Sunday, April 21, 2013

We're all capable of the unthinkable

In 2004, when my brain decided to start acting out on its own without consulting me, I was gripped by fear.  I had been under the false belief that I control myself, but there is nothing like having a nervous breakdown to show a person what's really real.  I could no longer control the thoughts that ran through my mind, and within short order I couldn't control many of my body's physical components---tears, sleep, the ability to eat.

When I would see a plastic bag and envision N with it around her neck suffocating, I thought it meant I wanted this to happen to her.  When I held a knife to cut an apple and envisioned stabbing N with it, fear paralyzed me.  I knew without a doubt I was going crazy.  I had other even more unsavory visions that I do not discuss publicly because they are so upsetting (for anyone who thinks I truly do express every single thought I ever have, I do have some restraint).

The adage is somewhat true that if you think you're crazy, you probably aren't.  These horrible visions were my worst possible fears running amuck within my mind, and I wasn't able to shut them down.  I wasn't able to recognize them as worst fears and realize that a thought is just a thought, however horrible and disgusting.  I can have whatever awful terrible thoughts I want (or my brain wants), but acting on them is the problem.

The ultimate effect of all this, which was terrible as I was going through it, was a profound sense of freedom and compassion.  It was freeing to know that my mind can sorta do what it wants, regardless of what I think it should do.  I also developed a greater sense of compassion for people who are mentally ill, whether they are fortunate enough to recognize their mental illness and seek treatment or whether they do not even realize the full extent of their illness and disability.

People do the unthinkable, like the Boston bombing suspect or women who kill their babies or  men who sexually abuse children.  We fear for our safety or the safety of our families, but we also fear for ourselves because we are all capable of such acts.  We defend ourselves against the unthinkable by believing if people are neighborly or live in certain neighborhoods or look a certain way or whatever they are not the kind of people who could do such things.  But they are, and we are.

All of us likely fall somewhere on the DSM, but as my therapist told me, "A disorder isn't a disorder until it disorders your life."  Or in many cases until it disorders someone else's life when a person acts on a thought or belief that to them seems normal but to others is "sick."

As a mother, I have many fears for my children but perhaps the two worst are that 1.) they will take their own lives and 2.) that they will have take the lives of others.  I look at my G, who is very much like me in terms of personality (obsessive and highly sensitive) and I worry that he will end up like me, only worse; that he will have a mental disorder that cannot be easily managed with some antidepressants and therapy.  But the truth is that any of my kids could go off the deep end. My husband could.  I could.

I do not believe that people who go off the deep end do not give warning signs.  I think people around them either don't recognize the signs or cannot believe that their loved one is capable of the unthinkable.  When I was diagnosed with OCD and GAD, it made so many feelings and behaviors from my childhood clear to me.  I don't know if my mother ever had the thought that something was "mentally wrong" with her daughter, but I do know she chalked it up to "that's just Carrie" and thought it was odd or excessive or not the norm.  Had I done something unthinkable, I don't think my mother, in her heart, could have ignored all the signs that something was amiss, even if she wouldn't ever publicly admit it.

Love is blinding.  Love makes us want to see the beauty and purity in our loved ones.  And maybe there is simply something wrong (or more wrong) with me because I seem to have a knack for seeing the unpleasant and wondering where it might go off-the-chain wrong.  Or maybe I just dislike hiding behind pleasantries.  I think it is important to talk about the things that others find taboo or unpleasant or embarrassing.  Maybe we could understand more if we were more willing to speak the truth than to hide behind "I don't understand how or why it happened?"  We think that if we saw it coming, if we saw signs, we could have stopped it, and I just don't know if that is really possible.  But our fear of seeming culpable makes us gloss things over.

There is danger in knowing everyone is capable of the unthinkable.  Capable does not mean everyone will act on that capability.  I remember one student I had my first year of teaching who was, without a doubt, royally messed up.  He was, in my mind, a walking time bomb, and he scared me.  My relief was palpable when he was sent to a different school.  As far as I know, this kid has never done anything that made the papers.  He wasn't the former student of mine who killed himself in a local McDonald's after threatening his girlfriend with the gun he then used on himself.  He was disturbed, but not disturbed enough?

As sad as I feel for the people who are killed by unthinkable acts and their families, I can't help but feel a sense of compassion for those who commit the acts and their families who try desperately to make sense of it all.  The innocent are mourned and glorified, even though in life they were as imperfect as the rest of us.  The guilty are condemned and demonized, even though in life they were probably less horrible than their horrible actions would suggest.

There is no peace and tranquility regardless of which side of the unthinkable you are.

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