Years and years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, I took a class in psychology. There’s not much I remember about that class – too many years have gone by – but I do remember vivisection (I was not in favor), Freud, and a classmate, who purported to envy what she called ‘crazy people.’
“Just think,” she told me, “you could do anything you wanted. You could be rude, call people names, pick your nose. And no one would say anything. I’d give anything to be crazy.”
We were in the cafeteria eating lunch – tuna surprise, as I recall – sitting at table with an attached bench that seated 15 on one side, 15 on the other. And I wondered how many people had heard her, how many people could have heard her over the din of that flourescently lit room with the slippery tiled floor.
I remember shaking my head slightly, not sure I’d heard her right. “You can’t seriously mean you’d want to be crazy.”
What did she know? She was 15 years old. What does anyone know at 15? But I do remember feeling uncomfortable, thinking – knowing – that I was pretty near ‘crazy’ myself. My mother had died the year before, a week before I started high school. I was 14. If you give much credence to developmental psychology, 14 is a rehash of 2, a time when a child strikes out on his/her own, a time for exploration, a time to establish some level of independence from the parent.
But if the parent’s not there… Well, breaking away becomes harder. It’s not safe. No one’s home. Better to freeze, to stay 14 forever, remain dependent.
Better not to feel.
Ahh, but not breaking away, not claiming some level of independence. Not feeling. These are not good choices because they dam up the works. They make it nearly impossible to function.
And I remember thinking that as I sat there listening to my friend – I can’t even remember her name – tell me how she wished she were crazy.
What I told her, never acknowledging I was speaking from experience, was that I was pretty sure most ‘crazy’ people, at the core, were terrified people with no way out.
“Imagine,” I told her. “living every day terrified.”
She shrugged with more than a bit of disdain. She liked her image of ‘crazy’ way better than she liked mine, but I pushed. Just a little.
“Okay,” I said, ” with me, what I’m afraid of more than anything are bees and wasps, and what I think is that being ‘crazy’ is like being locked up in closet, bees and wasps and hornets everywhere, and you can’t get out.”
She sat there for a second, saying nothing, wrapped up the remains of her tuna surprise and asked if I was going to Homecoming.
These days, I think of that conversation a lot, wondering if my friend, whatever her name was, ever gained a more realistic view of what it is to be ‘crazy’ or, to use the more acceptable vernacular, mentally ill.
I wonder now if she’s had a bout with depression or anxiety or even one of the more serious ailments, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
People like that word ‘crazy,’ as if somehow being ‘crazy’ were a good thing. They like to say, “Oh, my god, I have got the craziest family in the world.” Or: “We were the absolutely craziest people back then.”
Maybe you have the funniest family in the world, or maybe you were the absolutely wildest people back then, but not the craziest. Not the way I’m using the word.
I’m married to a man people might call crazy; certainly, my friend from high school would have. In addition, throughout my life I’ve had episodes that friend would have referred to as crazy, episodes during which I couldn’t have cared less about what I was doing, what I was saying, or how I was behaving.
I wasn’t having any fun. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh boy oh boy oh boy, I get to stand in the middle of the casino lobby, screaming at the desk clerk at 4:30 in the morning, because I’m crazy, and I can do whatever I want.”
And my husband JW, who has schizoaffective disorder, which is a form of schizophrenia, and therefore probably qualifies as crazy,has never once thought, “Oh boy oh boy oh boy, I can get paranoid that people are stealing from me, spying on me, shut everyone out of my life for days at a time, then collapse into an apathetic stupor because I’m crazy, and I can do whatever I want.”
In the summer of 2010, when JW and I were separated and had a divorce pending, he had a psychotic break, during which he walked through the yard naked, peed in the bushes, wrote on the walls, and tried to set the house on fire. None of which sounds like too much fun to me, and all of which, to me, shows someone trying to get the terror, the madness, the craziness out of his head, so he can see it, touch it, feel it. And maybe, with any luck, destroy it.
The problem: The madness, the craziness, the whatever it is he has, is a part of him, and the more he tries to get it out, the more unmanageable it becomes.
Back when my mother died, back before I knew anything at all about mental illness, I used to cut myself with razor blades. It was a ‘coping’ mechanism that plagued me for 24 years. I had a therapist, who once asked – more like accused – why I would do such a thing? Why would I turn all that rage on myself?
I couldn’t get that therapist to understand that cutting took my mind off the psychological pain; the cutting was a manageable pain, focused and sharp. Not terrifying. Just painful.
And so when JW crashed in 2010 and threw furniture into the yard, food on the floor – his actions made sense to me. I could understand them from my perspective. If the pain inside is unbearable, get it out, manifest it. Make it concrete, so it can then be understood and conquered.
If the pain manifests as an upturned chair or a broken jar of grape jelly on the floor, those can be fixed. Those are concrete manifestations of the painful jumble of a damaged psyche. They, in a way, provide hope that something can be fixed, that someone can help.