By: Woodrow Odom Lucas
Tonight, I watched the movie “Misery” on HBO. “Misery” is a 1990 American psychological horror film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. In the movie, Kathy Bates plays a mentally imbalanced woman who is obsessed with author James Caan who as a consequence of her obsession torments Caan throughout the movie, until Caan finally kills her in self-defense. The movie was one of the best that I have seen and was riveting from beginning to end. However, it also created mixed emotions within me. As I was watching the movie, mesmerized by Bates’ nefarious pathology, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this woman is the caricature that dominates the public view of mental illness?”
I am not sure, but it sometimes seems to me like individuals living with severe and persistent mental illness are often viewed either as hapless victims to be rescued or menacing monsters to be contained; when the reality is much more heterogeneous and varied than those extreme stereotypes. I could be overstating my perception, but it seems like I often here people throwing out DSM diagnoses like they are judgments, insults, or general states of being. Like I often hear people say, “Oh he’s such a narcissist!!” or “Stop being so OCD” or “I am so depressed by what’s going on in the NBA Finals.” I think the danger in phrases like these is that they completely ignore the reality that there are real people who are suffering in real suffering as a consequence of these ailments, and that this suffering can be extremely painful to endure. Like I rarely hear anyone say, “Oh he so has Prostate Cancer!” or “Girl, I am so full of breast cancer over what happened today!!” People do not casually throw around physical diagnoses because they realize that these diagnoses are difficult to deal with and very serious. Illnesses like Cancer, Diabetes, even Aids evoke compassion and empathy. But illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar often evoke fear and ridicule.
As a person who is overcoming severe and persistent mental illness, I have often dreamed of having a “real illness” which I could face with heroism instead of stigma. I have often imagined myself surrounded by family and friends on my hospital bed, smiling as I looked forward into the heaven that awaited me. Not begging God night after night to abate my symptoms so that I can perform in excellence on my job. Or carrying extra Ativan around with myself in case I have an “episode” while taking care of my kids. Although I know that I am a hero for overcoming the things that I have overcome. And although I know that I am a saint for enduring with hope the things that I have endured. I believe it would be much easier to just be diagnosed with something “real” that others could understand, than the mystery that is severe and persistent mental illness.
There is no scientific cure for severe and persistent mental illness; and as a consequence hopelessness is often instilled into people who suffer with this malady by the very practitioners who are supposed to be healing them. I thank God every day that when I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder I had belief in a higher power that was beyond science’s reach. Similarly, you are often viewed as insane if you mention the words “demon” or “spiritual imbalance” to a psychiatrist. Yet the very communities like Pentacostals or New Agers who have the faith to bring about healing are often totally against the use of psychotropic meds. I have even heard someone who I highly respect tell me that she thought mental illness was “a deception of the devil.” The ignorance, myopia, judgment, and immaturity that plagues the public and mental health practitioners concerning mental illness, forces me to view severe and persistent mental illness as a mystery that we have yet to solve. In honesty, I do not have the patience to wait for this society to obtain the love, compassion, empathy, understanding, faith, hope, and generosity necessary to solve the overall problem of mental illness. Case in point, I see very few ribbons on people’s cars or fund raising initiatives to cure “mental illness.” As a consequence, I am quite satisfied with obtaining my own healing with the faith and grace that God has given me, and then seeing what I can offer others. Because if I wait for stigma and ignorance concerning this malady to disappear, I think that I will be waiting a long time.