Several events have conspired to prompt a more personal post on this eve of eves: first, I am currently en route to a family gathering in Boise, my childhood home and a city I have not set foot in since I was 15; second, before leaving this morning, I received an email from my brother that included a copy of an email my mother sent him last night, addressed to her social worker, the web administrator at Integral Life (“a global community of leaders, artists and visionaries” co-founded by Ken Wilbur), and—the important part, for our purposes—a faculty member from my doctoral program.
This is not the first time my mother has decided to send emails or letters to faculty in my program, the content of which has ranged from lengthy explanations of the Dalai Llama’s supposed mandate to add powdered milk to all food and drink, to detailed, frenetic analyses of my failings as a psychologist and human being, her parent’s political views, and my father’s (largely fictional) sexual transgressions. Her sentences are sometimes beautiful, sometimes offensive, and almost always defy both the pragmatic and prescriptive ‘rules’ of English grammar and syntax. My immediate task—as soon as I finish this story (Scheherazade)–is to write to the professor in question (an applied social psychologist who I have never formally met and whose sole knowledge of me probably consists of the undoubtedly memorable fact that I have a “schizophrenia diagnosis”) and explain the situation. And therein lies the rub.
If there is a kind of double bind, a fundamental, violent aporia at the heart of my admittedly multiple and complex ‘problems,’ I would argue that it is neither my “psychosis” nor my mother’s, but rather their juxtaposition. “Why, exactly, do you hate yourself so much” clinicians and others have repeatedly asked me. Why?
When I left Boise so many years ago, I was certainly as confused as any normal 15-year old on multiple counts, but the one thing I felt certain of was the crushing, perverse role that my mother’s psychosis had played in my life. And it was not only the weight of her delusions—everywhere, impossible to navigate (our house was wired, our phones tapped, both my mother and our dog riddled with implanted devices, she and my brother soon to be canonized and I, presumably, condemned)—but the total absence, the loss, of empathy. “Nobody will ever love you,” she would often say, not in moments of anger or passion but in the far more devastating absence of any emotion. I would be lying if I claimed to have harbored any doubts whatsoever regarding the presence of “pathology”; she was crazy, violent, dangerous, unpredictable, untrustworthy and I would never ever be like her. This one thing I promised myself.
And then, and then.
One of the only existing video fragments of Howie the Harp—a clip I often show undergraduate RAs—ends with a scene in which a local psychiatrist confronts Howie and a small group of activist colleagues. ‘We get what you’re saying,’ he intimates, ‘but it just doesn’t apply to those people: the seriously, chronically, persistently ill.’ ‘You’re wrong,’ Howie rejoins, ‘I was one of those people.’ This is a scenario, almost a cultural script, which never seems to get old. I have played Howie more times than I can count—“I’m one of those people,” I tell researchers and clinicians and colleagues and even other service users, “stop assuming that I am somehow more privileged, struggle less, have struggled less, am fundamentally different, do not understand. Fuck you.” The reasons for the defensiveness are obvious enough—there is perhaps no better way to discredit criticisms of the system, invocations of human rights, of fundamental ethics and of hope, than to discredit the critics who speak out precisely because they can speak—because they (we) are articulate, lucid, logical; a vision wholly incompatible with the infamous residents of the psychiatric ‘back ward;’ drooling, rocking, screaming, picking at invisible sores.
Nowadays, now, to the faculty member in my program who I have never met, to the aunts I will see in a few hours, to the mother I will see tomorrow, I do not know how to explain, how to respond, what to say. All my training–in philosophy, in ethics, in mental health—has done nothing, absolutely nothing, to clarify the structural impossibilities of the situation. The impossibility of reconciling my identity and hers, the impossible simultaneity of pride and shame, the undecidability of these things (am I ashamed of her or myself?; can we both be ‘mad’), and above all the unbearable weight of agency and responsibility or their absence; these are ‘problems’ I simply cannot deal with, cannot even contain.
Buddhists often say that individuals who appear as enemies are really bodhisattvas in disguise—come to remind us of our attachments, of the distal roots of human pain. It is rarely possible to convey anything more than fragments of my life to my mother—mostly, I think, because of the way she processes language, unable to follow a narrative, too overwhelmed by the almost infinite possible meanings of words and sounds and numbers. She does know that I study psychosis, however, and at least weekly reminds me of what a moral and scientific failure I am for doing so. Sometimes she seems to think I am training to be a psychiatrist—“you will only harm people,” she tells me, “plying them with your drugs”; other times it is “you are obsessed with psychosis, you see it everywhere, I don’t know what is wrong with you. You are such a disappointment.”
Because ‘schizophrenia’ does not exist, because she was only diagnosed as such in an act of catastrophic political delegitimization, my mother sees both her SSI (federal welfare check) and enrollment in Medicaid as profound moral and political wrongs. For virtually my entire adult life she has tried to convince me to hire a lawyer and sue for her removal from these programs. Without them, as you might guess, my brother and I would bear almost full responsibility for her food, housing and medical care, since she has never been able to work, and remains deeply in debt (interest accumulated on credit cards and loans she took out decades ago and that she refuses to stop paying). I already struggle to come up with the money to buy her the food, clothes and supplies that her $700 a month check scarcely even begins to cover. Even if she would agree to go, there is no possible way that I could pay for a therapist skilled enough to make any difference. The last time I flew her out to Chicago she arrived with a serious, advanced urinary tract infection, followed by edema in her legs and a distended liver. She would not go to a physician, refusing to use Medicaid, unless I paid the full bills (in fact an unpayable sum, for anyone not familiar with the cost of health care in the States). She sends daily emails to the Dalai Llama, Barack Obama, the CEO of Chase Bank, and assorted family and colleagues–emails that combine passages of nearly undecipherable (“thought disordered”) text with intimate, mostly fictitious, details of our lives; emails that have alienated, frightened, and offended more people than she will ever guess. “My social worker will never speak to you,” she reports, “because I have told her how abusive you and your brother are. She tells me that she will protect me from you.” Recently she decided to no longer use natural gas (“gas is manufactured to kill people”); unless I order her electric burners, she says, she will stop eating cooked food. I could go on.
There are clearly limits beyond which even the most radical among us can no longer ‘accommodate’ madness; where those limits are, how to locate them, I do not know. So convoluted are the layers of competing ethical norms and mandates, responsibility to the other (Levinas), but, as Derrida underscored (never more literally), “the other that is always already the self; the self that is always already the other.” To whom do we owe our allegiance? And to what—what vision, what variant, of madness?
Back to the letter. In all honesty, I defer, I stall—telling stories that evade the ‘real’ problem–not because I lack the wits to write a simple and polite explanation, but because I am afraid of my own thoughts, whether or not they ever make it onto a page. “It will get clearer, Nev,” my last therapist used to reassure me: “you won’t always feel this confused.” But I do, I am.