NOTE: A blog reader has informed me that I was too hard on Dr. Wisdom — that the post below is too personal and mocking. Maybe it is. And maybe I should have left Dr. W. out of the conversation entirely.
But if my email exchange with this anonymous retired psychiatrist should serve any purpose, it’s this: to inspire us all to conduct our dialogue about mental illness in a manner both frank and civil. And anyone who believes we shouldn’t be talking about such things in public? Let them just go on believing it. It won’t affect us. We won’t stop talking.
Not so long ago, I received quite the imperious email from a retired psychiatrist. This had never happened to me before, although I did get an absolutely vile one from a hand surgeon years ago, after I gave a positive review to Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” The guy told me he despised me. In those words. Swell. I vowed not to have any fingers reattached by him any time soon.
By comparison, the letter from the shrink wasn’t vile, only arrogant — the sort of arrogance that feigns patronizing concern for one’s well being, a la, “Tsk, tsk, young lady, you shouldn’t be conducting yourself that way!” This came in response to a Times Union reprint of a blog post of mine exhorting people to talk about mental illness. In it, I mentioned my husband’s and sister’s suicides and my father’s attempt, all of which I’d written about before.
I was flooded with responses from readers describing their own and loved ones’ struggles with depression, bipolar, suicidality, addiction. Not a one took issue with my premise — that we need to talk about this scourge if we’re to have any hope of combating it — until I got the email in question.
It’s a stunner. It starts out expressing sympathy, then identifies the writer as “a retired psychiatrist who understands this subject better than most people.”
Ahhh. Dr. Wisdom. Nice to meet you.
I’m tempted to quote the email in its entirety, because it’s breathtaking in its presumption, pretensions and limited view of the world. The gist of it’s this: that Dr. Wisdom thinks I shouldn’t be airing out my woes in public. Thinks no one should. Thinks Facebook revelations are “pathetic.” Thinks we’re all better off discussing such things in private, with our closest friends and family and “a skilled professional” — like, say, Dr. Wisdom.
“It is unnecessary to satisfy everyone’s prurient interest in the details of one’s life. What kind of reaction are we looking for when we beat our chests to the world about how we have ‘survived’ this or that trauma or hardship? Admiration? Pity?”
According to Dr. Wisdom, we should always to turn a stoic, shiny face to outsiders: “I, personally, wish to be seen and appreciated for my strengths and I am careful to keep aspects of my life experience that may be viewed by others with pity or contempt confined to my private sphere of relationships, if at all.”
That’s an interesting word: “strengths.” Because I’m not so sure I have any, aside from the strength that comes from realizing I’m broken. Aren’t we all weak? Don’t we all get punched sideways and pushed flat? Doesn’t a sane and happy life come from facing that? Isn’t that the paradox of being human?
The email continues:
“The best place to work out one’s issues is within oneself. Don’t look for the world at large to validate you. The world is and has always been, at best a callous and, at worst a cruel place, and, no matter how we may protest or struggle against this, it is unlikely to change.”
I have nothing against psychiatrists or other mental-health practitioners, by the way. I regard them as I do all specialists — i.e., as people to be visited on an as-needed basis, like orthopedists. But, like orthopedists, some are better than others.
After reading the email, I decided I felt sorry for Dr. Wisdom. What a miserable and lonely way to go through life, convinced that you can’t reveal yourself to anyone but those in an airtight inner circle. How confining that is. And how useless. What’s the point of living if we don’t connect with others? What’s the point of pain if we don’t acknowledge it, reach out with it, start new conversations, find new commonalities, make new friends — and maybe help out someone in the process?
Good can come from bad. But only if we talk about it. Only if we share ourselves with others.
I did zap a reply to Dr. Wisdom, noting that my husband’s death was a news story covered throughout the region. And Dr. Wisdom did apologize, but only because mine was a public loss; that made my decision to write about it acceptable. (“I was referring in my note to those who feel the need to be the ones to spread the news, which does not apply in your case.”)
I didn’t respond to this apology. It wasn’t worth it. Dr. Wisdom wasn’t worth it. But the whole exchange reminds me, once again, that we have a long way to go in discussing mental illness with compassion — and without judgment — in a manner that helps everyone, patients and families alike.
I’m going to put this bluntly: Anyone has the right to talk about anything that happens to them. When trauma hits you, whatever shape it takes, whether it happens in public or private, however uncomfortable it makes other people, you bloody well own it. You can deal with it however you need to deal with it. You can stuff it down. You can see a shrink. You can air it out. You can talk about it, write about it, sing songs about it, make art about it, push for change on it.
You can decide what to do with your own pain. It’s yours.