The Gift of Not Being 'Normal'

Wednesday, 13 July 2011
I knew I was hooked and would be up reading all night when I read this line:
"The biggest gift of being unambiguously mentally ill is the time I've saved myself trying to be normal".
Earlier that afternoon, in the check out line at the Giant, I heard two young grocery clerks - obviously on summer break from college - talking about the book, "Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir" by Mark Vonnegut.

"Excuse me," I rudely interrupted.

Well, I don't know that I was rude, exactly. I guess I've never really understood the proper etiquette of the grocery store. I mean, clerks are supposed to answer your questions, right? It's just that this question wasn't about the price of a few vine-grown tomatoes. So, shoot me.

"Is that Vonnegut as in Kurt Vonnegut? The author of 'Slaughterhouse Five'?" I asked as if I were asking the Sku number on a can of soup that wouldn't scan.

They seemed as thrilled with my query as I was in hearing people in a grocery store on Lower Slower Delaware mention the name "Vonnegut" and "mental illness" in the same sentence without snickering or mispronouncing the name.

"Yes," one of them exclaimed a little too excitedly and loudly for a grocery store (Well, then again, who knows what's normal for a grocery store?). "Did you READ 'Slaughterhouse Five' or did you SEE the movie?"

It was a test. I knew it was a test. "Both," I answered honestly.

Apparently, I passed the test. I had said the secret word and was immediately allowed access to their review of the book. Based on what I heard, I couldn't wait to get home and order it on my Kindle - which, if I'm not careful, will soon bankrupt my budget.

That's okay. I fully expect my obituary to read, at least in part, "She died poor but well read."

Let me say, straight away, that this is a quirky book. The style clearly flows from the beautiful mind of an incredible soul that has been visited four times by madness and slightly clouded by a daily dose of lithium. The thoughts are sometimes disjointed but you can hear the theme.

It's a bit like reading a jazz improvisation in words. He'll go off on a story and then back to the theme, which I think is summed up well in the sentence that first caught my eye.

Here's one of my favorite examples:
"The thing I've always loved about my troubled paternal grandmother - who I imagine as not yet troubled back then - was that when informed by her husband that they were broke she said, 'Okay. Let's spend the summer in Europe.'

And they did."
Therein follows a paragraph about how, at some point in his childhood, his father (Kurt) gave his three children code names.

Not terms of endearment. No, no. These were code names.

Kurt was Boraseesee. His mother was Mullerstay. He was Kindo. Vonnegut writes:
"If we were ever trapped or captured and wanted to let one another know that it was really us, we could use these names. It was a long shot, but when I was locked up (read: committed to a psychiatric hospital), Kindo tried hard as hell to get word out to Boraseesee and Mullerstay.

We all want to believe that we're in a sheltered workshop with grown-ups nearby."
You know. Just like everyone else.

He doesn't spend too much time talking about his father, except where it is appropriate to understand the context of his life.  I was sort of glad about that, actually.

"Craziness also runs in the family," he writes. His mother's family warned her about marrying his father because of the mental illness in the family. His father's family offered the same warning about his mother's family.

Of his family, Vonnegut writes,
"If I'd been raised by wolves, I would have known a little less, but not much less, about how normal people did things."
Vonnegut attended Swarthmore in the '60s and majored in religion with the idea of going to divinity school where he would be "a comforter of the sick and disadvantaged but mostly a really good professional arguer who argued against the war and materialism."

In 1971, Vonnegut had a psychotic break that landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Vancouver. Two more breaks came in rapid succession. He was diagnosed at first with schizophrenia but says that, after the DSM (Diagnositic and Statistical Manual) changed in 1984, he now knows that it was more bi-polar disorder.

While he has obvious respect for the psychiatric community, Vonnegut also acknowledges that most of the diagnostic tools are the equivalent of a medical crap shoot.  He writes:
In the seventies I was in so in love with the medical model I almost thought I had invented it. "No shame. No blame." I was thrilled to not have my health be dependent on the sanity of society or the wellness of those around me. I was magnanimous about not wanting to credit insight or hard work or circumstances like the kindness of others. Now, the medical model has morphed into "Shut up and take your pills." What passes for care is medication, medication, and more medication, the purpose of which is only incidentally and occasionally to help the patient get a life.

Much of mental illness is genetic, but I’m now quite sure there are people with more or less the same genetics I have who never go crazy and others who never get well. As a kid who wrote a little and painted a little and played a little music, I certainly didn’t want my mental health riding on anything as flimsy as my creative abilities but, among other things, I’ve come to see that a willingness to write, paint and play music is more than a little important to progress and just trying to keep my feet under me.
There are a few lovely passages about how the creative arts provide an avenue of healing with which I really resonated.

I mean, there are times when I "hear" a poem or something I want to write about. I have these long conversations with the voice in my head about the different sides of the various issues.

And then, sometimes when I'm at my laptop, I look up at the screen and there are all these words in front of me and I think, "Huh! How did they get there?" And then I read the words on the screen and I say, sometimes out loud with no one else in the room, "Damn! That's good. Did I write that?"

No one answers of course, but it doesn't matter. No one heard me, either.

Besides, I can see smiles on the voices in my head.

Am I crazy? Perhaps. But, I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers.

I remember listening to an interview on NPR with a poet who said that most of her poetry comes to her when she's out working in her garden. She said one day she saw a poem coming at her and she had to chase it around the garden until it finally found its way into her home and onto her kitchen table where she could write it down.

If you've never written a poem or a song or an essay, or painted an image on canvass or sketched it on a pad, or sculpted something from clay, or created a meal without a cook book, or turned an empty space in your house into the sanctuary that is your bedroom or study or den, you probably don't know what I'm talking about.

Vonnegut writes:
"There are no people anywhere who don't have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly well most of the time."
It reminded me of that quote which I think is attributed to Winston Churchill who observed that most of the work that is being done in the world each day is done by people who do not feel very well.

Vonnegut recovered from his first three successive psychotic breaks and applied to medical school. He applied to ten. Round number, he says. Only one accepted him. That would have been Harvard.

He writes: "It is possible the committee members of the day, back then, were distracted by the question of whether or not I was schizophrenic and overlooked my grades."

He wrote his first book "The Eden Express" was published in 1975, the first year Vonnegut started medical school. That book was credited with helping many people understand mental illness at a time when the stigma attached to mental illness was even greater than it is today.

Vonnegut threw himself into his studies and became a successful pediatrician. He married and has three sons. Unfortunately, he had a fourth psychotic break 14 years after the last episodes.

He was taken to the same hospital where he had once trained and where he continued to work. Because there was no room immediately available, he had to wait in the hallway where strangers stared at him and his colleagues walked hurriedly past him.

That was the same month that Boston Magazine named him the best pediatrician in the Boston area.

Vonnegut writes of that experience with characteristic wit: "It's probably possible to gain humility by means other than repeated humiliation, but repeated humiliation works very well."

It has been twenty five years since that last episode. He remains a successful pediatrician in the Boston area with a wife and three grown sons. He's now 62 years old. Of his first book, he says,
"I’m grateful to the gritty clench-jawed kid who wrote The Eden Express, I think it’s an excellent book, but I’m glad I’m not him anymore.

It was the feeling that good things had happened to me in spite of myself, that I had a rich life that showed itself in my house and how I practiced pediatrics and how we lived as a family that made me want to write Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So."
I love this book for lots of reasons, none the least of which is that the mentally ill live and walk among us every day - in the grocery store, in schools and universities, in clinics and hospitals, among our families and friends.

Vonnegut writes:
"What so-called normal people are doing when they define diseases like manic-depressive or schizophrenia is reassuring themselves that they don't have a thought disorder or affective disorder, that their thoughts and feelings make perfect sense."
He's absolutely right. I suspect that the reason so many people - and pastors - are uncomfortable being around those with serious mental disorders is that they see the possibilities in themselves.

Indeed, those of us who are involved in congregational leadership know - or can pretty easily surmise - all the stories, which closets hide the family skeletons, and understand which family members hold the bag of family garbage so everyone else can feel good about themselves.

Problem is, most of the members of congregations suspect that we know this truth, even though they haven't told us. Some ascribe us with some kind of spiritual clairvoyance but the truth is that some of us see the world a little differently because we know that "normal" is a crock.

Oh, and we understand Vonnegut's continuing belief in his early aspirations to save the world. Vonnegut writes:
"Of course I'm trying to save the world. What else would a bipolar manic depressive hippie with a BA in religion practicing primary-care pediatrics be up to?"
I'm right there with you, Mark.

One soul, one essay, one sermon, one Eucharist, one conversation in a grocery store, one rescued dog at a time.

It begins when you save yourself from trying to be 'normal'.


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