03 January 2009

Why Intermittently Rational?

Why Intermittently Rational?

I’m a philosophy student and I’m bipolar. I found out about the latter in the middle of being the former. I had been through three and a half semesters and nearly completed my major when I lost my mind. I had to drop out of school, I had to navigate the state mental health care system, I had to go to the hospital and I had to face the fact that something was seriously wrong with me: that something was wrong with my mind.

In those semesters studying philosophy I had learned about the school of thought that underpins our democratic governments and our theories of rights. Much of what we see as innate and intransigent about the world was born in the Enlightenment Era, the Age of Reason. We have our rights because we are possessed of reason. We can be citizens and are fit to elect our government because we are possessed of reason. We are human because we are possessed of reason. We can write geometrical proofs of God’s existence because we are human and we are reason.

So what happens when someone loses her reason and then gets it back? What happens if she has a chronic disorder that means she will someday lose her reason again? What happens if you can identify someone who will always be only intermittently rational?

We don’t make too much use of this in our political system unless there’s a crime involved. We’ve all heard of people being incompetent to stand trial by reason of insanity, a designation that has a very specific meaning in jurisprudence. But what does it mean to be insane and not criminal; what does it mean to be insane in ordinary life? There is no formal response but there is much confusion and fear and loathing. There is so much conflict about how to treat those with mental illness, either medically or socially. How dangerous are they? Are they lepers or just sissies? Is it okay to exclude them from schools and universities? Is it okay to give them health insurance? When they’re in the hospital, should you call or just assume that they’re as embarrassed as you are and won’t want to talk? Are they immoral? What did they or their parents do that they are that way? Why don’t they pull themselves out of it? Have they tried fish oil? Vitamins? Aromatherapy? Aren’t anti-depressants for the weak and hysterical? Is she going to come into the office one day and kill us all?

And then there’s me, asking myself all the same questions: wondering whether I would be giving in if I took medication, thinking that I was weak for being unable to carry on. Into every life a little rain must fall, and so on. Things will be better tomorrow. If I would just face up to my responsibilities I wouldn’t have all these problems. If this isn’t my fault and it’s never going to go away, how am I ever going to keep a job? What if I become homeless? What if I don’t need this medication and all its fun fun side effects? Maybe I could just take St. John’s wort instead.

What if I’m faking?

If you have the misfortune to be a philosophy student the wondering will not stop there. It will spread, invading all corners of your life. The Declaration of Independence will never sound the same.

I’ve become hyper-aware, during the past two years, of the dialectic of madness in predominantly English-speaking societies. My neck prickles at every passing mention of someone being crazy, at every prescription drug ad, and all the news stories about mentally ill graduate students and their firearms. It seems to me that we are all dead set on hiding mental illness and pretending it doesn’t exist while denouncing anything we don’t agree with as crazy. What are we talking about? Who are we talking to? Where is all the madness in its raging glory and suffering viscera?

What does it mean to be intermittently rational? I did get to vote for Barak Obama, so my political concerns are not at the forefront although I did glance up at the psych ward in the local hospital on November 4 and wondered whether they got to vote. I can’t buy firearms but I never wanted to in the first place. I want to spend my life writing about social and political philosophy: am I allowed to do this, considering its origins?

Let’s find out.

All right, gentle readers, bring it on. I want all your words for crazy. Give me the words, give me the context if you can, tell why you like them and hate them and love them. Tell me what you call yourself and what you call your relatives behind their backs. Let’s see what’s out there.

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