Monday, May 26, 2008

more than the sum of our parts

It's almost halfway between Mother's Day and Father's Day, and instead of reflecting on lives lost to war today (although Andy Rooney did an exceptional Memorial Day commentary on 60 Minutes last night, saying what too few are willing to say on days like today), I am thinking about parents and how they shape us.

To lay all of who we are on our parents (or whoever raised us) is too much, too easy, too simple. But there's no denying that I am who I am today because of my parents. I am who I am today because I have a mother with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar in her case), and because my father does not. I am who I am because they are who they are. And there is all this politics of saying that someone has a mental illness rather than that they are mentally ill. It is just a part of who they are, not all of it, stress advocacy groups.

Yes and no.

My mother was not diagnosed until I was 14. I'd always known there was something not right with her, and I always thought that once I knew what that something was, all my questions would be answered, somebody could fix it, and then I would get to have my real mom.

But my "real" mom is no more real or unreal than the "real world" postcollege. Socrates' postulation that "the more you know, the more there is to know" seems to be a recurring theme in my life. Sure, having a name (a label, a category) for some of her behavior was helpful. But for all the advances science and medicine have made, how little we know about the mind. Names and labels make things easier to talk about; they give you a handle, but the pot's still empty.

For all the categories, symptoms, and theories that I've learned about since my mother's diagnosis, all that I've really learned is that you cannot separate a mental illness from who someone is. Sure, the delusions and paranoia are symptoms. But what about my mother's propensity to talk anyone and everyone's ear off? Her messiness? The way she exaggerates everything? When is it a symptom and when is it just the way someone is? I don't remember where I read this, but somewhere I was reminded that mental health is a spectrum, not a definitive state such as being pregnant or having the chicken pox.

What about other lifelong or seriously life-threatening illnesses? Don't those affect people in similar ways? One of my college friends had cancer when she was in junior high. Fortunately, the cancer is no longer in her body, and she lives her life like any other 20-something-year-old, but I don't think being a cancer survivor will ever not be a part of who she is. And it's hard not to want to separate when it's a mental illness. I wanted so much to believe that my mother said mean things to me because she was ill, not because she was mean or hated or me or truly regretted having me. If my mother didn't have whatever this was, she would be constant, loving, stable. I truly believed medicine could flip the switch.

So maybe this is why I have trouble seeing anything as black and white. All my life, everything has been a gray area, everything has been a spectrum, everything is shaded with meaning I can't begin to understand. I love words and writing, but I am constantly frustrated by all of its limitations. I love to analyze, but if all the analysis in the world can't answer our questions, what good is it? What good is any of it?

One of my favorite quotations comes from Nancy Andreasen, who has studied the brain and mental illnesses for years. In one of her books, Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome, she wrote:

"The more we analyze, the more we feel we understand. The more we analyze, the more we feel we can control. We forget that megabytes and millimeters and millennia have no intrinsic meaning and are merely human inventions. By trying too hard to understand everything, we may understand nothing. We analyze so much and so well that we may also destroy the vital essence and meaning of things by breaking them into pieces."

Reading that, I realized that I had been going everything wrong. While I understand trying to destigmatize mental illness by saying that it is a disease that someone has, just like cancer or diabetes. It's not that that isn't true. Yet to simplify it in that matter fails to do justice to any true attempts to understand it. My mother's mental illness is no less a part of her (and no less a part of me) than an arm, a lung, a vertebra. The only real way to destigmatize mental illness is by talking about it, by being open. It is not by sugarcoating it, by using terms and labels and breaking it down. It requires being honest, being human, and realizing that we are all more than just the sum of our parts.

I make no claims to having achieved such grand enlightenment, but I am trying.

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