Saturday, March 2, 2013

Strangers in Strange Lands

natural variation = added benefit, even if uncomfortable
Tonight I have been thinking about mental illness and diagnosis, and the benefits and problems of trying to sort people into boxes.
I'm blessed or cursed with not being a black and white thinker.  When a friend forwarded me this article that showed many diagnostic labels of mental illness share common genetic links, I had a strong internal reaction.  The article said that related people sharing "genetic aberrations" had risks for several mental illnesses.  What they found most interesting is that the effects of the same gene change could be expressed in different illnesses, for example with one twin showing schizophrenia and another bipolar disorder.

I have seen the devastating effects of mental illness in this and previous generations.  I don't doubt that our endocrine system, not to mention our brain, is no less immune to the insults of living, environment, random gene accident that our other organs.  As such I think it deserves absolutely no additional moral interpretation-- it's an organ not functioning as we expect it, or an organ that is ill.  I don't see true mental dis-ease as any more morally damning than a kidney problem or a under/over active pancreas. It's not a matter of poor willpower or moral turpitude when it fails to work properly all the time.  The stigma we hold to mental illness is fear based on an ego level:  "there but for the grace of God/my will/clean living/etc" go I, and let's just blame the victim.  It's our defense mechanisms acting out and claming control over one particular, very complicated organ-- the brain.  I don't blame anyone for feeling that.  We manage anxiety by figuring out all the ways this scary outcome cannot, will not apply to us.

 grateful for artists to reinterpret the world
But what it you are indeed well-represented in the genetic dice roll as an outlier?  What if you are one of those kernels that does well in dry seasons and all it does is rain?  You are incredibly logical, efficient and detail oriented in group that values people-reading and glad-handing and seeing all forests, all trees?  Or exceptionally sensitive, just dripping with mirror neurons such that you can barely hear what people are saying because their pain or agitation or anger is sharply evident to you in your interactions? 

When as a nation or a world we start to judge, to evaluate and grade and degrade varations as being good or bad, it's important to step back and see the forests in all those funny looking trees.  We need most everybody, even those on the edges of the bell curve.  We need engineers that can ignore well-meaning but emotional calls for esthetics that detract dangerously from functionality.  We need artists who can articulate the depths of joy and suffering that are rellly, truly there in most of us even if we don't have the language to express them.  We need the people who are moved to tears by the unspoiled natural environment to save it from slaughter for those of us who may not see its utility and healing potential.  We need the number crunchers and the emoting advocates to create a world that works not just logically, but on a heart level.
We need the schizophrenics who can call out bullshit and make us uncomfortable, and the persons with Autism who can do the same and remind us to question our habits of not saying what we really mean.  We need the melancholic poet and artist  who pull us pearls out of their pain, and the hypmanic who creates entire symphonies in six day no-sleep spurts.

We also need to be safe, and most of us need to be in relationship, to have meaning and purpose, to serve.  On the edges of those bell curves, that doesn't happen.  It's hard to be useful when you are violent and hallucinating.  What if we saw that as just out of balance, not wrong?  If we save "crazy" as a description of out of balance behavior or thinking, instead of applying it to people?

When our kidneys get out of balance, we may have trouble peeing, or pee too much.  Too far our of balance and they aren't filtering our blood, and that can be life threatening.  We can mess them up with poor hydration, certain food issues (for those stone formers, drinking lots of tea and eating spinach can start some painful episodes).  When we get symptomatic, it's important to pay attention get back in balance, through treatment or lifestyle changes.  Sometimes that means medicine.  Few people resist taking an antibiotic when they have a raging infection, or a cough syrup if they are staying up all night hacking.  It's not seen as weak, it's sensible.  When through stress or illness our mental symptoms increase, we need to take care, and that can encompass many forms.

But when we are merely in our tendencies and not particularly imbalanced into illness, perhaps a more sustainable approach is to learn to live with our differences, and do what we can to maximize their strengths: creativity and productivity in hypomania and some forms of melancholia, , exploration and adventure sports for the low-reactors, emotional wisdom, compassion and social sensitivity for those with the extra mirror neurons, exactitude and thoughtful planning and execution for those on the high-functioning Asperger's spectrum. 

more same than different
We all have our soft spots.  Sometimes they present little obvious hardship, espcially if we're aware of them and make reasonable accommodations.
Nearsighted?  Get glasses. Fairskinned?  Disability if you live in a sunny climate(sunscreen and clothing!), good for Vit D production if you don't.  Sickle-cell anemia?  Good mutation if you live in malaria laden countries and hope to reproduce before you die, but not so hot if you want to live past 40.

Every gift has its burden, and every burden has its gift.  Labels are good only as far as they help people predict and avoid or accomodate predictible burdens.  If you know you have "Engineer Mind" you are going to want to develop rules around social intelligence to enjoy positive relationships.  If you're on the other end of that spectrum you'll need to learn that not every problem can be solved via emotion and relationship; sometimes you need MATH.

We all have our stuff.  Some of us seem to have a lot more than a fair share of the hard stuff.  Where ever you are in the spectrum, take some time to apprecaite gifts from those outliers.  We need them over time.  And if like Kingsolver's kernels they didn't land in a time where their difference works so well in the enviroment, don't blame them. Help them to find the place where their difference works.

On that note, here's a couple keen articles about job agencies trying to do just that.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/apr/06/autistic-workers-employers-ignorance
and in Corvallis:  http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/finding-jobs-for-those-harder-to-place/article_e5118904-7f18-11e2-8e16-0019bb2963f4.html





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