The Body of Mental Illness, part I


I have arrived at the certainty, in this dark winter of my old age, that all chronic mental illness is physical.

            In 1946, when I was born, Negroes had miserable lives in American society.  They were restricted to menial jobs, slum housing, substandard education and medical treatment, with the added possibility of getting lynched.  White society pissed on them because of a physical difference, so, not being stupid, they tried to look white.  Negroes straightened their hair, bleached their skin, and tried to pass for white.  They tried to change themselves so that society would treat them better.  Being black didn’t get them the good stuff.

            Decades later, homosexuals had miserable lives in American society.  They were ridiculed, harassed and beaten, and denied jobs and housing, not to mention friends.  Then one day some homosexual guy woke up and said, “Do you think we are gay because we like it?  Are you out of your flippin’ mind?  This doesn’t get us any of the good stuff.”  Being homosexual was who and what a person was.  “Coming out of the closet” was about accepting one’s own identity and understanding that it was the way you were born, not a lifestyle choice.  It was an inborn identity, the equivalent of skin pigmentation.

            One of the reasons I think mental illness is biological is because nobody would choose this lifestyle.  The way psychiatric patients are treated is so awful that anybody who can does choose to forego the pleasures of mental disorder.  If people knew how to escape psychiatric disorder, they would.  If they don’t escape, it is because it is inborn and they haven’t figured out how.

A nice old lady in her seventy’s—who had never had a psychiatric complaint in her life—was raped.  The powers that be sent her to CPEP, which is a particular corner of psychiatric hell in New York State.  It is the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, i.e., a psychiatric emergency room.  I’ve been there, and in my memory the dancing flames of hellfire light the place.  So this nice old lady was pretty upset about being raped and she went to CPEP.  When I met her months later, she snapped peevishly, “The next time I get an idea go to CPEP, I’m going to get drunk instead.”

            Getting drunk is less offensive—and probably just as effective—as receiving psychiatric treatment.  Psychiatric treatment provides such a powerful aversive incentive to change behavior that anybody who knows how, does choose to change.  Those who don’t change don’t change because the disorder is in the body, and they don’t know how to change it.  And American medicine isn’t doing much to help.

            Mental illness is physical in origin.

            When a two-year-old pitches a fit and throws himself on the floor, kicking and screaming, we don’t inject him with tranquilizers and put him in four-point restraint.  We yell, “Hey, hon, you wanna give your son a peanut butter sandwich?”  Intuitively, without benefit of medical training, we recognize that the kid’s acting up because he’s hungry, i.e., his blood sugar is low.

            I have low blood sugar.  We call it hypoglycemia.  When I get hypoglycemic, I get irritable and confused.  I snap at my aide when she wants me to decide whether to put oregano in the cacciatore.  Before I realized that I had low blood sugar, I’d get irritable in the hospital—they called it being nasty—and the psych staff would dose me up with tranquilizers.  All that did was lower my voice, not my irritability quotient.  (Which is what the psych staff wanted.  They care less about the mental health of their patients and more about running a quiet unit.  The staff doesn’t like to be upset.  My philosophy is “Medicate the staff first.”)

            When a three-year-old starts to whine and cry, we don’t send her for psychotherapy and tranquilizers.  We say, “Mom, can you hold the phone a sec?  I’ve got to put the kid down for a nap.”  Fatigue causes emotional outbursts.  (To be continued)

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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One Response to The Body of Mental Illness, part I

  1. Submit Form says:

    last few days our class held a similar discussion about this subject and you illustrate something we haven’t covered yet, thanks.

    – Laura

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