Reflection on Mental Illness
In my late teenage years, there was a time that I wanted to become insane. Riddled with so much frustration and anger, taking my life was never an option. Instead, I wanted to escape by means of psychological breakdown and live a life with mental disorder. Despite contemplating such idea, it had made me ask more about those who have become insane. What happens to people who totally gave up on living a logical life that we know? Vagrants with mental illness walk around in cities, nowhere to go. They are either naked or wearing tattered clothes, appearing dirty and greasy. They only survive by scavenging food from garbage heaps. I wondered about their stories and what made them that way. If by any chance I would become like them, how could I thrive? Would there be anyone to care, even just to ask my story?
I am no stranger to individuals with mental health problems. My aunt is among them, and she had one since she was a teenager. I even befriended one when I was a kid. I saw their kind wandering on streets, ranting to no one, collecting trinkets and trashes along the way. I encountered someone locked in a small jail-like room. I talked to them when I visited a mental facility. Most nurses I met told their stories when they were interns interviewing psychiatric patients. I am curious of what made them mad, and what kind of state of mind they have. What do they feel? How do they survive? What makes them continue to live? I sound a bit crazier asking these questions, but I am not alone in encountering them. We all have once met someone – a relative, a patient or a vagrant – who now lives a strange world out of their minds.
We can end up fools, but Loving makes us the wisest – out of our minds.
Spirituality or Insanity?
My friend and mentor quoted a thought-provoking statement. She said there is a very thin line that separates spirituality and insanity. There are actual stories from friends and acquaintances who are into spirituality. Their families, friends and co-workers thought that they are strange, weird, odd and outrageous. They speak about concepts not known in the mainstream, believe in things that appear so superstitious and backward to others who misunderstand. They do things labeled as pagan, blasphemous, or simply unacceptable to the usual culture they grew up into. They seem to be, in simple words, out of their minds, like those we often judge as crazy, mad, lunatic and insane.
I think that thin line is somewhat a demarcation of perception. Their own opinion tells them that they are spiritual. but for others who surround them, they are completely nuts. For others, spiritual pursuit usually puts down the value of getting more money, power and fame, and it is all utter foolishness. For the spiritual, anything in the outside world is not of value, because there are things more valuable: inner peace, joy and Love. They cannot be measured or exchanged by outside forces. This contrasting sides of perception is a battle between what is real and true sanity.
A a young boy, I have started asking big questions about my life and whatever out there that I see and don’t see. I still ask the following questions: Are we exactly out of our minds if we rebel against and deviate from the ways of the world ? Are we crazier than the rest of our friends who now live lifestyles expected of an average, career-oriented, success-driven person? Are we too preoccupied and perturbed by these spiritual and existential thoughts? Are we paralyzed by our pursuits of the intangible and the unknown? These questions are byproducts of internal dilemma of most people I have met along this path, as we have become co-journeyers. In their presence, I become more confidence in asking these questions more than seeking for answers.
Insight from Dementia
In some of my writing projects few years back, I wrote topics about dementia, which mostly inflict older people (but not always). Dementia is a group of mental illnesses with similar symptoms of unknown cause. Patients lose their memories, cognitive abilities and sound mental functions. While it is not contagious, it has been considered a silent epidemic, and the numbers of patients have been ballooning since the discovery of its most notorious type – Alzheimer’s disease. Unless someone in your family has one, it is difficult to imagine how challenging it can be for families with loved ones suffering from dementia (try to watch Ken Watanabe’s Memories of Tomorrow and see for yourself). In the course of learning this illness, I was struck by the origin of the word. Dementia is Latin for “out of one’s mind”. What could be its insightful message?
In the Buddhist worldview, you must get out of your mind and paradoxically become mindful of what is real that your mind does not define. Christ, who was once perceived by others as a mad king in a mad world, said that he was “in this world, but not of this world.” Perhaps this epidemic of mental health problems calls us to return to a state where our minds no longer define us and dictate our lives. That perhaps explains why Love is literally an out-of-mind experience, for it teaches us to be in this world while not succumbed by its madness. Perhaps this is why in a world with fear and hatred, Love ignites us courage and compassion. We are all set to remain sane in this mad world until we become insane to it in the moment we awaken and realize the nature of Love, like the story of the well of madness in Paulo Coehlo’s Veronika Decides to Die. Love could be our lifetime learning. We can end up fools, but Loving makes us the wisest – out of our minds.