There’s crazy and there’s crazy

There’s bungee-jumping-crazy and there’s having an audible conversation with someone that no one else can see.  Most of us can think of at least one relative that is eccentric or disruptive.  “The Lion King” has that great line: “There’s one in every family.  They ruin every special occasion.”  In that story, the disruptive relative crossed the line from annoying to dangerous and killed Simba’s Dad.

In one of my stints as bartender, there was a regular customer, let’s call him Rick, who came in every day and had exactly three beers.  He always paid without incident, though he never tipped.  All the bartenders were ok with that, perhaps because it seemed it took his entire being just to function in a society so different from himself.  His struggle was subtle, but not invisible.  He didn’t like it if someone was in his chair or when the manager changed the TV station from “Family Guy” to sports – I agreed with him on the latter.  Once an out-of-towner two stools down noticed Rick talking to himself and said something sarcastic about “that guy who’s had too much.”  Rick was not then, nor ever in my presence, inebriated or the least bit discourteous to anyone.  Nor was he ever packing heat.

The shocking availability of extremely destructive gun-power combined with rampant mental illness is a lethal combination that is only talked about after tragedy.  The United States has the most heavily armed civilians in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens (Reuters, August 28, 2007).  You would have to move to Yemen to live in the second most heavily armed citizenry with 61 guns per 100 people.

Statistics on mental illness are less reliable, partially because not everyone even agrees how to define it and so much is undiagnosed.  I’m asking you to consider the prevalence of mental illness for yourself by opening a newspaper or visiting a news web site and looking at the headlines.  In your opinion, how many of those stories have someone crazy in them?  On page one of the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 25, 2011) try this headline: “Moscow airport bombing kills 35.”  The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas) also has the Moscow bombing on page one, but on the local tab of their web site stories, the third headline is “Wichita woman ‘very critical’ condition after hammer attack; man arrested.”  The Peoria JournalStar (Peoria, Illinois) has a story on the local tab of their web site with this lead: “A member of a Western Illinois University fraternity was ticketed early Friday morning for choosing to eat lasagna instead of evacuating his building when the fire alarm was tripped, authorities said.”  Crazy has many flavors.

When I watch the political talking heads make stuff up, I call them crazy.  Their rhetoric is not as immediately life-threatening as the hammer-attacker, but the irresponsible and dishonest speech is destructive.  Congresswomen Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) is probably ‘crazy like a fox’ when she re-writes history in order to tell people what they want to hear to engender support.  The web site calls her “Batshitcrazy.”  (Yes, that really is a web site.)  Anderson Cooper (CNN) challenged her on one of her speeches where she marginalized slavery and misrepresented the experience of many immigrants when they first came to this county.

Sadly, that leads us to the Arizona shooting.  CNN has a “Belief Blog” with a column by Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “My Take: Is Arizona shooting an individual or shared sin?”  Prothero wrote about our prevailing culture of “vitriol” and readily available guns.  About accused shooter Jared Loughner he said, “To insist that he was not influenced by that rhetoric is to pretend either that ideas have no effect, or that they somehow magically lose their effectiveness when they enter the brains of the mentally imbalanced.”

If you are willing to agree with me that mental illness is nearly epidemic in this country, then consider what dangerous situations might be lying dormant.  Just as mental illness and guns shouldn’t be mixed, neither should religion and mental illness.  There is the potential for dangerous results, just as what happens when religion is exploited for bad politics.  Of course the worst situation is when religion, politics, and mental illness work together to produce suicide bombers.

I have had first-hand experience with clinical depression.  I got better for a number of reasons, not all of which are pertinent to this column.  Because depression includes shutting down, I shed religion.  This was one of the most fortunate affects of the depression for me, because at the time I was only able to understand religion through the lens of the depression that was putting a dark and heavy cloud over my entire life.  Everything I saw, read and experienced came to me through a depression filter.  Religion did not inspire me, it depressed me.  It was not the cause, but it did exacerbate my condition.

Mental illness can’t be prayed away, in my view.  It is pervasive.  It is a powerful and complicated demon that is not easily exorcised.  Many people feel ill-equipped to respond appropriately, which is probably the case of Jared Loughner’s parents.  That’s understandable, but at the point he was amassing weapons, they owed it to the rest of us to give us some warning.

The tag in the Prothero column link is “it takes a village to make a killer.”  It’s time to view our world through the eyes of the struggling.  Next to each of us is someone who is chronically unemployed, stress-fatigued, marginalized, seriously lonely, or just crazy.  If we pay attention we might just be able to tell eccentric crazy from dangerous crazy.  And let’s keep the crazy away from guns and religion.  Call me crazy, but I choose to believe that compassion and awareness might be enough to reduce some of the tragedy that we are coming to take for granted.

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  • Beki Spurrier  On January 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Nice piece again, Jac. Thanks.

    I have many comments and could go on and on about this subject, as mental illness has permeated my own family, as it has most families. I have a little trouble with your use of the word “crazy” in your piece. The connotations are too negative and too far reaching. Even today, mental health care is only for the criminal, the poor, or the wealthy. Everybody else pretty much falls through the cracks. I read last week, and am ashamed to report, that my state of Texas is 49th out of the 50 states in mental health care spending (only New Mexico spends less). Until we, as a country, see mental health as true health care, and not something that is for “crazies” or for “weak people who should suck it up,” things won’t change. There is still a generalized fear and shame that are associated with seeking mental health care.

    I am rambling here and so I will stop. Thank you for bringing this subject to light. The more we talk about it and make the public realize there is not shame and there are resources, the better off we will all be.

  • allthingsreligious  On January 25, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You are right about the word “crazy.” That is exactly why I chose to use it. I was hoping to make the point you raised. Yes, unfortunately there is still a stigma and it is no small thing. I don’t have the answers for the system, but I have some ideas on a one-to-one basis.
    Thanks for your thoughts. -J.B.


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