Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

It’s a Mad, Mad World

In a mad world, only the mad are sane.

Edgar Allan Poe said that (or Akira Kurosawa) (or maybe Kurosawa quoting Poe). It’s a common enough idea, so many people (including my husband) have said it, or something like it.

And how can one argue with Emily Dickinson, who said,

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

It’s beautiful poetry, and a reaction to Dickinson’s own situation as a person extremely out of touch with “the Majority.” Today we would diagnose her with Avoidant Personality Disorder or some such.

It’s tempting to agree with Poe and Dickinson, but I can’t. Here’s why.

The world cannot be sane or insane. Those are qualities that apply only to people. The world may seem insane, but that is only a metaphor. The world can be chaotic. The world can be incomprehensible. The world can be unfamiliar. The world can be frustrating. Observing the world can make you laugh, cry, or doubt yourself. I suppose it can even make you doubt your own sanity.

But none of those things are the same as truly being insane.

Of course, the terms “mad” and “insane” are frowned upon now.  We say, instead, that someone “is mentally ill,” or “has a psychiatric disorder,” or even “has lost touch with reality.” But can we say that the world is mentally ill or has a psychiatric disorder or has lost touch with reality?

Can large groups of people – society – be insane? There are many people in the world with serious psychiatric illnesses, but they constitute only a few percent of the world’s population. The rest of society, we have to say, is in touch with reality. It’s just that everyone has different perceptions of what reality is, especially if we’re talking about the actions of other people or other groups. This debate about the sane and the insane is more about the divide between perception and reality, the different perceptions that people have, and the concept that there is no objective reality. Each of us has a mind that interprets reality, but this does not make those realities per se true or false and those minds sane or insane.

But the concept of a world gone insane and a person society defines as a madman (it’s almost never a madwoman) as the only remaining sane person is a device used in fiction. King of Hearts is a 60s-era movie, much beloved by the counterculture, that uses this trope. Catch-22 is another, in which a man trying to prove himself insane is therefore deemed sane. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest makes us question the “sanity” of psychiatric wards versus the “sane” rebellion of the people locked up in there.

That’s what a lot of these sayings and fictions are really about – rebellion. (And why they were so popular in the 60s and 70s.) They present the hypothesis that the “sane” world requires rebelling against by being “insane.” Or put the other way around, the world is insane and the insane are the only truly sane ones.

Rebelling against what seems to you insane, i.e., the world, is presented as noble and in some sense valuable and wise. You want me to conform? I’ll say that you’re the sick ones and that whatever I do in reaction against that is proof. The further I stray from societal conventions is proof that those conventions are meaningless, stifling, demeaning, and ultimately insane.

Let’s unpack this a little further, shall we? Can the world be schizophrenic? Be bipolar? Have PTSD? Suffer from bulimia? No, those are all human conditions, caused by genetics or brain biochemistry or childhood abuse or some combination of these and other factors. We say the weather is bipolar, but we really mean just that it changes quickly. We say the world is schizophrenic, but that just means it isn’t logical.

So. I have bipolar disorder. Does that make me sane and everyone around me insane? Does it mean that I just don’t “fit in” with society? Does it provide me with wisdom that others who don’t share my condition can’t achieve?

Fortunately or unfortunately, none of that is true. That I don’t fit in is partly because of my personality and partly because of my upbringing. Not everyone around me is sane and I the only one who sees clearly. My disorder provides me with a different perspective on reality than many others have, but it doesn’t make mine right and theirs wrong. Or vice-versa.

There’s room in this world for a lot of perceptions of reality. Let’s not start dividing them up into “sane” and “insane.” Understanding other people’s point of view is not a cure for madness, but it is a way of better coping with the world.


Diagnosis and Dickinson

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
Emily Dickinson

I ran across this poem in a book called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (about which more some other time) and it made me think.

Dickinson was, by all accounts a recluse. She seldom went out and, when visitors came, she sometimes sat behind a screen while she talked to them. She never dared to submit her poems for publication. Less than a dozen were published in her lifetime, and those only because someone else submitted them without her knowledge. Her wealthy, loving family sheltered and nurtured her so that she never had to face the outside world.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof.

I call bullshit. I’m not saying none of those people had assorted mental disorders. My point is that we can’t tell from this distance in time.

In none of these cases, as far as I know, did any of the aforementioned people see a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a phrenologist. None were diagnosed with any psychiatric condition, and no record of such a diagnosis has come down to us from any reliable source. Some even lived before psychiatry was invented.

People – mental health workers, but also art and literary critics, biographers, and the general public – have looked at these extraordinary people’s lives and work and decided that their behavior and their art look like those of a person who might be bipolar or obsessive-compulsive or psychotic. (They also like to retro-diagnose physical conditions there is no record of or only vague names for. King Tut, Henry VIII, and Napoleon are particularly good theoretical patients.)

Why the tendency to ascribe mental disorders to famous people? I can see two reasons, beyond the thrill of solving a mystery and feeling clever.

The first is the old saying about there being a thin line between madness and genius. These historical figures were geniuses, so they must have been mad. Or as we say now, suffering from mental disorders.

The other is the need for role models and inspiration. If Van Gogh could become one of the most famous artists ever (though not successful in his own lifetime), you too may rise above – even use – your disorder to accomplish greatness.

It’s possible, I guess, but it’s not likely. Certainly those with mental disorders can aspire to and achieve rich, full lives, satisfying relationships and jobs and artistic pursuits. These are the ordinary accomplishments of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness, and it’s a small miracle that people can achieve any one or more of these. Not everyone does – again with or without mental troubles or psychiatric diagnoses.

And for me, at least, it’s enough.

Can the spark of imaginative genius strike a person with a mental disorder? Of course. Can that person succeed and achieve lasting fame? Maybe, though the odds aren’t good. Is a person saying, “Look, I can be Van Gogh!” likely to fall short? Almost certainly. Can that failure to achieve greatness make a person feel worse about himself or herself instead of better? You tell me.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, and nothing that says a person with a psychiatric diagnosis can’t do just that. It’s a good idea for anyone. (As one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, “Aim high. You may still miss the target but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”)

But pinning your hopes on a similarity with a non-psychiatric, perhaps non-existent, diagnosis of a genius may not be the best way to get there.

Better to look in these geniuses’ work for insights that can help you understand your own condition or pull you through tough times. Here’s another of Emily Dickinson’s poems that has always spoken to me about the experience of a depressive crisis and its aftermath.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

Was Emily herself depressed? We’ll never really know. And as long as we have her poems, I don’t really care.

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