Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
If insanity runs in your family but you don't know it, are you still insane?
BY DAVID MATTHEWS
In the teeming hallways of Bed, Bath & Beyond, I swerved my cart between nesting yuppies and straight guys gone queer-eyed, looking for just the right over-the-door towel hook, settling at last on a hefty brushed-steel model for no other reason than its likely ability to support my full body weight, which, I fully expected, would later that evening strain against it, a belt buckle around one end, the leather strap closed firmly around my throat at the other. I was going to hang myself.
The road to BB&B was a clearly signposted one, a route that I was aware of, just off some dirt road in my psyche, but had never veered onto until now, having locked myself onto the smoothly paved main roads with their comforting signs, rest stops, and accommodating shoulders. How I veered onto that road seemed to me to be beside the point. I was there, as if I’d been en route all my life, or more generously, had, à la Bugs Bunny, forgotten to take the emotional left turn at Albuquerque. At thirty- __ , I had simply had enough. I was not, as far as I knew, “depressed”; rather, I had rather become bored, impatient with the life I was sure I had been deprived of. I could not have told you, or myself, what that life would have resembled, but the place I had wound up was not one I was prepared to call home.
I should admit frankly that I have never had to forage for grubs in order to fill my belly, or watch as my family was ethnically cleansed by rapacious warlords. Rather, I had had that most tritely, indulgently difficult of lives: that of the disenfranchised American. Motherless. Poor. Black. Jewish. But times are tough all over. Plenty of people fashion a life, a happiness, from much less. They don’t wind up among vanilla-scented candles and OXO fruit zesters, clutching a towel hook while Sting fouls the air, warbling about fields of barley. Perhaps I was just thin-skinned and brittle, or perhaps, more troublingly, there was something going on between my lobes, in and around my synapses, that wasn’t quite right.
The vaguely existential psychiatrist/philosopher Karl Jaspers, in the early part of the last century, classified delusional  behavior (to my mind a pithier term, and every bit the equal of the generic “mental illness”) as having two distinct forms. The first form, which hews closely to the “nuttier than a shithouse rat” variety of crazy, he called a “primary delusion.” This is a delusion that originates with no apparent cause. Everything’s going great, birds are chirping, God is in her heaven, and yet you suddenly get an all-consuming hankering for Chinese … baby flesh. This type of delusion is usually attended by an incredulous neighbor’s assertion to a TV reporter: “But he seemed like such a nice boy.”
Secondary delusions — and this is where our hero sits up and takes notice — arise or are aggravated by an individual’s history, current situation, or frame of mind. That sounded like a variety of the malaise (otherwise known as my life) I had lived with as far back as I could remember. My delusions were the product of a fantasy life in which I was the wealthy son of (two, count ’em, two) loving, milky-white parents; a well-loved, hail-fellow-well-met among my peers; and a lethally handsome rogue to all those whose eyes landed in my direction. It’s true that what I’m classifying as delusions were, in my case, probably not what I was suffering from, at least not in a strictly clinical sense. I had magnified the hurts of my life until they blotted out the sunshine, and my “delusions” were likely no more than the disquiet of a lonely, self-absorbed little boy with a little bit of hurt and a lot of imagination. So take my nostrum self-diagnosis with a grain of salt.
Throughout childhood and puberty, however, I did suffer from what I now understand to be depression, although then I only knew that I was often sleepy and unremittingly glum. In high school, my lethargy and introversion were so pronounced that I was sure I had mononucleosis, which purportedly induces weeks — months — of sleep, until I found out that the virus was called “the kissing disease,” owing to its principal manner of transmission. That ruled mono out. Maybe I had nothing more complicated than a lifelong case of the blues. As I got a bit older, my delusions bloomed along with my hormones, thanks to the policy of repression and denial I had embraced. I was the product of a household consisting of men alone; stoicism was prized above emotional growth.
My father was a grizzled black revolutionary, a man’s man in a culture notoriously indifferent to weepy introspection. He never spoke of the mother who had abandoned me, and him. And, sensing his taciturn avoidance of the subject (or anything having to do with the squishier, more sentimental aspects of life), I never mentioned her either. She was gone, and that was all the information I needed. My father and I did not blubber on about our feelings; I got the impression that things happened to you, and you dealt with them. Next.
By my teen years, girls began assuming a role in my life, filling a hole I wasn’t aware was there. The hole was deep, and it was dark. My primal want for girls unearthed what was in actuality a need for a feminine presence. Sure, part of it was sexual, but the need went beyond the physical. It was psychic and must have had echoes back to my crib. There was never a specific girl I wanted; the desire was vague, the faces changed. But the need for female approval remained constant. I wanted a lover, needed a mother. In that miasma, sex and motherhood swirled together, unbeknownst to me, until girls became my monomania. They had the power over my life or death. I started out with a deficit: one of them had already quit me while I was still in my crib. As a nearly fully formed human, rejection by women was the adult (but no less raw) iteration of that primordial event. Every girl who failed to check the “Yes” box
I LIKE YOU. DO YOU LIKE ME?
YES [_] __NO [_] __MAYBE [_]
became more than just “the one that got away.” They were my mothers, walking away from me yet again, collapsing the years into moments. By the time I left home, at seventeen, I had weathered a storm of unreturned phone calls (girls who just didn’t “think of me that way”) and come out the other side. I didn’t know that it was already too late for me, that I had absorbed each wound without ever really healing. My secondary delusion was a florid, blossoming wonderland, nurtured by my environment from the cradle to the aisles of Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The primary directive of every species is survival. Somehow, between some degraded neuron and synapse, my survival switch had burned its fuse, or had been left out of my makeup altogether. Why me? Or more precisely, how me? My history, frame of mind, and current situation had led me to believe with the placidity of a Hindu cow that ending my life was a reasonable response to pain or dissatisfaction. What perfect storm had made me into a disturbed, suicidal, world- and self-hating man-boy?
It’s obvious that what I’ve fashioned thus far is a regressive, dog-chasing-his-tail exegesis of what is pretty garden-variety stuff. Abandonment, loss, the usual. But why do some people bounce back from adversity, while others (me, for instance) falter? There was no history of mental illness in my family, although my knowledge of my family extended only to my father’s genealogy. As far as I could tell, his side of the family was eminently sane. My father raised me in Baltimore City, and amid the trials and demands of, oh, trying to keep the fridge half-stocked, the rent paid, and the lights on, extravagances like psychiatric disorders could not be indulged. My father used to menace, leather belt dangling from his fist, whenever my “eccentric” personality flared up: “I don’t have no time for crazy. Cut the shit.”
Black America and the “dark arts” of mental health care have never enjoyed a close relationship. A population that had endured centuries of oppression and emasculation could hardly be expected to embrace a course of treatment for which vulnerability and that most (seemingly) feminine behavior, the accessing of emotions, are required. Sure, the Jews had come from a similarly oppressed background, but their culture had always relied on the Talmudic tradition, one of question and answer, give and take. Black America had been brainwashed by Christianity, which was all about enduring the pains of this world to get to the pleasures of the next — which made fixing the you in the here and now sort of irrelevant.
To be fair, my father, a product of the black middle class (intellectually, at least; in practice he was as poor as a church mouse) had attempted in his twenties to go into therapy. This experiment had begun while he was living in New York City during the 1950s, and came about for no greater reason than that many of his Jewish friends had recommended it. My father found his way onto a shrink’s divan and halfheartedly tried to drum up painful memories (there were none) and deep-seated fears (which consisted mostly of the twenty-five dollars an hour he was forking over to this quack) while the doctor scribbled on his notepad. At one point during the exercise, my father looked over at the doctor to emphasize some point or other. He was asleep. My pop said to himself, “Jesus, even he doesn’t care what I’m talking about,” and walked out. So much for therapy.
But back to me. When one is not raised in a culture of introspection (not to mention basic health care, which might have led to an early diagnosis), psychoses are merely personality traits: unheeded, unbidden, untreated. My depression, had it been diagnosed by a professional, would most assuredly have been chemical (type 1) in nature. Sure, it was helped along by a crappy life and a raging case of solipsism, but it was a part of me, like wavy hair and left-handedness. Nobody else in my family was sleeping all day or flipping through the “Guns” section of the Yellow Pages (inspired by a nasty breakup; thank you, Jim Brady, for waiting periods). Back then, before I had answers or could give a fair hearing to the voices in my head that alternately whispered Do it or screamed Now, I just thought I was intense. When Kurt Cobain emptied the back of his skull on a crisp spring morning in 1994, the first thought that entered my mind was Makes sense to me.
But my chemicals, the skewed levels of dopamine and endorphins didn’t just go kablooey all by themselves. They were put there. They were there from the beginning, the way my wavy hair, green eyes, and slight frame were. I had been hiding from whatever my mother meant to me all my life, but she had been there all along, nestled warmly between my lobes.
By the time I decided to unearth the questions about the other half of me — the mother half — I was in my thirties and quite comfortably settled into my delusions. Despite the desperate pleas of various girls I had tricked into liking me, I had remained willfully ignorant of that side of my family. I had undertaken, however, the task of writing a book about my life, and this professional obligation made an investigation a necessity. Oddly, I wasn’t all that curious. I had (or thought I had) shut down the capacity for exploring my feelings on all matters maternal. Like my father — like my culture — I had grown into a hard case.
The details of the investigation itself (the search for my mother, the discovery of her closest living relatives) are tedious, at a tangent to the plot, and better described elsewhere. Suffice it to say that I began with my father. He was a primary  source, having (duh) been married to my mother, and thus, hopefully, somewhat familiar with her.
My father, by this time, was nearly eighty and in poor health. He had been married six times, and my mother had been but a brief “middle passage,” their union his second or third. When pressed, my father agreed to help me but cautioned against too much optimism. “You have to remember,” he said, “of the memories I have of that time, few are pleasant.”
Tape recorder in hand, I asked him the questions I had hitherto avoided. My father told me of an impossible love affair born in an impossible era; a love affair that transgressed racial and social boundaries. He told me of the woman he had loved, and of their meeting. This story, which I’d hoped would be some gently glowing remembrance of a “meet-cute” between two free spirits, instead chilled me. My father met my mother while they both worked together in the D.C. government. My father lived in a sprawling bachelor apartment in D.C.’s historic Dupont Circle neighborhood. My mother lived in a Jewish halfway house in southeast D.C., where she had been ordered by her parents and the court to reside. Just a few months before she met my father, she had tried to kill herself.
As my father dredged up memory after memory, the history of my blues and my inexorable slouch toward the grave clicked into place. There had been near-fatal overdoses and erratic behavior that he had been unable to fathom, much yet alleviate. The depths of my mother’s mental illness were unplumbed by him. (He found out only much later why she was living in the halfway house. She had been vague about the circumstances that had landed her there, and by that time she was already pregnant with me.) The sardonic, quirky woman my father thought he had married grew increasingly unstable as the twelve months of their courtship and marriage wore on and I arrived. A few weeks after I was born, in the winter of 196_, my mother whisked me off to Jerusalem. There had been a war recently, and she wanted me to be with my people. My father only found out when he came home for dinner and found us missing. She brought me back within a few weeks, but by this point she had become a danger to me, as well as to herself. My father didn’t have no time for crazy, especially not when it came to the safety of his son, and he rescued me. He assumed that my mother would get the help she needed and eventually resume some type of role in my life. Six months after I was born, my mother returned to Israel, and we never heard from her again.
My father had taught me well in matters of practical stoicism, and as he told me all this, I limited my observations during our interview to those of the “You don’t say?” ilk. But I knew. I knew that this was to be my mother’s legacy, as surely as if she had left it in a cloth box, wrapped in a silken bow. I say legacy, because they are bequeathed. I had discovered a few days before interviewing my father that secondary sources would be all I would have to guide me. My mother had been dead for nearly thirty years.
Some basic detective work (otherwise known as Google) led me to some of my mother’s living relatives, none of whom I’d met. (They had been less than thrilled by my father’s melanin content and had used my mother’s disappearance as cover for their collective congé.) These were the very first words my mother’s sister spoke to me: “Your mother was profoundly disturbed.” She went on to say many things, which bear no recounting here but ultimately left me with what I suppose I had needed all along: the name and number of a psychiatrist. My mother’s psychiatrist.
My mother’s psychiatrist was, miraculously, still alive and practicing. When I called her, out of the blue, she hesitated half a beat before acceding. I made my way to her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment building and stepped into a room frozen in mid-century Danish modernism. Eames here, Larsen there. I asked her (although I knew the answer already from the vintage of the decor) whether she had treated my mother in this room, and she said yes. The doctor, in her seventies now, described my mother’s life and death in detail.
My mother’s father and mother were both clinically diagnosed schizophrenics. My maternal grandfather was of the type 1 variety (I knew old Jaspers would come in handy) and literally heard voices. His psychoses were produced organically, his skewed chemicals independent of circumstance or context. He even had a special room in his home where he would be locked away until the screaming — his and theirs — stopped. A prideful rabbi, he never allowed himself to be committed, to the detriment of everyone around him. My maternal grandmother was a schizophrenic with borderline sociopathic disorder. She was type 1 as well as type 2. She was unable to form emotional attachments, and my mother, as this woman’s oldest daughter, felt the brunt of that detachment. The final pieces were aligning themselves. My mother had had two parents, each discretely insane. What little I knew about genetics left me with the impression that some of that must have been passed on. What chances did my provisionally sane paternal family have against those odds?
While the doctor relayed the story of my mother and where she had come from, my eyes disobeyed me, drifting to the couch along one wall. I knew that that was where my mother had lain, and I no doubt could have used some hours there as well. Instead, I had forged across my psyche, the rickety bridge of my delusions, numbers one and two, alone. My mother had lived a life of considerable pain and disquiet, and perhaps her most lucid moment was the one in which she walked away from me. She had, after all, been raised by desperately ill parents and probably knew better than anyone the toll that could take. Her abandonment of me, the defining moment of my life, now took on a vaguely heroic cast. She’d left me so that she might save me.
The doctor told me, near the end of our session, that my mother had been her favorite patient, wry and self-deprecating , and seemed to get better as the 1970s wore on. My mother’s death had been mostly an accident, the result of an overdose of psychotropic drugs. I say mostly, for even a lightning bolt cannot find its way through the sky unless the air is just right. The doctor shared with me things I would rather not have known: the minutiae of autopsy reports, the familial (genetic and otherwise) forces that hadn’t, in the end, triumphed over my mother. Those forces had been like hot breath at my heels, lulling me to sleep, propelling me down dark alleys and blinding home goods stores. I had been sick, as sick as if I’d been shot through with cancer, but I hadn’t known it. Not really. If insanity runs in your family but you don’t know it, are you still insane? In my case, the answer was an unqualified yes. And no. I walked out of that meeting with a heart broken by a head too full of knowledge. I walked all the way downtown, past the park, past the buildings — Chrysler and Empire — down Sixth Avenue, past the other nameless, faceless, brokenhearted people with problems of their own, all of us survivors of something, of some sort. &
1. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines “delusion” as a false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (for example, it is not an article of religious faith). This makes sense to me, as I saw very few other single, nearly middle-aged men clutching towel hooks on the day in question.
2. I have used the word primary here, even though I have used it before with the express purpose of describing Jasper’s hierarchy of delusions. It may very well be the appropriate word choice to describe my father’s relationship with my mother, or it may be a Freudian slip. In either case, it is fitting.
3. One of my father’s favorite reminiscences involved one of his first dates with my mother. My mother had been raised in an Orthodox household and found her secular life with my father liberating. She told my dad of the myriad plates — one for dairy, one for meat, etc. — and explained her decision to leave Judaism thusly: “Too many damn dishes to wash.”