the rule of swedish farmers

“Just be human.”

I love this. It’s my new motto. I want to to put it on a bumper sticker. I want to go viral with it. I want to found a church on it. I want to become obsessed with it, shout it from the rooftops, have dreams about it and mutter it while sleepwalking through the streets of Albany.

A Swedish farmer said it twice in “Healing Homes,” Daniel Mackler’s documentary look at an alternative program in Gothenburg, Sweden, for people with psychosis. It played in Boston over the weekend, and this one line flattened and wowed me.

The folks being treated in this program haven’t responded to traditional methods. In it, they receive intensive psychotherapy (no drugs) and live on farms with compassionate Swedish host families. And guess what. They do better.

Which makes sense. Most of us, no matter the cause and severity of our distress, would do better on farms with compassionate Swedish host families. (Sometimes I think I could use a few saintly Swedes my life.) And all of us always do better heeding their urgent, plainspoken, breathtaking directive: Just be human. Just be present to others. Just love.

I’ve been dwelling on this since coming home from Beantown and Mad In America’s International Film Festival, which unspooled oodles of movies documenting the travails and triumphs of people inside and outside the boundaries of traditional, meds-driven psychiatry. The problems addressed and alternatives floated during the weekend were many, and complicated, and often profoundly hopeful, and I can’t go into all of them now. (If you’re interested, click away at

But the take-away was easy enough — as easy as anything can be when we talk about people in the grip of depression, psychosis and other calamitous ruptures of mental health and happiness. Two basic, powerful lessons emerged. The first, described above, is the Rule of Swedish Farmers. The second is related: Everyone, no matter where anyone’s mind sits on the spectrum of normal to abnormal, ordered to disordered, can benefit from telling their story. Because only in the telling can any of us turn trauma into narrative. Only in the telling can we claim and overcome what brings us pain. Only in the telling can we confide our pain to others and, in that single, simple, astonishing act of trust, be human together.

How viciously hard life can be — for all of us. Thank God we don’t all get clocked with death and disease and disaster simultaneously, because then there’d be no one around to carry us when it’s our turn to limp in pain. I speak as one who was borne by others during the months after my husband’s death. More people were human to me than I can ever thank, or count, and all I can do is pray that I’ll do the same for someone else who needs a lift. Even Jesus needed help with the cross, right? What if Simon of Cyrene had refused? (“Sorry, Lord. My sciatica flared up last night, and I have a corn on my toe.”)

But he didn’t. He was human to the man who was human to everyone. So sometimes we’re the ones in pain, and sometimes we aren’t. When it’s our turn to carry, all we can do is make like a Swedish farmer.

what a head case

My brother Randy has a saying: “Everyone’s a head case. It’s just a matter of degrees.”

Now, before I delver further into this, I want to remind you, in case you forgot, that Randy’s the guy who coined the term “shit magnet.” By this he means the sort of thing and/or ferret and/or person who attracts serial traumatic crapola like flies to a corpse, not that I’ve witnessed such a thing first hand. But don’t you just love morbid imagery? I do. Because I, dear friends, am a shit magnet. Then again, so is everyone else. I know of not a single human being in the 18 ozoollion in the history of the planet who squeaked through life unscathed. And if you reply, “Girlfriend, do you have up-close-and-personal knowledge of all 18 ozoollion people in the history of the planet?,” I will just have to shut you up with a flat-out lie and say, UH-HUH, AND THEY WERE JUST TEXTING ME LAST NIGHT, BEE-AHHTCH.

But I digress (what else is new). Back to Randy’s theory of universal calibrated head-casedness. I believe he is absolutely correct, for three incontrovertible reasons. One: I’m a head case. (Say it! I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!) Two: Everything Randy says is correct, at least about soccer, and I’m convinced that this is somehow related. If you know Randy, you will know that he’s prone to wise and pithy aphorisms that sound irrefutable because they probably are. And no, my saying this HAS NOTHING TO DO with the way he strong-armed me into a legally binding agreement to quote him only if I give him 80 percent of the profits (see left).randy text

Reason Three: Entropy. We have no choice! Everyone’s a head case because the universe is a head case. Because things fall apart. Unzip. Unspool. Go to weeds. Fly outward. Lose their center. Crack up. So long as we have the energy, the grit, the pluck, the luck, we can keep ourselves together and hang onto a semblance of control. But keeping disorder at bay is hard work, baby. As anyone who has ever seen my house will confirm, the threat of disorder lurks in very corner, in every opened yogurt container, in every gathering dust bunny.

At the moment, my house isn’t half bad. Neither is my head. Sitting in my attic, clacking out these words, I’m as orderly as I ever am. I am mold- and dust-free, although I’m glad to report that I don’t smell like furniture polish. But whatever sense I’ve made of my own thoughts and my own life, whatever wee success I’ve had in figuring myself out, comes down to this: I’m a mess. I don’t expect myself to be anything other than a mess. However serene and fulfilled and rational I am in this sliver of time called now, I know that emotional and mental disarray are only as far off as the next bucket of shit. And knowing this — being okay with knowing this — is my best hope for keeping sane. That, and loving people. And exercise. And gratitude. And chocolate.

We needn’t be diagnosed or hospitalized or pigeon-holed or pathologized to admit out loud that it’s a crazy-making thing, this being alive. Isn’t it? Come on. How could it NOT be? It’s absolutely batshit, what we do each day: Waking, getting out of bed, toeing into the dank unknown as though we have a bloody clue what we’re doing. As though we’re not fighting off insecurity and fear every waking moment. As though we’re not expelling snot into our pillows on a semi-regular basis. As though we’re not relieved, at the end of the day, to just collapse in a heap and say, I ONLY SCREWED UP A LITTLE TODAY. And in other news, I’M NOT DEAD.

Of course, beauty waits around the bend. Joy creeps in. Love, sudden and surging, overwhelms. But the waiting beauty, the creeping joy, the surging love are as beyond our control as any of the psycho-twisting obstacles that trip and crack us up. Right now, praise God, I’m awash in all three; my life makes some sense to me; my universe is ordered, as is my mind. Sort of. I guess. A little. For now. And so I’m a head case, all the same.

robin williams, again: on ‘cowardice’ and compassion


I hadn’t planned on writing again about Robin Williams’ death (I hadn’t planned on it the first time), but each new suicide kicks up some dust from the old ones. And when Fox News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a coward, I almost choked.

Smith has since apologized. Good. He should have. Still, some points need to be made, here.

First: Williams wasn’t a coward. My husband wasn’t a coward. My sister wasn’t a coward. My dear friends who killed themselves weren’t cowards. They were good, loving, generous and sensitive people who battled demons so vicious and alienating that they believed they were better off dead.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say this again, I won’t stop staying this, ever: suicide never makes sense. Neither Williams’ misery nor the misery of those left behind can be explained by any worldly logic. But the hurt that his death afflicted on his loved ones doesn’t negate the agony he was in — God only knows for how long — or the compassion that it merits from us.

No, he wasn’t a coward. Cowards aren’t people in pain. Cowards aren’t people who face and fight a crushing urge to die. Cowards are people who make snap judgments out of fear. Who look down at those who suffer. Who fail to regard another person’s torment with anything but love.

Second: The pain that suicide inflicts on its survivors is beyond all human ken. So the natural human response is, inevitably: WTF? THAT couldn’t have happened, because THAT PERSON was loving and giving and good. THAT PERSON would not have grievously wounded his family and friends. THAT PERSON would never have given up on life. THAT PERSON wouldn’t do that.

Now, this word “do.” Hmmm. That’s a verb. Did you notice? It implies a subject, an agent, an actor in the broad sense. Someone must actively do suicide. It isn’t done to them. It never just happens. It involves an act. The problem with any act is that it suggests a choice; and the problem with suicide is that the act is so damned unconscionable, it causes so much damage, and it prompts so many powerful, elemental surges of bafflement and anger. How could it not?

And yet suicide is not a choice. Is it an act carried out in the depths of self-loathing? Yes. Is it a rational decision? No. My husband was so altered by depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety — so alien and muddled in his thinking — that he was, by the time he stood at the lip of that roof, taking those actions, an entirely different person. He was logically incapacitated by mental illness.

So, no, his suicide wasn’t a choice. It was an impulse followed in the dark of a fleeting moment after too many such fleeting moments. Had that impulse ended and the moment passed, he might still be here. It didn’t, so he isn’t, so I and all who loved him are left to parse the larger lessons from his death.

They’re the same lessons we’re parsing now in the wake of Robin Williams’.

Lesson number one: We need to talk about mental illness. We need to see it with clear eyes and a caring heart. We need to not run away from it because it frightens us or confuses us or cuts too close to home. We need to be brave and smart. We need to stare it in the face. We need to see it in others’ faces. We need to see it in our own.

Lesson number two: We need to choose, with absolute conviction, to live. Sanity is too tenuous in this world, pain is too prevalent, to take too lightly the possibility that any of us could break. Even if Williams didn’t rationally choose death, we must rationally choose life in the aftermath. We must do what we can to keep ourselves sane and grounded on this beautiful mess of rock and air and water. We must treat each day as a gift and give in return. We must promise to make choices with the highest possible yield of love, for love, in the end, is the only real buffer against the spasms and agonies that befall us.

Anyone who reaches the ledge of suicide is past all reason. Because of that, we need to step away from it now. We need to profess to each other a commitment to living now. We need to promise now not to kill ourselves — and must act, however we’re able, against the encroaching blackness.

We need to make those choices when we can, so we never reach the moment when we can’t.

robin williams: only the love makes sense

Like a lot of people, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide on Facebook. And when I did, I dropped my phone onto the kitchen counter and wept. Really wept. The first words out of my mouth were directed at him: You didn’t just do that to your wife and kids. The second were prayers for them, because my kids and I know. We know how it feels to be on the receiving end — of the pain, and of the prayers. One was hell. The other was not quite heaven, but an earth where at least we felt ourselves carried by love. God has many hands, I often said in the months following my husband’s fatal leap.

No one knows what to say after a suicide. Some people, too afraid to say the wrong thing, say nothing. If we can’t find reason or meaning or some lenitive hope behind a death, how can we console in its aftermath? How can we say anything that soothes, relieves, explains?

We can’t. You can’t. There’s nothing that soothes or finds reason after a suicide. There is none. All there can be, all anyone can ever express to the grieving and each other, is love. All we can do is promise to love one another better in the brief time we have.

Here’s what you should say to suicide survivors: anything. Here’s what it means to them: everything. Here’s the best explanation for their loss: nothing. There is no explaining either the act of suicide or the anguish that leads someone to commit it. If we could understand one, we could understand the other; instead, all we can do is parse the turns and tragedies in a person’s life, the drugs or depression or dalliances with all the wrong psych meds or snake oils or habits of self-abasement, and even then, we don’t have an explanation. We only have a narrative.

All the baffled postings on Facebook reflect this horror in the face of cosmic unreason and embattled faith. And indeed we should be baffled. Indeed there should be horror: suicide should never be treated lightly. How could Robin Williams, a brilliant, explosively insightful, comic-genius man-child who brought joy to so many for so long, have done this to himself and his loved ones? Expect everyone everywhere, every online gossip site and supermarket rag, to dig deep into the causes. Maybe we’ll learn there was an obvious trigger. Maybe we won’t.

Either way, Williams’ death will never make sense — just as my husband’s death will never make sense, just as no suicide will ever make sense. Not in this world. For suicide is a violation of all that we know to be true: that life is precious; that love prevails; that parents will put their children first; that light and joy and hope are stronger, infinitely so, than darkness and despair.

No. It will never make sense. It shouldn’t.

What does make sense: the love that surrounds Williams’ family now and in the long months ahead of them. That’s the love that will prevail. That’s the light that conquers. And they’ll emerge from that darkness. They will. They will.

dr. wisdom chimes in

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.
Carry on.


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.

let’s talk about mental illness, really

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

On the horn with Madeleine recently, she asked me: “Mom, did you read Nicholas Kristof?” This is a question that she often asks and always makes me happy. That my 20-year-old daughter reads The New York Times and keeps such close tabs on her favorite columnists warms the cockles of my newswoman’s heart, whatever the heck cockles are. (And are they normally that cold?)

Turned out Kristof’s column a couple Sundays back raised an issue that cuts close to home for us. He called on the news media to stop neglecting mental illness — to address it honestly, compassionately and comprehensively, looking at real people who struggle with depression or eating disorders or suicidality or P.T.S.D., rather than weighing in with generalizations after the latest mass shooting. “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues,” he wrote, “but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out.”

No one likes to talk about mental illness. The thought alone unsettles, embarrasses, terrifies. After my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma and six months undergoing pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. — which worked — and I spent those same six months not answering the unspoken questions of everyone at school. One kid who dared mention my daddy’s stay in a psych hospital got promptly shushed by a teacher. And I remember thinking, more or less, “What the fuh?” The message was clear: This type of illness, with this type of hospital stay, is not to be discussed.

Bullshit. We need to talk about it. It hits people.

My father recovered from his depression and went on to live another 18 years — no psych meds, no recurrence, though the coma probably hastened his dementia. My sister and husband weren’t as lucky. I’ve now written about all three of them (two in my last memoir, one in my next one), so I’ve obviously overcome any lingering reluctance to discuss suicide in a public forum.

It’s all out there; I’m all in. I don’t have much choice in the matter. Because, face it, if I decided I couldn’t talk about the people in my life who’ve been affected by mental illness, I WOULD HAVE VERY FEW THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.

As a people, 21st-century Americans are open to discussing so many things: our sex lives, our hoarding, our fights against life-threatening ailments. But when we try to discuss this brand of fight and this brand of ailment, our jaws lock. We can’t go there — not because it’s all too alien. Because it’s all too familiar. Because too many of us have cried quietly in bed ourselves, or have heard a loved one’s weeping.

There’s no cause for shame in mental illness, no cause to feel isolated. We only think we’re alone because we’re so tight-lipped, so scared. Every time I’ve lost a beloved someone to suicide, people have emerged from the shadows to confess that they had, too.

How can we combat this scourge if we don’t face the darkness squarely? How better to nurture and bulwark our own peace of mind than to name the insanity, call it out, give it form, understand it, find its weakness, see its depths? How better to stay sane and alive ourselves — which are, in the end, one and the same thing?

So let’s talk about it. Really. And let’s start now.

launching exclamation points . . . now!

sample 2B
I have a publisher! Behler Publications, outside Pittsburgh! That really happened! And not only do I have a publisher, I have a cover! That happened, too! I know, I can’t believe it, either!

And not only that, both the publisher and the cover happened within less than a week. Four days, actually. About the time it takes to fly to New Zealand and back, which I’ve never done but would like to, someday, although I’d prefer time to chillax between the the two days there and the two days back.

When I told my dad (meaning Dan, my current father, as opposed to Louis, his late predecessor), he let out a celebratory whoop before reminding me that not so long ago I’d called him up at a low ebb and announced, flat-out, in the grating, nasally monotone of a woman who has gazed so far inside her navel she got her face stuck, that the book would never find a publisher. Ever.

“Remember what you said?” he asked me. “You said you were stupid for even believing it could happen.”

I know, I said. I remember.

“And remember, I said you were being an asshole.”

I remember that, too.

He smiled. He gives me such vast amounts of shit, and the more he gives me, the more I love him.

Even at that nadir, I was glad I’d written the book. Writing it was a gift. Writing it was restorative and transformative, profoundly so. I became someone new as I wrote it: freer of worry, fouler of mouth. Having lost my sister Lucy to suicide in 1992, I knew about grief in the aftermath, but I knew squat about losing a spouse and raising three kids alone. After Chris’s suicide in 2011, I was forced to reconfigure myself, suddenly and dramatically, in ways I could never have imagined. I still can’t imagine them all.

So the book has found a home. It’s due for publication this fall. And for the record: that classic rubbery plumbing device on the cover came straight from the fertile mind of my daughter Madeleine. We were plowing through Indian takeout, and between bites of chana saag, she said, “Mom. They should put a plunger on the cover!”

They should and they did. That really happened, too.