We Kill What We Do Not Understand

And the call of the roads is upon me, a desire in my spirit has grown
To wander forth in the highways, ‘twixt earth and sky alone,
And seek for the lands no foot has trod and the seas no sail has known
~ C. S. Lewis, “The Roads,” in Spirits in Bondage

It’s called “agnostophobia,” and it simply means “fear of the unknown.” (The other related word, “xenophobia,” means quite specifically “pathological fear of strangers,” foreigners.[i]) This is what many people with mental illness face in society at large, and it can be very uncomfortable. Point in fact, it usually is, unless the one who suffers the illness has grown a thick hide, so to speak.

“People fear what they cannot understand,” said Andrew Smith, “and they hate what they cannot conquer.” Touché! And more specifically to the point of mental illness, Elyn R. Saks, associate professor at the University of Southern California and mental health expert and advocate, hit the proverbial nail on the head when she opined, “Stigma against mental illness is a scourge with many faces, and the medical community wears a number of those faces.”

Even in this 21st century, in the Western world, where we are supposed to be so advanced and so enlightened, we are still culturally very ignorant of mental illness (and mental health,) which is largely why there is an ongoing stigma revolving around those who are psychologically burdened and suffering.[ii] This is all the more amazing when we consider the fact that fully one out of every four adults will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, however short might be the duration.[iii]

fear_of_the_unknownMuch of the continuing misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental illness can, of course, be attributed to the world of popular entertainment. Consider for a moment so many popular psychopaths, such as: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Sybil Dorsett, Annie Wilkes, Norman Bates, and many others. But then there are the real-life psychopaths that the media (in all forms) has consistently brought into our homes via television, radio, newspapers, the Internet … such as: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, Amy Archer-Gilligan, etc.

But then there is the lesser, “minor” mental illnesses that people commonly misunderstand and, thus, stigmatize. For instance, depression and anxiety. With clinical depression those who suffer may very well be, and often are, told to just “get over it … put a smile on and face the day! No need to ‘wallow’ in depression!” Of course, the antagonist here simply does not understand that one doesn’t just “get over” depression. Likewise with anxiety. The sufferer hears someone say, “Just calm down, everything’s alright. No need to worry,” or the horrid question, “Why are you falling apart? Nothing is wrong!”

Whether it’s one of the “biggies,” like schizophrenia or oppositional defiant disorder or pyromania,[iv] or one of the “littler ones,” Patrick Corrigan and Amy Watson are right:

Many people with … mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people.[v]

So what can those of us who suffer, or who have a close family member or friend who suffers, from mental illness do? Well, from my own personal experience I would suggest the following:

  1. Know Yourself: Come to know who you really are, constantly calling to mind that you are not defined by your illness. Grasp this truth. Celebrate it. Expand upon it as you look ever more deeply into yourself.
  2. You are not Jeffrey Dahmer, Jason Voorhees, or Sybil Dorsett… And even if you do happen to struggle with, shall we say, inclinations in that direction, there is still much help for you. Yes, you can lead an active, healthy, good and satisfying life. It’s there for you.
  3. Know your illness. Know as much as you possibly can about what afflicts you. After all, knowledge truly is powerful. Knowledge also gives you greater ability to confront, manage, and perhaps even improve your overall situation. Look, it’s happened before!
  4. Knowledge also gives you an advantage over the ignorance of other people, and, who knows, you might actually have an opportunity to educate someone.
  5. Know and remember that there are an untold number of “normal” individuals out there, who simply have not been diagnosed! They struggle each and every day with some mental illness … or, maybe, many. You are more likely to be able to spot those people. Have compassion on them; they need it, and lots of empathetic understanding, too. And don’t be surprised if, at some point, they trust you enough to open up and share with you their struggles, suffering and pain. If you can help them, then help. Just be sure not to lose yourself, or “drown,” in the process!

There are probably many other suggestions I could relate, such as referring folks to NAMI or NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) for more (and accurate) information on the various mental illnesses and how to best relate to someone who suffers one or more mental illness. Also, where you yourself are concerned, it’s always important to practice good mental health. Personally, I find physical exercise, meditation, and prayer, among other activities, to be good activities leading to good mental health.

What about you? What has been your experience with mental illness? Have you faced stigma? What about your mental health, whether you bear the burden of mental illness or not? Do you practice good mental health? If so, how? Share your answers and comments below. You don’t know who you might be helping in the process!


[i] American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, 1006

[ii] Judy Marshall, “Mental Illness: Stigma and Reality,” as accessed on 09/22/2018, at www.psychmaster.com

[iii] Pete Etchells, “Mental Illness Stigma Has Not Gone Away,” as accessed on 09/22/2018 at www.theguardian.com

[iv] Cf. David Kupfer, Darrel Regier, Dan G. Blazer, et al, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5), 90 – 122, 462, and 476 respectively

[v] Corrigan and Watson, “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People With Mental Illness,” as accessed on 09/22/2018 at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles

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Crazy Life: Humiliating the Already-Humbled

After a few months in the group home, I actually felt more comfortable than I did in the outside world. Every outing seemed like an encounter with something foreign, something I’d known in a previous life but with which I no longer had much of any familiarity. Well, the truth is, I was around people who no longer had any masks to wear. They were simply who they were, no more, no less, and I liked it that way. Conversely, so many folks I encountered in the outside world seemed somewhat fraudulent. 

I know, I know. This seems harsh to say, but I’m only being honest about my feelings at the time. (And, really, I still feel this way. Going to day treatment in Dothan now feels like reuniting with family, whereas elsewhere with other people feels a bit alien.) At any rate, it eventually struck me that people on the outside pretty much felt the same way about us; they looked at us as if we were personis non grata foreigners. Well, no, perhaps I shouldn’t go quite this far. Most individuals were at least courteous.

However, I do remember very well the day we went to Wal-Mart in Enterprise (Alabama) and two (Caucasian) cops stopped three of our group home residents, who happened to be African-American, on their way into the store. They not only questioned them; they actually went so far as to patting them down … right there in the middle of the parking lot, in broad daylight, when those three young men were simply walking up toward the sidewalk! They hadn’t even been inside Wal-Mart yet, so why the frisking???

It was utterly humiliating, but do you know that those three men did not complain. I can’t say why. They had every right in the world to make a fuss over how they’d been treated, (and SpectraCare should have lodged a complaint on their behalf, but instead did absolutely nothing!) Maybe they were, unfortunately, used to be treated that way? I was told by someone ~ and I don’t know how they’d know this ~ that someone say our van pull up and called the police. Why? I haven’t the foggiest idea, except… 

There is a stigma that surrounds mental illness. When you add to this the fact of being an African-American (or member of any minority), then you’re pretty well f***ed up! Sorry to be so blunt, but this is an issue obviously close to my heart. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, courtesy, and respect … at least until they forfeit that privilege. These three young, African-American men had not in any way, shape, or form forfeited this right, though, and those two cops should have faced disciplinary measures.

This may have been the most egregious experience of being treated differently, and degradingly, that I witnessed, but it was not the only one. In fact, there was another episode that I was only told about (because I was at home on a weekend pass.) The group home went to a new restaurant in Samson, only to be treated horribly! The proprietor was arrogant, pushy, demanding, impatient… One of the MHTs (Mental Health Technician) told me it was obvious he didn’t want them there.

Do you remember Sally? This man complained that she was taking too long to order, even though no one else was in his place of business! (Except for the group home residents.) And to beat all, after everyone ordered, they had to wait anywhere from an half-hour to one hour to be served! Wow! But again, SpectraCare did nothing. I think I would have at least had someone in the SpectraCare hierarchy call this man and give him a good tongue-lashing… But that’s just me, I suppose.

To tell the truth, I have never lived with sweeter and more down-to-earth people in my life than my second family in the group home. No, they were not perfect. They had their bad habits and dispositions, but after all was said and done, with very few exceptions, I couldn’t have asked for better housemates. So to see or hear of them being treated so poorly really rips at my heart, and fuels my righteous indignation. And you know what else? They also impressed me as being safer to be around than many on the outside.

Yes, for the most part they were/are kinder, gentler, safer, and more unassuming than most “normal” people. Really it comes down to this: These dear souls have simply been diagnosed, whereas people on the outside have not been. Other than this ~ diagnosed as opposed to undiagnosed ~ there is precious little difference, unless you take into account so many of the prevalent, stinking attitudes that “normal” folks display and contrast that with the meek, humble, and friendly attitudes of the mentally ill!

Forgive me if I’ve offended, but I’m just calling like I see it … especially after months (and, really, years) of personal experience. Thank you for listening, and God bless!


For previous installments in the ‘Crazy Life’ series, see…

Crazy Life: Sally Dumped and Deserted

Crazy Life: Ecclesia et Mentis Morbum

Crazy Life: Just Can’t Say ‘No’

Crazy Life: Hanging in the Balance

Crazy Life: Meeting the Mystery of God

Crazy Life: Sally Dumped and Deserted

The only visitors she had were the voices in her head… During my entire 14 months in the Samson Group Home, no one ever came to visit her ~ not family, not friends ~ and from what others told me, this “Sally Doe” had been there for many years. Of course, none of the therapists or mental health technicians could divulge to me her background or personal information, but from what I did end up knowing, I concluded that she had simply been dropped off and forgotten by her loved ones. Very sad, to say the least…

One time in a group session, Sally expressed her heartfelt desire to go home, wherever that may have been. That was when I realized that despite the severity of her schizophrenia, she remembered family, at least some of the time. But then it was hard to say anything about the reliability of the memories Sally had; after all, there were times she believed herself to be pregnant, or to be a movie star, or some great singer (and she did, in fact, have quite a bluesy, Janice Joplin-type voice.)

Still, she knew she had family. Presumably, her family still knew they had her. They just didn’t visit her. One might quickly conclude they no longer cared, if ever they did care. I know this is what I thought and, honestly, still think; however, it also eventually occurred to me that it might be too psychologically, emotionally difficult for them to visit Sally. This may seem like a lame excuse, but I knew nothing of her family. Who knows what difficulties they struggle with and how vicious those struggles might be?

Did you know that “there is a high heritability to schizophrenia … with heritability estimates ranging from 64 to 81 percent?”¹ This being the case, then, it’s possible that Sally is not the only one in her biological family to struggle with this, or some other, malady. The lesson here (for me, at least) is, “Do not pre-judge! Especially when you don’t know the whole story!” Nevertheless, it was sad to see her day in and day out, seemingly so alone in the world… Funny, though, Sally didn’t seem too upset by her situation.

Point in fact, Sally is mostly happy, although the voices that speak to her do upset her from time to time. She talks to them all through her waking hours, and every so often you might hear her burst out with, “Leave me alone!” or “Go to hell!” or some other virile reaction. Otherwise, Sally is an adorable, happy, 40-something year-old with one of the most beautiful smiles you can imagine. Couple this with the fact that in many ways she is so like an innocent, little girl, and you can’t help but fall in love with her.

Ah, but what about so many of the others with whom I lived? Sally Doe was not the only one who never received visits from family or friends. Tragically, out of anywhere from 14 to 18 residents (at any given time) around eight to ten never had friend or family visit … or even call or write! It’s like they’ve simply been abandoned. According to Natasha Tracy, writing in 2012, oftentimes someone…

… is just left because of the pain and stigma of dealing with a mental illness. Sometimes people just can’t last through the stress of illness and treatment. Sometimes people really are abandoned by those they thought loved them unconditionally

Well, this is one of the important reasons I’ve determined to go back to the group home from time to time just to visit. Perhaps my determination no to forget will make some positive difference. I certainly hope and pray so… Just out of curiosity, what about you? Would you feel comfortable visiting a group home for the mentally ill? If not, of course, that is understandable. If you’ve never experience any kind of mental illness or been hospitalized or lived in a group home, it can certainly be uncomfortable!

Ah … but there are so many in need of pure, genuine love and camaraderie. I think of my second family still residing in the Samson Group Home and my heart aches near breaking. By the way, this is where the Church (and, I suppose, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc.) has really “dropped the ball.” Do you know that during my entire 14 months at the group home, we never received one visit from any church (or other religious institution)? Yes, someone might come by to pick someone up for Sunday service, but…

More on this subject later. It’s an important topic, I think, and perhaps in openly, honestly addressing it we might encourage more interaction between Church and the mentally ill. 


¹ Susan K. Whitbourne and Richard P. Halgin, Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders, Seventh Edition, 151; for an interesting, informative article on heritability, cf. Natasha Tracy and Harry Croft, MD, “Schizophrenia Genetics: Is Schizophrenia Hereditary?” as found at Healthy Place

² Tracy, “Fear of Abandonment Due to Mental Illness,” as accessed on 09/24/2018 at Healthy Place


For previous articles in this series, go to:

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part I

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part II

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part III

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part IV

Simulacrum: Shadows Passing Shadows

“But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?” He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light.

When, in the morning, he saw first the footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every gesture, their every word, confirmed the horrible truth revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.

— From “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy

Frosted windows open on snow-covered plains so barren and lonely, with the far horizon so thickly gray, with the assurance of more of the same, and all is as silent as death, so silent that even the voice of God cannot be heard. We need life. We need life.

Shadows passing shadows in the shades of shadow trees. Life is a vapor. Mostly ghostly and blithely ignorant, they know something is missing, these spectators of men. And again the church bell tolls for another someone who never lived but finally died. And the gray coffin is lowered into black earth as phantoms cast forth hollow eulogies beneath the dancing shades of the same shadow trees.

The sun rises on an empty beach on an empty Sunday, where the waves make no sound, and the preacher stands perched on the podium preaching redemption to reprobates who cannot hear. But they pad the pews and smile self-righteous smiles, while girls grunge with Jesus round their necks.

Boys and girls dance round the boy, poking and prodding, teasing and laughing — laughing and teasing, prodding and poking as the dance goes on and the tears freely flow. There is pain and suffering driving the victim insane, but does anybody care? He will take his own miserable life, but will any mourn his passing?

jollain_hyacintheAnd the lovely Hyacinthus, radiant reflection of Beauty, draws his last breath as Apollo weeps for love lost and the world buckles at the passing of the divinely desirable boy, even as his blood gives birth to the flowers that will forever bear his name.

Two hearts bleeding. Two souls suffering. Two minds reeling. Two bodies slowly losing feeling. Two lovers void of love, rolling one over the other, making lust in a haversack with hyacinth in their hair. This is the memorial they offer the boy, who now joins as one with Mother Gaia.

A firefly crawls across the concrete, dying in the heat, but no one hears the slowing heartbeat of another life worth less than three-pence, delivered to deconstruction in total destruction as the thrawn sun thrashes its body at dawn.

Blocks of brick are stacked on blocks of brick, as below asphalt streets burn in the glaring sun. Alleyways are filled with scattered litter blown in from shattered lives, and the moon is full at the witching hour.

Smoke rises from the smoldering city as ash rains down thicker than the citizens, who run to their own burial for cover without looking back to see poppies growing in war-scarred fields. Their translucent bodies back into the black of cavernous caves, where they bark against the darkness.

The emptiness of existence is heavy. The vacancy of persistence in existence tangible and terrible, but do they even know … these passing shadows? Do they even know the profundity of the gaping hole in their soul? Can they feel the absence, and if so, do they know what left the better part of their heart so damn cold … these passing shadows?

Women and men, soldiers and scholars, priests and pious hypocrites stand beneath a rugged Roman cross, and what do they see, but Life nailed to wood for the sake of life? But do they even know … these passing shadows? Do they even know they need a savior? Do we know…?

Priests and the Cry of Innocence

With all their might they pushed crimes out of sight
And chose to fight the light back into the darkness,
Leaving the carcass of truth in the starkest of graves,
But who will save them from the waves of justice,
Which finally come from cries of innocence violated
And annihilated for the satisfaction of perversity
That so harmfully cast itself upon those weakest
And meekest within the very Household of God?
Surely damnation will come to such beastly priests,
And angels will rock the foundation of all creation

In the Shades of Shadow Trees

Shadows passing shadows in the shades of shadow trees,
And life is like a vapor, a mostly ghostly shadow show,
And again does the church bell toll for yet another soul
That never really lived but finally died in vacuous pride
After casting aside hope for meaning to reside in shades
That weighed nothing because he was afraid of solidity,
Choosing instead a sickly flaccidity with heart cupidity,
And now the gray coffin is lowered into the black earth,
To the very place that will give rest to all of his worth,
Accumulated from cradle to the grave for such a knave;
But are we any different in our deference to existence?
No, we should know we’ll need some savior some day.