We Do Cray Cray Real Good
Gary, the psychologist, waited for me to get settled in my chair. I had been dreading this session all week. In our first session, my mother and father told Gary about the first fifteen years of my life. How they had provided for me, sacrificed to give me a Catholic education, and fulfilled all my material wants. And how I had repaid them by stealing my mother’s Valium, Darvon, and other drugs. Gary had listened carefully, nodding in agreement, validating their concerns and disappointments. Then he asked to see me alone for the next session. All week I knew how I was going to get reamed as an ungrateful son who was going to hell for prescription drug use as well as taking my friends with me.
Gary leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard.
“Jerome,” he finally said, “did you know your parents are crazy?”
I was stunned. First, because he called me Jerome instead of my nickname, Jerry. And second, he called my parents crazy. He looked at me for an answer. I finally shook my head no.
“Well they are. I know crazy is not the acceptable term. But trust me, I’m in the business of crazy, and your parents are. I don’t blame you for wanting to get high in order to deal with them. The question is whether you want to keep getting high or do you want to find another way to deal with the craziness?”
I managed to find my voice. “I’d like another way,” I stammered. Thus began my journey to an insanity free life. One that is also drug free and free of alcohol dependency. Mental illness is a topic that rises to public consciousness every time there is another mass shooting. But the topic quickly fades, and few want to talk about it on a personal level. I am as good of a nonprofessional expert on mental illness as one can find. Gary saved my life by convincing me that I could escape the dysfunction of my family of origin. My mother was what is now called bipolar. Back then, it was called manic depressive and was treated with drugs like Valium. My father was a narcissistic and a weekend alcoholic. Together, they were a match made in hell. Screaming, throwing things, and regular beatings of their only child constituted my daily existence. I thought it was normal.
Once, when I was nine, I remember jumping up and down on my parents’ bed cheering for my mother as she chased my father into the bathroom with a butcher knife. She probably could have broken the door down, but she contented herself with stabbing the door multiple times. Within two years of that incident, she started taking massive overdoses of the pills that were supposed to suppress the rage. I don’t remember how many times she tried to kill herself. I do know she almost succeeded. And I remember how sick, betrayed, and useless I felt with each attempt. Wainwright lied. Suicide is definitely not painless.
Recovery from such an insane upbringing is hard. Add in PTSD from service in Vietnam, as well as TBI from a jeep rollover, and I have had to fight every day to live a non-crazy life. Mostly, I have been successful. The rest of the country, not so much. Exhibit A is that about half of all people locked up have mental health issues. We can argue about exact numbers or definitions of mental health, but by any objective measure, the treatment approach in the U.S.A. is medieval–incarceration for the poor and middle class with resort spas for the rich.
It would take very little effort to do better. And if treatment is not cheaper than incarceration it is at least more effective. To say we can’t afford to change is absurd. The fees we pay for phones, TV, and internet alone argue otherwise. The 26 billion dollars we spend on professional sports says that we can afford to do better. It is a matter of priorities. We value doggie treats and Halloween costumes for our cats ($500 million) more than psychological treatment. As a country, we ignore mental health except when it is forced into our consciousness. And since 25% of all Americans have or will have mental health issues, it’s not like we don’t know and love someone with problems. But we avoid talking about it, joke about it, and isolate those who most need help.
Lack of treatment starts early. We have taken away our teachers’ time, ability, and authority to intervene and help those students with issues. We have eliminated school counselors or turned them into standardized test monitors. We have built school to prison pipelines and then wonder why we have more people in prison than any other country. It takes large investments of time and money to create trained people like Gary. I was lucky. Since my father was in the military, my treatment was paid for by the taxpayers. For those who complain about paying too many taxes, in the five decades since I sat in Gary’s office, I have repaid that debt many times over through my own tax payments and through service to my community. More importantly, I didn’t become an addict or alcoholic or end up in prison, thereby costing the taxpayers more money. It’s called an investment for a reason.
One of my favorite comedians is Christopher Titus. His childhood was even worse than mine, and he helps me laugh and release the pain. His humor helps bring mental health issues into the open. He makes it acceptable to give voice to behavior that is both horrible and debilitating. The number of dysfunctional families is rising. The number of children suffering from PTSD is rising. The number of Gary’s is falling. Why go into debt for a master’s degree to make $35,000 a year figuring out what treatment someone needs when you can get a bachelor’s degree and make twice as much selling them pills? All the numbers point to the problem getting worse, not better. We do crazy real good. And that’s no laughing matter.