mad.
I'm the nouveau poor. I have a trust fund or a government subsidy, I forget which. I am not materially motivated, nor do I seem able to pull myself up by the bootstraps. Racked with loneliness and self-loathing, I don't seem to value or understand the meaning of independence. And you're right about whatever you see about me that you dislike. But you are frozen in your role as an adult while I am stuck in my childhood.
The truth is we need each other. Let us strike a bargain then, a compromise (you are a fair person, right?): I will offer you a rare, gritty glimpse of the underside of modern life, the "psyche," if you will, which is important. Without undersides, the great boat wouldn't float! And you can either try to understand me, or understand and accept the fact that you can't understand me. Even when it hits you that I don't seem right in the head or just plain "nice." But I'll try to act straight and be nice, to the limited degree to which I am capable. The problem is, and I can only pray you'll forgive me for saying so, but it seems to me, that on this particular yacht where I'm so stuck, nice means "White, Middle-class, Protestant, and Male".
Nonetheless, I promise that I will try, as best I am able, to be those things. But if and when, in spite of reminders, I do displease you, please consider my failures to be symptoms of my disability. Everyone's gotta have one. Mine may not be obvious like a bandaged head. But you should see the insides. Surely my brain must wobble like a falling gyroscope. Yet I've decided, just because I have a disability, it doesn't mean that I shouldn't be here. I kinda think if I didn't belong here (and for some reason) I wouldn't have been put here in the first place.
Having said that, I hope you can forgive my theorizing when I'm not a priest or a rabbi. Let me reassure you, I do know I'm as annoying as a big sore on the nose. But fortunately (for you) I promise to try to stay hidden "down under," coming out only once in a while for your air (which, if you don't mind my saying, we sometimes do share, no offense intended.)
Well, I know I've said too much already -- guess I said it so that you will be assured that I understand how uncomfortable I make you feel, and now I just pray you don't throw the barnacle out with the bathwater. But please, as Greg Allman said, "Don't remind me of my failures, I'm aware of them."
One more thing you might consider: What goes up must come down, and what goes down must inevitably come up. But fear not: when the tide turns this great ship upon it's head, we who live on the underside will try to be more aware of your needs than you've been of ours.
© Tova Gabrielle
Tova Gabrielle draws upon extensive training in psychotherapy, substance abuse counseling, and feminist theory to research and write about how shame causes relapse in women. More important, however, she draws upon life experience, Bhuddism, and Jewish Mysticism for her humor and the message that being who you are is the best way to fight prejudice against disability or any "ism" that breaks the spirit or seeks to oppress the spark of creativity within. She is available for private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org./i>
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