Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thinking about making stuff

Lately, I've been drawing with a ballpoint pen. I'd rather forgotten how expressive a tool this everyday pen is. They're everywhere, but the only thing I've done with an ordinary ballpoint pen for who-knows-how-long is fill out forms, write checks, and scribble grocery lists (and for many people, all these things are now done by computer or on PDAs).

When I was still in school, I used to doodle with a ballpoint pen in class. I'd forgotten one little flaw that even the best ballpoint pens have - they sometimes leave an unwanted blob of ink on the page.

I've got a bunch of drawings with blobs and smears on them. At first I thought I should rethink how infatuated with this ubiquitous pen I'd become. Then, I decided I liked the mark of this inherently fallible tool. I wondered if any of the computer drawing programs had some sort of filter that automatically puts smears and blobs on one's artwork. If so, they should, or perhaps not, for this is what makes human art so wonderful.

I have always been a bit mystified by photo-realistic art. What's the point, besides the craftsmanship? If one wants a photographic image, it seems to me that a camera is the best tool.

I don't understand the allure of photo-realistic portraiture in particular. The ability that a human being has to be able to capture the essence of another human being with the few lines and/or little detail is much more remarkable. What is it that one sees or senses when one does this? Frankly, even though I've done many portraits in my life, and been quite sparing in detail, I have never really known what it is that I'm "getting" that makes them work. I know it when I feel it. Others can see it. Yes, it looks like Jane or Joe or Johnny, but with that little detail, why or how can it?

I do not think a computer can do this, nor can a camera. That is one reason I like it.

When computers (and other technology) can outpace us in so many things, we need to turn to that which makes us human. Our fallibility is indeed one of these things. The blob from the pen, or the imperfect line that I render, no matter how precisely I draw, that is what shows my humanity.

I've noticed that I get the most compliments on the handknit sweaters I wear that are the least well knit, or are knit with the lowliest yarns. They say "hand made," and I think that feels as comforting as the smell of home baked apple pie.

Years ago, I saw a sci-fi movie where some folks were tattooed by laser. That day will come, and it will be a shame. Besides the human contact aspect of being tattooed, a tattoo is never perfect, and it challenges the wearer to live with its imperfection. It's a reminder, though perhaps not articulated or felt, to live with our own imperfections.

As I've been writing nearly feverishly about psychiatric topics in the last few days, I'll end this post with more about that. In 1999, Peter Kramer wrote, " Since you live only once, why not do it as a blond? Why not as a peppy blond? . . . whatever the consensus, it is psychiatrists. . . who will be considered best qualified to modify cognition and personality in useful, attractive ways."

This may seem a bit of stretch from topic to topic, but I think it is not far off. Striving to be "perfect" human beings is striving to be not human. Additionally, who decides what the model of perfection is?

In recent years we have been told that studies show we favor symmetry in facial features. Well, I do not (see Silly Things for proof). Are folks like me who find Adrien Brody attractive abnormal and in need of fixing?

I'd rather not be a perky blonde. I generally do not find perky blondes to be all that interesting. I like chipped hand painted old furniture, handmade clothes, and home cooked meals. All these things are imperfect, and absolutely perfect in their imperfection, just like human beings.

Image note: The ratty sweater made from cheap (but 100% wool) yarn that everyone loves (including me).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sick (and poor) in America

Picture yourself in this situation:

You are strapped to a gurney and rolled into a locked hospital ward. You may be left in a room without any human contact for up to 12 hours. No matter what your life history is, you are suspected of being a drug addict or alcoholic, and must be tested for evidence of this and HIV. You are not examined or tested for any other illnesses, so if you are actually sick and it is not plainly obvious, you will not be treated. Even if you are sick, unless you are in a immediate life threatening situation, treatment of your condition will be postponed.

A person comes into the room. If you are wearing street clothes, you are asked to remove them, and given hospital clothes to wear. Most of the time these are made of blue paper. If you have a belt, shoes with laces, earrings, or anything that is considered dangerous to yourself or others, it is taken away from you and locked up. If you have any personal care items that contain alcohol (which means just about anything) on your person, those are taken away. You are not allowed a shaving razor, a comb, nail clippers, nail files, or a blow dryer (it has a potentially lethal cord). Toothbrushes that are electric, battery operated, or just plain hard are considered "contraband."

You may be observed for up to three days without access to any books, magazines, papers, pencils, pen, or contact with the outside world. You must sign away your normal rights in order to receive medical care.

You, wearing the above "safe" clothing, and probably not as well groomed as the average person, meet with a doctor, a nurse, and possibly other adjunct professionals who are all wearing whatever they want. They sit behind computer screens and desks in large comfortable armchairs. You are given a small armless chair that faces them and asked to give an accounting of your entire life history in the shortest time span possible.

You are given a diet of overprocessed foods, high in fat and sugar. No food from the outside world is allowed to be brought to you, for it is considered "contraband."

You will be forced to attend meetings that have nothing to do with your condition. If you claim you do not have a condition that is being discussed, you are told you are in denial. Conversely, if you want treatment, or want to talk to someone about anything that you consider a problem, and you are not a danger to yourself or others, you will be given nothing to do and no one to talk to.

If you find this situation distressing, you are given a pill to make you more comfortable. However, if you ask for said pill, you will not receive medication. Those who are detoxing from drugs are given substitute drugs that are more expensive and more physically dangerous than the ones they were originally on. If you say you do not want to take them, they may be administered to you against your will at the discretion of a doctor. If you do not have a drug history, drugs are suggested, and if you do not take them, you are told you are resisting treatment.

As you probably suspected from the beginning, this is what goes on in an average psychiatric ward in an American hospital. I could go on, but I suspect you have heard enough to wonder if this possibly could be therapeutic.

Generally speaking, the only therapeutic value in going through this Kafka-esque experience is discovering one's inner strength. People who are in dangerous life situations may be helped to find places where they can live when they leave the hospital. People who are on drugs or are alcoholic are in a fairly safe place to detox, though certainly the experience is pretty dehumanizing. People who are able to socialize will find solace and help by talking to others, but it's a sad state of affairs that one has to go to a psych ward to experience community. In spite of all the attempts to de-stigmatize "mental health problems," we still are told to be ashamed if we are struggling, sad, angry, or self-medicating ourselves. There is only one option for help in most communities, and that is the 12-step program.

Of course, for those with good financial resources, there are better solutions. There are many healthier options, but these are not covered by insurance. A good example would be the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health: There you can do yoga (of course), eat healthy food, and engage in a myriad of life affirming and positive activities, listen to music, dance, laugh, and even cry. If you cry, you might get a hug. Hugs are not allowed in psychiatric wards.

Photo note: © Jarek Tuszynski
I feel like I'm stating more of the obvious here, but. . .liability issues prevent the majority of psychiatric wards from allowing patients (or "clients") to engage in exercise or be in the outdoors, both of which are proven to be better mood elevators than any medication.

PTSD (stating the obvious)

If one suffers for more than six weeks after being subjected to a traumatic event, this is considered a disorder. Who decided this?

What I'd like to propose is that the real disorder is being able to torture, kill, witness torture and killing, and not be scarred by it.

In our society, survivors are sick, while the perpetrator is not (unless they are bothered by feelings of guilt, shame, or distress lasting more than six weeks).

Image note: I was tempted to post a truly horrific photograph of war casualties. I do not wish to traumatize you. Instead, this is a 1555 woodcut entitled "The Water Torture." Need I say more?

I'm done

I've beat around the proverbial bush for years on this blog. More precisely, I've hidden behind a bush, a bush called "shame." Here's what I haven't said, and am saying now: I am a person who has been "diagnosed" with a number of so-called psychiatric "illnesses." Here they are in all their glory: Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder Type II, Major Depressive Disorder with Psychotic Affect, Dissociative Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I'm probably leaving something out.

On top of these diagnoses, it has been suggested to me that I have Attention Deficit Disorder.
Me? I can spend an entire day paying attention without wavering. Oh, but wait! That proves I am overcompensating for a problem with attention. My deficit has created a need to be involved with things that require attention to detail such as tattooing and lace making.

This reminds me of when I was in the 7th grade and my English teacher thought I was mentally retarded because I was reading books that she could not understand. I "obviously" could not tell the difference between an easy and a hard book. I was forced to take a standardized test, and well, the results were that I had a reading comprehension of a college graduate. So much for the label of mental retardation (which is now called Intellectual and Developmental Disability).

It has also been suggested that I have Asperger's Syndrome because of my past history of reading said "hard books," especially when they were technical or scientific (because surely no one who doesn't specialize in such areas would read said books), and because I have had social difficulties and the aforementioned interest in detail oriented activities.

I had written previously about the idea of having Gravitational Insecurity.

Perhaps I do not have anything.

Perhaps I am simply a human being, who, like all human beings, has some problems and flaws. Perhaps I have a few more of these than the "average" American. Perhaps I do not, and am simply sensitive. I've certainly been accused of being over-sensitive. Then again, I've also been accused of being under-sensitive "for a woman", because I'm not fond of those long hand wringing conversations that girlfriends seem to like to engage in, and because I have strong opinions that I express freely. These factors have also contributed to the possibility that I have Asperberger's Syndrome, because my propensity for speaking up even though I am soft-spoken "proves" that I have a deficit in social skills (again, only because I am a woman - men can have voice strong opinions freely).

Not socializing "properly" means one must have something.

Perhaps being brought up by artists, and being trained to be an artist may have more to do with my not fitting into this society than any diagnosis I can think of. The fact that I have not negotiated being a financially successful artist is not proof positive that I am so very, very sick, is it?

Some of the worst artists I know have been the most successful. The reason for this is that they were primarily entrepreneurs. In a society that knows little about art, this makes sense. Tell folks you have a good product, and they will believe you.

I was not trained to be a business person. I was brought up by people who made art, read philosophy, and didn't fit into society neatly themselves. I watched them suffer, and learned suffering is the plight of the artist in society. This has pretty much always been true in Western culture.

Then I (and the rest of the world) read Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac (now renamed Listening To Prozac: The Landmark Book about the Remaking of the Self),and started to question this notion. Thank you very much, Mr. Kramer, for leading me down the path to true misery. 

I was much better off when I thought suffering was not optional.
Buddhism tells us that life is indeed suffering, and that we have the tools to transcend our suffering. This doesn't mean that we will not suffer some. In our can't-stand-it society, where we believe that everything can be fixed, that happiness is our right, and success is possible for everyone if they just work at it (since we were all born "equal"), what explanation is offered to those who can't compete fast and hard, and with enthusiasm? The answer: We are sick. 
I reject this. Sure, I've been brainwashed enough to have trouble with the idea, and I have preferred to think I have some syndrome or disease that explains the problems I've had in this lifetime. But, in the end, all these so-called diagnoses have served to only tell me this: that I'm a disabled, disempowered failure in my capitalist society. I'm done.

If you think I sound manic or crazy, that is your right. This kind of crazy is fine with me, and does you no harm, except to perhaps challenge your belief that you too are a sick person in need of fixing in order to assimilate into the dominant culture. 

Big Important Addendum: I know that some people reading this will be offended, for having a diagnosis is a way of understanding the troubles one has in one's life. It also helps to have a support network of other people with the same diagnosis to relate to and discuss strategies for coping. In truth, I do not doubt that there are indeed legitimate diagnoses. I believe there is plenty of scientific proof that autism and schizophrenia are legitimate illnesses. As to the rest of them, I have my doubts, but I am not a scientist, as I have already pointed out, and I do not claim any special knowledge except this: I am my own best expert on my self.  So, I do respect your own assessment of your self, and whatever works for you is fine with me. My caveat is this: Is your assessment empowering or disempowering? Please think about it.
". . .capitalism is much better at creating need than satisfaction. . .when that gap opens up between what you long for and what you can have. . .when you reproach yourself for your failure to be clever or strong or smart enough to reap the bounty. . .when your disappointment and demoralization seem unbearable. . .the drugs may well give you comfort. Perhaps if the story about the drugs were told this way. . .[people] would use their new-found energy and confidence in. . .social reform." -Gary Greenberg in Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Positive Anger

In an attempt to socialize everyone into an insane society, we must label children who are angry with an imaginary disease. It's called Oppositional Defiant Disorder:
"A type of disruptive behavior disorder characterized by repeated defiance, hostility, disobedience and negative behavior towards people in authority."
I've met plenty of kids who have this diagnosis. Not one of them was lacking in reasons to be angry.

Unfortunately, there are not enough positively angry adults who are advocating for these kids. There are not enough adults with the courage to say to them, "I hear you. I understand why you are angry."

These kids will grow up to be drug addicts, criminals, or chronically "mentally ill." A few of them will survive and assimilate well into the system that tells them they are wrong, flawed, and sick.

Unfortunately, most adults who've been angry youth have not survived to give kids hope because we ourselves have succumbed to the myths.

I struggled with my own demoralization, which I used to call depression. I decided to trade it in for what I'm calling Positve Anger.

If you've been told you have these so-called diseases. . .
bipolar disorder
borderline personality disorder
anxiety disorder
post-traumatic stress disorder
. . .ad nauseum. . .

Consider instead that you may simply have dis-ease. It may be painful. It may be horribly painful. Perhaps you feel like numbing your problems away with drugs, alcohol, or are hoping against hope that the doc will find the right drug to fix you.

Consider instead that your dis-ease is okay. Pain is nature's way of telling us that something is wrong. Some of us, perhaps, feel pain more acutely than others, but once upon a time, people who suffered more than others were. . .
. . .amongst other things. We had a place in society. We told young people like us that it was okay to be oneself.

Image note: I can not explain it.

Feel your pain

A life without pain is called this:

Feel your pain. Don't run from it. We are taught that pain is bad. It is not. It is a sensation. Sometimes pain is very useful. It tells us that something is wrong. If we do everything we can to get rid of the pain without addressing the reasons why we are feeling it, it's a losing battle.

Maybe you have an injury, an illness, or maybe you're just getting old and wearing down. Pain is telling you that perhaps you need to
Slow Down
Breath deeply
Talk about it
Make art
Make music
Be loved
Love others
Feel anger
Go ahead and add to the list. You probably know what you need. Please re-consider if "get wasted," "find the right prescription drug," or "end my life" is on your list.

Maybe you're demoralized because you can't do things you once did. Feeling grief or sadness because of loss is natural.

Maybe you're scared, upset, or demoralized because you can't make a decent living or any living at all because of your pain. This is certainly upsetting, but the depression part of it is caused by the lie that a life is measured by one's economic usefulness. Living in poverty is neither fun nor easy, but living in a stupor created by self-medicating is not helpful.

Life without pain is a fairy tale. The drug companies, drug dealers, and alcohol manufacturers would love it if you just can't stand it.
I am in a lot of physical pain right now. I woke up, ate a healthy breakfast, did some yoga, spent some time reading, did some drawing, and am now writing. I am not contributing to the economy. Should I be ashamed? Some people would say so. I disrespectfully disagree.