Mental Health

Maturity, Arts and Resignation

master-copy2Today I decided to dig back into the cache of notes I saved “for further reflection.” Two old clips, back to back caught my eye.

1. Why Grow Up?, by Susan Neiman | Books | Times Higher Education

Each of us has to move from childish wonder to the realisation that things are unjust, that there is a gap between the world as it is and as it should be. But it is easy to get stuck in this sceptical phase and to remain the adolescent who has seen through adult hypocrisy and convention, determined that “we won’t get fooled again”, as The Who put it. This itself can become a sort of dogmatism, and we need to work through it to the next stage in which we learn to think for ourselves without succumbing to despair, and try to fight injustice. “Can philosophy find a model of maturity that is not a model of resignation?” asks Neiman, and she looks at various Enlightenment philosophers who have tackled the problem of “growing up properly”.

2. Why Do Depressed People Lie in Bed? | Psychology Today

So this alternative theory turns the standard explanation on its head. Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly. The idea that depressed people cannot disengage efforts from failure is a relatively new theory. It has not been much tested in research studies. However, the idea is well worth exploring. It fits well clinically with the kinds of situations that often precipitate serious depression — the battered wife who cannot bring herself to leave her troubled marriage, the seriously injured athlete who cannot bring himself to retire, the laid off employee who cannot bring herself to abandon her chosen career despite a lack of positions in her line of work. Seeing these depressions in terms of unreachable goals may be useful clinically, and may help us better understand how ordinary low moods can escalate into incapacitating bouts of depression.

Is there a maturity that is not resignation? Conform or be destroyed?

Another word for resignation, perhaps, is acceptance. The real question is not whether resignation is good or bad. It is when to surrender and accept things as they are, and when to persist no matter how difficult it seems. When is holding onto a goal foolish, and when is an unobtainable goal a brilliant guiding star?

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…

Artists are especially prone to the type of depression described in the Psychology Today article. We can’t imagine giving up the art–or the dream of succeeding with the art– without surrendering parts of ourselves. Yet the world does not cooperate and grant us the success we would like. The sculpture that took years to craft doesn’t get a gallery showing. The royalty check is for $1.36. The corporation that hired you to do a great new show shelved it and it will never be seen. You finished the novel but it isn’t as good as it was in your head. The reviews are bad or non-existent. When are you going to get a real job?

At some point, the American ideal that if you have talent and you work hard you’re sure to succeed starts to mock you. Well, maybe resignation is the wise choice in this situation. Not expecting a best seller, a film adaptation of your novel, a seven figure advance, a Pulitzer or an Oscar, even a regular salary. Accepting that this is the reality of this particular life is adaptive.

This is a very un-American point of view. Accept failure? Never! But if you don’t want to quit, and you have no control over whether or not you succeed, you had better find a way to enjoy the ride.

Instead of looking to the outside world for meaning, you force your life to mean.  You are not stuck in this place, you are living in this place. Art for art’s sake. Imagining Sisyphus happy. Finding nobility in the quest for the unreachable star.



“Family Curse”

I like to follow news related to subjects I’m researching, or have researched. That his how I became aware of the tragic story of an 18 year-old who died from an overdose. The reason I learned about it is that the young victim was a member of the Douglas family, Lady Beth Douglas, the daughter of the 12th Marquess of Queensberry.  Local mental health outreach services had reportedly been aware of her since she was 13-years-old.

A number of stories ran with a headline about the so-called “Queensberry Curse.” They gave the familiar history of Douglas family members who had committed suicide or engaged in erratic behavior including, of course, Lord Alfred Douglas.

There is nothing supernatural about a vulnerability to mental illness running in a family. If the Douglases had been especially prone to a certain kind of cancer, there would be no talk of curses.

I hope that there will not be another Douglas who appears in newspapers for such a tragic reason, but if there is, I hope we can retire this notion of “a curse.”

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.


Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

Shooting for Significance

I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.

It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.

As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.

Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.

David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”

Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.

We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.

This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?

Teaser Tuesdays: Into the Silent Land

intothesilentland“How convenient it would be sometimes to turn off consciousness and carry on with ordinary behaviour. Imagine flicking a switch on difficult days and flipping into oblivion, knowing that your body will continue going about its normal business. No one would notice.”

This quote is from Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks.

The description on the back cover, quoting Athul Gawande, says, “Into the Silent Land is a small, strange, beautiful gem– a brilliant lattice of arresting neurological tales, hard-nosed contemplation, and, unexpectedly, a certain wistfulness. Broks is as much poet as scientist, and in this indelible book, he leads us effortlessly into an unfathomable mystery– how that pale substance we call the brain could create something so ethereal and individual as a human mind.”

I posted this quote as part of  Teaser Tuesdays a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

(I chose three sentences because it completed the thought.)

Then you can leave your teaser in the comments of the Should Be Reading blog.

Lessons Not Learned From Columbine

“He could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons…”-The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Dave Cullen must be the most frequently invited guest to television news who no one actually listens to. Cullen is the author of the excellent Columbine. He spent ten years getting to the bottom of that tragic event, learning about the killers, the victims and the community. He gets a lot of exposure these days as he is invited to comment after each mass shooting.

He was on Anderson Cooper last night, explaining once again, that most of the narrative we create about a killer’s motivations in the immediate aftermath of an event will be wrong. He emphasized that even the killer’s own writings can create a misleading picture. (He had pages from Dylan Klebold’s diary as a visual aid.)  The question we most want answered in the wake of a tragedy is “why” and we will grasp any clues and expand on them. We need a sensible narrative and it is difficult for the sane to be satisfied with an explanation that makes no sense, the kind of motivation that the mentally ill mind produces.

In the wake of Columbine, a narrative emerged about two bullied teenagers who took revenge against the people who had tormented them. The truth was quite different.  I highly recommend Cullen’s book if you would like to explore this topic in depth. The Columbine shooters were not social outcasts. Dylan Klebold felt he was, but this was his own misconception. Eric Harris was a sadistic sociopath who wanted to bring down the world and the school just happened to be his environment.

Yet for the next couple of years we talked about bullying and schools trained teachers to watch the ones who were marginalized by their peers. All in all, cracking down on bullying is a noble cause. It is certainly worth doing. But linking it to Columbine and thinking anti-bullying efforts could have prevented that tragedy is misguided.

With the most recent event, the news coverage focused initially on one detail. In the report I saw, the reporter referred to the brand of the killer’s car every time she mentioned it. “He ran his BMW into…” I do not think she would have done this had he been driving a Toyota Camry. This tells you he was well-off. So immediately you hear the shocked, angry community members following suit using the word “entitled” to describe him. “He felt he was entitled to destroy any woman who didn’t serve his needs.”  Had he been driving a rusted out car, they would probably say he felt rejected and fell into an obsessive rage. The narrative would be slightly different.

“Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole,” Cullen wrote in the New York Times. “…The killer is rarely who he seems.” (This one was after the Aurora cinema shootings.)

That is why the current focus on “women” and the hashtag #YesAllWomen that sprung up in the wake of the tragedy seems a bit off to me. It is like Columbine all over again. Putting an end to bullying was noble, but it would not have prevented that event. Putting an end to sexual harassment is also noble, but as a response to the killing spree, it seems misplaced. It is taking a mentally ill person’s delusional sense of grievance and debating it as if there were some merit in it.

The Virginia Tech shooter also left a manifesto. He seems to identify rich people as the cause of his pain.  He also compares himself to Christ. The Tucson shooter (who shot Gabrielle Giffords and many others) also wrote an explanation. It was vaguely political but generally made no sense. The latest attacker seems to have been a better writer than his predecessors, because those who have read it (I have not.) understand what it says.  It is women, he says, who have caused him to take vengeance on the world. Had he been failed by a teacher or fired by a boss instead of rejected sexually, I am convinced he would have found another target for his rage and acted out in a similar fashion. The problem was his rage, not what he chose as its focus.

There is a discussion to be had about masculinity and if there is something in our cultural expectation of manhood that makes men so much more likely to present with this form of destructive mental illness. (The Good Men Project had quite a good article on this the other day.) We should discuss what cultural forces might be making the mass shooting part of the American “symptom pool.” I don’t think, however, that we should take a killer’s explanation for his own actions at face value.

Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting Part 106

One of my old posts suddenly got a bunch of hits. It was called “Thoughts on the Latest Mass Shooting.” It was not about this one, it was about one of the others.

I know that there has been another one mostly through glimpses in the social media. I can’t watch any more. I don’t want to see the grieving relatives and friends, the makeshift memorials. I know they are there.  I don’t need to know what weapons the madman used or how many times he fired and what the timeline was. I know the answers to that: too many. Too short a time to change so many lives.

For the next week or so, there will be discussions about what could have been done, what this teaches us, what could be changed. We’ll hash out different ideas: better availability of mental health services, better systems to allow interventions with the potentially dangerous, making sure that when someone is in danger he does not have access to weapons with high capacity magazines. We will talk about our culture, and what social forces make a certain subset of our mentally ill young men (and they are almost always men) act out in this distinctive way.  We will focus on some small aspect of the narrative that is different. This one’s deluded belief system blames women for his sense of vicious, impotent rage. This one blames the boss that fired him. This one was a returning veteran.  This one blames the aliens. This one is on a mission from God. So we’ll talk about sexism, or schizophrenia, or PTSD or employment or religious extremism. We will do this with some intensity until a video surfaces of a celebrity kicking her boyfriend in an elevator.

We will change nothing.  We will have decided, through our inaction, to accept that these events are a part of American life, something that cannot be prevented, like a natural disaster.

And when the next one comes, we’ll report on it in the same way: with shock and horror.  I can’t watch any more.

106 is the number of mass shootings that have happened so far in 2014.