I’ve learned how to derive an extraordinary amount of self-esteem from washing dishes and scooping cat litter. That’s because we unemployed people have to seize our ego-boosts wherever we find them. Folding laundry may not seem like something to celebrate, but after a certain number of fruitless job applications your self-image is dragging behind you like toilet paper on your shoe.

Like every good 21st Century American, I wrap a lot of my identity up in my occupation. Everybody does to some degree. You’re a teacher, he’s a bricklayer, she owns a frozen yogurt store. That’s who you are. Even a crack dealer can say to himself, “Hey, I sell crack. I sell people something they want until they die sprawled in the gutter with antifreeze and rat shit.” He has an identity.

It may take me some time to find work, because my skills are rather eclectic. I don’t want to get specific, but by way of analogy it’s as if I were a great fry cook, a fine goat farmer, and a pretty good loan shark. I’d need to find a bookie operating out of a greasy diner that serves gourmet goat steaks, raised on the premises because you can’t trust a commercially produced goat. Only in that environment could my full range of skills be employed.

During this jobless time I’m leaning a bit on my identity as a writer, but that’s been battered by a recent salvo of rejection notices, leaving my writer image structurally unsound at the moment. Some of the rejections said nice things about my work, but they all ended with the familiar phrase, “not for me.”

However, I’m tempted to write an etiquette guide for the unemployed. There’s a real need. For example, when you go to a party or funeral or something, people will ask, “What do you do?” Kicking that person in the knee is bad manners, especially if the dearly departed is nearby. What’s the proper response?

You could say, “I’m looking for a job.” It’s direct and truthful. But there are only two responses. Your questioner could raise his eyebrows before saying something sympathetic that fails to conceal his searing contempt. Or he might ask what kind of job you’re looking for. That leads to an awkward conversation about goats and loan sharking that goes nowhere good or even tolerable. Forget that.

You could lie. You might say, “I’m a hedge-fund manager.” That’s perfect because no one knows what it is, but it sounds good and people know you make lots of money while screwing everyone on the planet, including orphans and kittens. Or you could say, “I create computer icons. Every time you start up Internet Explorer, I get a penny.” These lies are pretty satisfying, but two minutes on Google will reveal your prevarication, and then you’ll look like a bigger loser than ever.

The appropriate response to the, “What do you do?” question is a combination of the truth and a lie. You first say, “I’m looking for a job.” Then, as your interrogator raises his eyebrows in snide sympathy, you show a smile that implies someone’s given you a puppy that drools 30 year-old whiskey. You add, “I have enough savings to go two or three years before I have to get a job, so I’m taking my time and being selective.” Just watch as envy devours every bit of his face. That is how to handle that question.

We unemployed folk face a lot of similarly awkward social encounters. How to get people to take you to restaurants you can’t afford and not look like a deadbeat. Creating believable and marginally truthful business cards even though you don’t work for a business. Managing social media statuses so that you don’t appear to be a hobo. Yes, writing a book about unemployment etiquette is just what I need to pump up my self-esteem. I only need a title:

Jobless but Genteel: You may lose your job, but you can keep your dignity.

Nothing says dignity like “Yak.”

This photo is by travelwayoflife, and is a Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

My wife gave me that look again yesterday. It’s not really a bad look, but it is specific to certain situations. I like to imagine that at some point General Custer was talking about whether to ride down to Little Big Horn or to just go home and drink beer. And I like to imagine that during that discussion Custer’s aide looked at him the way my wife looked at me last night. It’s the look that says, “I don’t know why you’re saying these things, but I hope we end up having a party instead of pulling arrows out of each other.”

I started off by telling her I had an unimportant question, and then I asked what the idiom “the carrot and the stick” means to her.

“It means you reward someone to get them to do something, and you punish them if they don’t do it,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s the common definition,” I said, “but that’s not the way I learned it. The carrot is a reward, and the stick holds the carrot in front of the donkey where he can’t get to it. He just keeps pulling towards it.”

I paused to let my wife say something in response. Instead, she gave me that look.

“Nobody gets punished,” I said.

She kept that look trained on me, even though the cat chose that moment to dig his claws into her leg and launch himself across the den like a cruise missile.

“You don’t hit the donkey with the stick,” I went on. “The stick just hangs there.”

My wife rubbed her perforated trousers leg and said, “Is this for something you’re writing?”

“No, I’m just thinking about it.”

She leaned away from me a fraction, the way you’d stand back to get perspective on a magnificent tree, or to get perspective on a manic person who’s talking about pudding enriched with brain-strengthening vitamins.

“Really! Think about it!” I said. “If you hit a donkey with a stick, you may get bit. Even the stupidest donkey in the world isn’t going to think the stick hit him by itself.”

I paused again for my wife to speak, but she just gave me a glacial nod to continue.

“But if you just use the stick to dangle the carrot, the donkey won’t get pissed off and bite you. Even if he gets aggravated, he’ll probably just bite the stick. It’s better all the way around.”

My wife crossed her legs and said, “Okay. And why did this come up?” Followed by the unspoken, And were you stockpiling food and Geiger counters at the time?

“No particular reason. It’s just, you know, the donkey never sees the stick that’s holding the carrot. So, when I look around here I can see the carrots. Where are all the sticks?”

“Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks?”

“No! But if I’m working for carrots that I can never get because some hidden something is keeping them out of reach, I want to know what that something is and do something about it!”

My wife leaned back another fraction. “Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks and then bite them?”

“Well… yeah. Kind of. Not literal sticks. The sticks are metaphors.”

She waited for a bit. When I didn’t continue, she said, “Metaphors for what?”

“I don’t know! That’s what I want to find out!”

“Should I clean out another closet so you can fill it with bottled water?”

“No, you’re missing the point!”

“Which is?”

“It’s hard to explain,” I said.

“Does it have something to do with the donkey? You have to give the donkey a carrot before all this, or he won’t know he likes carrots.”

“Yeah, it goes without saying that the donkey likes carrots!”

“And if you don’t feed the donkey sometime he’ll die.”

“Just forget about the damned donkey!”

“You’re the one who wanted to talk about the donkey. I was watching TV,” she said.

The truth of that statement kicked me in the larynx, and I stopped talking for a moment. Then I said, “You were right, this is for something I’m writing.”

I saw her shoulders relax. That look disappeared from her face like a pricked soap bubble. “Oh, okay. Anything else?”

I shook my head, kissed her, and went back to my office, where I further contemplated the question of donkeys and invisible sticks. That question had become secondary, though. My primary interest had become appreciating the complexity of my wife’s job.

My wife contributes to our partnership in a lot of ways, and one of them is observing my behavior. She doesn’t so much observe it as she scans it with the diligence of a forest ranger. But she’s not scanning trees for signs of fire, she’s scanning what I do and say for signs of an irrational brain that needs tweaking. You could say that she’s a Brain Ranger.

It’s a hard job. People pay me to say things that no one would expect a normal person to say. Even when my brain is working fine, I sometimes say things that make everyone stop for a moment and then look away. How can a Brain Ranger tell when I’m malfunctioning and when I’m just being my normal, strange self?

I can’t explain how she does it. But I will say that for a person like me with an unruly brain, a vigilant, no-bullshit Brain Ranger is invaluable. There’s nothing like having someone who can listen to you talk about your metaphorical donkeys and invisible sticks in the context of your metaphorical forest and figurative fire, and assess whether your behavior is abnormally weird or just regular weird.

Someone's Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.
Someone’s Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.

Public domain photo by Karen Murphy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

via Wikimedia Commons

Writing brings out the mental illness in me. My wife can testify to this.

I’m in control of my behavior almost all the time. As Mark Twain said, “For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.” If I wake up to find my brain mired like a mammoth in tar, I can trick my brain into sucking itself free and stomping onwards across the plains. I rarely buy extravagant, useless things, because I have a rule. If I want to buy something that costs more than a couple of hundred dollars, I can’t buy it until I think about it for at least six months. I almost always follow that rule. Almost.

Judiciously applied chemicals are my friends. Free range chemicals and alcohol are not welcome in the home of my brain, apart from the occasional tequila shot or pomegranate martini. Come on, I’m not a nun or anything. But my best friend is me acting the way I want to feel, no matter how my brain tells me I feel, or at least doing my best to create the outward signs of sanity.

It works pretty well at this point in my life.

My wife refrains from trying to convince, trick, or bribe me into not behaving like a crazy person. It’s my job to take care of all this. She’s happy to help if I ask, and she demonstrates philosophical acceptance when I suddenly fill up the office closet with 30 gallons of bottled water, or when without warning I decide we need some more cats. Not only is she tolerant, she’s smart. If she tried to manage all this for me, I’d probably explode like a hand grenade.

Writing screws all this up. Well, not all writing causes problems. I can write a thousand words, declare success, and smile as I move on to something else. It’s the big projects that make me crazy. I’ve written three novels in the past three years, and the insanity they create goes like this.

I get an idea for something I want to write. It’s the best idea for a book that anyone’s had in the past 100 years, or maybe ever. I’m so excited that I talk to my wife about it almost every minute we’re together. I lay awake thinking about it and even consider waking my wife up in the middle of the night to talk about the greatness that is my idea. This goes on for about three days.

I begin the planning and research required to bridge the chasm between having an idea and writing words. I realize that my idea is rubbish. It’s less creative than a bucket of vanilla pudding. If brought to reality, it would be less popular than asphalt-flavored baby food. I feel shame. The only reason I keep working is that I talked it up so much to my wife I’d be embarrassed to never write a word of the thing. This goes on for about a month.

I start writing the first draft, expecting that after one chapter I can honorably surrender to the fact that my idea was horrible. After the first thousand words I find that I’m amusing myself, and I start to feel better about the project. I read the first chapter to my wife. She doesn’t say anything bad about it, which confirms my growing suspicion that it’s a work of magnificence. I begin laughing and hooting like a fool as I write, and I find I’d rather write than eat or sleep. This goes on until I finish the first draft, or about two to three months.

I put the manuscript aside to cool, planning to begin editing in about six weeks. Within 24 hours I realize that I was engulfed by irrational euphoria this whole time, and in fact my manuscript isn’t fit to wipe the ass of a sweaty heroin addict living in a ditch in Bangkok. I try to put this debacle behind me and concentrate on ideas for my next project, but I can only generate enough motivation to watch Saving Private Ryan and eat pie. This goes on for about two months.

Some grisly sense of obligation forces me to open the manuscript and pretend I’ll edit it before I trash it and funnel my creative urge into learning the ukulele. After reading three pages I can’t believe I’ve forgotten how brilliant it is. I perform several rounds of edits like one of those yipping dogs that never stops to sleep. I’m afraid that if I take a day off then the magical spell will be broken and I’ll once again see that the manuscript is just a snap-toothed yokel with mismatched shoes. This goes on for about six weeks.

The manuscript is finally as good as it’s going to get without an editor. I begin writing query letters, synopses, overviews, biographies, and the other artifacts that agents and publishers want to see. I become profoundly convinced that any agent would be more impressed if I just sent her an envelope full of fish guts. I grit my teeth and push on. I’ve come too far now. I’ll just send out the queries and then take my beating in cowed embarrassment.

Then it’s time to start a new project. And even though it means starting the cycle of crazy all over again, I don’t mind all that much. Not everybody get to experience three days of knowing that their book idea is absolutely the most perfect and radiant idea of the last century. It feels great. It’s entirely worth the subsequent months of the despair when you understand just how appalling your idea in fact was.

Really. I’m not joking.

Outward signs of sanity, dude.

Photo courtesy of cutedogs.com via wakpaper.com.

I’m thinking about murdering some flying cows. It wouldn’t be hard, at least on the technical side. They’re cows, so they’d just stand there and take it, or maybe they’d chew their cuds and hover a little. But I’d struggle on the emotional side, because they have huge brown eyes, and they’re goofy looking, and they make me giggle.

These are fictional cows. I’ve written them into a story I’m working on, which I guess says a lot about the maturity of the story and my maturity as a person. I just love them. The story isn’t about them, and they don’t show up that much, but when I get to write about them I feel giddy. If you’ve never written about flying cows, I suggest you run right out and try it. It’s better than playing golf while you’re high.

And yet, my friend Dan has a great rule about acting. If something makes you giggle for more than 15 seconds, don’t do it. I believe that applies to writing too. If it entertains me that much, it’s almost certain to aggravate and insult a lot of other people who don’t share my sense of humor. A large proportion of the relatively small number of people likely to read my story would despise my flying cows. My cows might be sad. So instead I should shoot them between the eyes with the Delete key.

I’m now trying to talk myself out of writing a eulogy for my cows, since I have a couple of thousand more words to write before I go to bed tonight. Maybe I can just say that like many things in this life, too much good is bad. A slice of cake is good. A barrel of cake frosting is a heart attack. Flowers from an admirer are good, but a gift-wrapped leather sofa containing a hidden webcam is a restraining order. It’s about perspective and proportion.

“Perspective” is not my middle name. My middle name is “It probably won’t kill us, so let’s pour the green stuff into the pink stuff and see what happens.” I sometimes get into trouble because of that, causing me to tell people things that make them never talk to me again, get locked up in remote places, and have parts of my body mashed off. I was walking out of my psychiatrist’s office once (which sounds like the evil twin of a bad joke), and he shocked me by saying, “Let me know if you start feeling too happy. That’s a bad sign.” That was a hell of a note. But it made sense when I thought about it, because being too happy is bad for me, just like too much sex would be. I can’t think of exactly how it would be bad, but I’m sure it would be.

So, I know what I have to do. The road to mental health and literary excellence seems to be paved with the bodies of flying cows, and it’s slaughtering time. I’ll do it after this next chapter. It contains a flying cow chase scene, and they’re just so cute when their ears stand out like wings and their udders flap in the wind.

Cyclone the Flying Cow - She's like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.
Cyclone the Flying Cow – She’s like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.

Photo from http://www.cumanagement.org/article/view/id/Purple-Skies-and-Flying-Cows



Inspiration sucks. It’s like that five dollar macchiato you drink every morning to get yourself going. Then one day the cat barfs on your shirt and makes you late, and you don’t have time for Mr. Macchiato. You can’t get yourself going without it, and at work you just stare at an imaginary point hoping no human comes near you before noon. The professional writers say that inspiration is for suckers. Just start working and let the work take care of itself.

So I felt really bad today when I sat down at the keyboard uninspired, depressed and communing with that imaginary point rather than attacking the keyboard like I was John Henry. I squirmed in my chair and felt shame that I was attempting to use the same alphabet used by Mark Twain. I’m a man of my time, so when I have a problem I do what the people of my time do. I go to Google. I searched Google for inspiration. By the way, the word “inspiration” produced 107,000,000 hits, and I don’t think any of them are at all inspiring.

After a while, like a lazy, willful mule, I started looking for anything I could use as an excuse for not writing at all. I landed on bipolar disorder. That was promising. I figured I could whine about it for at least a couple of paragraphs and be done. But then I found a page listing the best things about bipolar disorder, which isn’t your normal kind of post about a mental illness.

I think the “best things bipolar” list contained some fine and illuminating stuff, but it didn’t quite capture my experience with my friend bipolar. That’s what led me to create this alternate list of The Ten Best Things About Being Bipolar.

  1. Since you’re manic sometimes and depressed at other times, bipolar can be claimed as the reason for almost anything you’ve screwed up or don’t want to do.
  2. After being manic for a while, you can tell people what it’s like to write the sequel to Lord of the Rings, invent the perpetual motion machine, and fly without an airplane.
  3. You have a wide selection of pills in decorator colors, so there’s no need to remodel the bathroom.
  4. You can finish a day’s work when other people are still asleep, and you can think faster than reality occurs.
  5. When depressed, you get plenty of health-enhancing rest for long periods of time, in rooms darkened by curtains that block out harmful UV rays.
  6. You can openly pay someone to put up with your shit and react in a patient, thoughtful way, because it’s more acceptable to do this with a psychiatrist than with a prostitute.
  7. There’s no substitute for being the smartest, most charming, most articulate, sexiest and most creative person on Earth for a while. It’s worth the embarrassment of later looking back at what you did and wondering what the hell you were thinking.
  8. If you make bizarre money decisions, buy ten thousand pairs of bowling shoes, lose your home and possessions, and cause all your family members to abandon you, that’s just an unambiguous sign that God wants you to become a monk.
  9. You give your spouse lots of opportunities to develop patience, tolerance, and the discipline to not hit you in the face with a frying pan.
  10. You get to identify with scads of famous people who might have been bipolar too, like Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and Tigger. That’s got to be good for your self-esteem.

So there’s a poke in the eye for you, inspiration.

It sometimes surprises me how many people like their bipolar experience just the way it is. Yet plenty of people don’t like bipolar, and they can get pretty angry that anyone might say positive things about it. So, I’m happy to see your comments, but please try to keep them civil, or at least more civil than a religious war.

The suspected-of-being-bipolar President Theodore Roosevelt. Is he manic here? Depressed? You decide.

My brain and I are no longer on speaking terms. He’s given me the central nervous system equivalent of a sharp kick in the shin. Or to put it another way, if he were my roommate he would have just stolen the last piece of my birthday cake from the refrigerator. I’m quite put out, and refuse to have anything to do with him.

I used to rely on my brain’s unfailing companionship. He figured tips, and he remembered who Archimedes was, and he knew how to spell “eviscerate”. He once took over and completed a 3 ½ hour essay final exam on Differential Mortality, Gender, and Agrarian Economics while I looked at the cute girl by the window. That was real friendship. He even got an A.

But it hasn’t all been marshmallows and kittens. My brain has occasionally led me astray, like the time he said, “I’m 19 and smart enough already—who needs to finish college?” (That one was fairly painful to fix.) Or that time he said, “Three months is plenty of time to get to know each other—go ahead and get married!” (That one was extremely painful to fix.) He tends to approach all problems with an A + B = C mentality, and I suspect that’s not always the best choice.

So for a while my friend the brain has been yanking me around, as he sometimes has done in the past. I don’t know where the hell he goes at night, but during the day he walks around all the time with some kind of freaky hangover, which is pretty annoying. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that brains get a little weird when your body produces a smidge too much of something or other, or when things get out of whack in the lobes, or sometimes really for no reason at all. But there’s only so long you can go with your brain making you act like a crazy man before you say a dignified, “Enough.”

I’m not positive what my brain has to say at this point, because we’ve only been communicating through my thyroid. For example, I’ll say to my thyroid, “Hey, ask my brain how to calculate the distribution of a chi square test,” and the thyroid will come back a little later and say, “Your brain answered, but it was just a bunch of squiggly symbols I don’t understand. How about some extra hormones instead?” That’s not as helpful as I might wish.

I am now accepting applications from other organs interested in replacing my brain. I imagine there will be many fine candidates, because the job of brain is pretty prestigious, the hours are good, and you get excellent access to the eyes in case anything interesting comes on TV. I might even solicit an organ or two to get the process rolling. Is the uvula an organ? I’m not sure because I’m no longer talking to my brain. But it’s welcome to send me a resume anyway.

This is what’s left of me after five weeks of my thyroid running things.



I’m participating in Six Sentence Sunday, a cool effort that invites authors to post six sentences from one of their works on Sunday morning. Six Sentence Sunday will then link the post on their site. It’s a slick concept, and I encourage everyone to check it out. This post is six sentences from my essay “I Hate My Brain,” which is available in my book Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that brains get a little weird when your body produces a smidge too much of something or other, or when things get out of whack in the lobes, or sometimes really for no reason at all. But there’s only so long you can go with your brain making you act like a crazy man before you say a dignified, “Enough.” I’m not positive what my brain has to say at this point, because we’ve only been communicating through my thyroid. For example, I’ll say to my thyroid, “Hey, ask my brain how to calculate the distribution of a chi square test,” and the thyroid will come back a little later and say, “Your brain answered, but it was just a bunch of squiggly symbols I don’t understand. How about some extra hormones instead?” That’s not as helpful as I might wish.

Again, please check out some of the other authors linked at Six Sentence Sunday.

I’m trying to decide whether I’m having a mid-life crisis, a nervous breakdown, or a petulant fit. I googled each of them, but I couldn’t find any distinct definitions to help me figure this out. Maybe they’re all quite similar. Maybe I have all three at once, which I suspect would be novel.

Certain behaviors tend to come along with a mid-life crisis. They include quitting your job to weave rugs in New Mexico, buying a penis-shaped sports car you can’t afford, joining a gym you will never visit, having an affair with the most inappropriate person you can think of, spending a year’s salary on plastic surgery and hair implants, and acting like such a gigantic weasel’s crotch that your spouse has to chain herself to the toilet to keep from murdering you every night. If you allow that my wife only chains herself to a metaphorical toilet, then just one of these applies to me. Therefore, I’m putting mid-life crisis at the bottom of the list for now.

On the other hand, a nervous breakdown seems to be a short-term thing. It usually shows up as depression or anxiety. In my life, I refer to that as Tuesday. Therefore, I’m classifying nervous breakdown as “unlikely.”

So, I’m going with “petulant fit.”

Ten years ago I could optimistically say that I still had more years ahead of me than behind me, barring a catastrophic carnival accident. I can’t fool myself like that anymore. I heard someone say, “50 is the new 20,” the other day. I don’t know about him, but when I was 20 I had a lot less trouble peeing.

So my brain is telling me things like, “If you don’t go for it now, when will you? This may be your last chance.” Coincidentally, this is precisely the same sales technique used to peddle time share condos, so I should know better when I listen to my brain say this shit. But instead I allow my brain to lure me into an unnatural state. I have fallen into a state of “yearning.”

What the hell is “yearning”? It’s kind of like “wanting,” except that wanting is done with the heart, and yearning is done with everything from your belly button to your knees—yes, including those bits. What do I yearn for? I yearn for the things any adult my age desires: for people to read my mind and give me exactly what I want, to do whatever I love doing all day and for people to pay me lots of money regardless of how good I really am, to find so much variety and spontaneity in each day that I forget I’m just the same old me, and to have more sex than the Sultan of Morocco. The usual things.

I lack a solid plan for achieving any of this. I don’t really have a plan at all. I do have a disorganized collection of vague hopes, so I feel I’m well on my way. Even better, I envision that everything will be accomplished through the efforts of other people and without much inconvenience to me. What this scheme lacks in specificity it makes up for in warm fuzzies for me.

I do have one responsibility. When I think events are moving away from me securing everything for which I yearn, I must behave like a tiger with hemorrhoids and aggravate everyone around me to such an insane level that they start paying more attention to what I want. Then I can go back to aggravating them the normal amount.

And I will keep doing this. Relentlessly. Until I get everything I yearn for. 

Definitely “petulant fit.”

I’ve been trying to understand mental illness for a long time. I’ve come up with some observations and opinions, but understanding is still bouncing around like a deer in the forest of my ignorance. Even though I’ve researched and directly observed mental problems, I have concluded that understanding mental disease is really hard.

Other people think that understanding mental disease is hard, too. I’ve heard them say so. They say a lot of the same things that I’ve said over the years. We’ve said that everyone’s got problems—the folks who are mentally ill should just suck it up like the rest of us. Or if they can’t do that, they should get some medication and stop doing these disturbing things. Sometimes we’ve said that there’s really no such thing as mental illness. It’s just a conspiracy between psychiatrists and drug companies.

I think these statements contain some truth, but they contain a lot of falsehood, too. Like I said, I have observations and opinions, not understanding. Certainly some people understand more than I do, but here’s my perspective for the heck of it.

I’ll start with whether mental disease even exists. After all, if it doesn’t then we can stop here and grab a drink. Some folks point out that no biomarkers or laboratory tests exist to diagnose mental illnesses. Therefore, there’s no proof that they really exist. That sounds pretty damning. But a little research made me ask myself whether Alzheimer’s really exists. Or Parkinson’s Disease, or angina, or migraines, because no biomarkers or lab tests exist to diagnose any of those. Heck, there’s no lab test for the common cold. So, I admitted to myself that just because you can’t perform a lab test for a disease, that doesn’t mean it’s imaginary.

By the way, sometimes diagnosis is shakier than we’d like. If you live long enough, you’ll probably hear a doctor say he doesn’t know what’s wrong with you, despite blood tests, x-rays, brain scans, and cameras up your bottom.

I’d gotten past the biomarker/lab test objection, but that still didn’t convince me that mental illnesses really exist. In fact, I had to ask myself why anyone would even come up with the idea of mental illnesses in the first place. I’m going to slide right past Freud and the super-ego here in favor of something more down to earth. I suspect that two things led us to the idea of mental illness. First, someone saw a bunch of people doing the same strange and harmful things over and over for no obvious reason. Second, a bunch of people described having the same strange and harmful experiences for no obvious reason. I agree that this explanation seems pretty weak. Watch people do stuff and listen to people describe stuff? Come on.

Yet I was shocked to find that doctors watch what people do and listen to what they say in order to help diagnose physical diseases. Doctors do this a lot, and they have for hundreds of years. Chronic fatigue, hallucinations, confusion, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, pain, and many other symptoms are good enough to diagnose physical illnesses, even though a doctor has to see them happen or ask the patient to describe them. So I expect that these kinds of symptoms may mean something when we’re talking about mental illnesses too. If a hundred men hallucinate because of brain tumors, and another hundred men hallucinate without brain tumors, does that mean the non-brain tumor guys hallucinated for no reason at all? Or maybe there really is something organic going on with these fellows, but we just don’t have a lab test for it.

By this point I was nearly convinced that mental illnesses exist, but my nasty, skeptical brain had to wonder if they’re just a concept invented by the pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies are making an ocean of money from the armada of drugs they sell for mental diseases. These companies aren’t known for turning down a buck, and they might have marketed some unnecessary drugs once or twice. Based on the explosion of psychiatric illness and medications, I suspect that mental illness is diagnosed too often, and psychiatric drugs are over-prescribed. Not every unruly child has ADD, and not every person with ups and downs is bipolar.

But drug companies also push all the drugs they can for physical illnesses—it’s not just a mental illness phenomenon. Doctors observed mental illness long before drug companies sold drugs for them. Hey, drug companies didn’t invent bipolar disorder—manic depression was identified in the late 1800s, long before anyone thought about selling Depakote. (Actually, manic depression was identified and named in 1875 by Jules Falret.) Despite my skepticism, I can’t buy the idea that thirst for profits has led to a gigantic mental illness hoax that practically every medical professional is in on.

So which folks are saying that mental illness just doesn’t exist? I skated around the internet for a while—admittedly a dubious source of information. But I wanted to see what these guys said about themselves. I found some organizations whose sites explained that mental illnesses are no more real than sugar plum fairies. They mainly said it was all a drug company conspiracy, and they used the biomarkers/lab tests argument as evidence. They tended to be a little lax about their research—one cited “a Surgeon General’s report.” I suppose it could have been the Surgeon General of Botswana—no way to tell. Some sites promoted the owner’s tell-all book. Sometimes I had to dig four layers deep to find out the site was owned by a noted research organization such as the Church of Scientology.

And who goes around saying that mental illnesses exist? I wasn’t surprised to find the usual suspects: government organizations like NIH and CDC, research hospitals, medical journals—and of course, drug companies. I understand that just because a lot of people say something’s true, that doesn’t make it true. But overall I found what seems like a lot of evidence on the “yes, mental illness exists” side. So I was convinced. Apart from the other arguments, I couldn’t swallow a giant conspiracy among almost everyone, leaving the Church of Scientology alone in the wasteland preaching the truth.

So if mental illness is real, why don’t the mentally ill just suck it up and stop bothering everybody else? I hear people say they’ve dealt with pain just as awful as any pain the mentally ill might have, and in my opinion they’re probably right. Mental illness doesn’t deepen someone’s capacity for emotional suffering. Most people deal with the pain in their lives and move on sooner or later. Why can’t mentally ill folks just decide to do the same?

Actually, a lot of them do. Some mentally ill people don’t realize or accept that they’re sick, even if the symptoms make them miserable. Others know they’re sick but decide to live without treatment for one reason or another. They may find ways to live a reasonable life. Some hold it together at work and go a little crazy at home—or a lot crazy at home. A few find jobs where outrageous behavior is accepted or maybe even expected. Some drink, or snort coke, or drive fast to self-medicate. There are lots of ways to more or less cope, some pretty benign and others pretty destructive. A lot of these behaviors are the ones that the rest of us find frustrating and that make the lives of mentally ill people unpleasant. Some people don’t cope so well, and they just bounce along out of control, wrecking their lives in colorful ways.

In some cases people will keep going like this their whole lives, and never consider treatment. Others tough it out for a few years or a few decades before they decide that doing something different would be better. Some try treatment and abandon it.

I learned a fascinating thing about mental illness and pain. Mental diseases are incurable. You have them forever, like that candy dish you got as a wedding gift. So the pain from mental illness isn’t exactly like the pain of grief. We know that grief will end; that’s part of what helps us get through it. Pain from mental illness isn’t any more intense, but it’s not going to end—or at least it’s always going to come back, and the owner of that pain knows it. The pain’s more like chronic arthritis and less like slamming your hand in a car door.

Now millions of people deal with arthritis pain without snorting coke or engaging in other bizarre behaviors. So what the heck’s wrong with all these mentally ill people? Can’t they do the same? Here’s another fascinating thing about mental illness. It affects your mind. It literally impairs your thinking machinery so that it can’t function at optimum efficiency. That doesn’t mean that mentally ill folks can’t think and make good decisions. But sometimes, when the disease is slamming them hard, their decisions may suck. It’s a bit like asking a diabetic person to make decisions using his pancreas. They won’t always be good decisions.

Another mental illness fun fact is that symptoms often hit for no obvious reason. Your average person may be devastated because his dog died, and that’s understandable. A mentally ill person may be devastated for no damn good reason other than his brain said it was devastation time. That’s hard to understand, especially when his thinking machinery’s impaired. I once observed a person with a severe mental illness, and I saw two things in her eyes: the realization that something was wrong with her, and the pain of not being able to understand what was wrong with her.

Before I talk too much about how difficult life is for the mentally ill, let me observe that dealing with mental illness isn’t about excuses. Any human can use anything as an excuse. Mentally ill humans are no different. In my opinion, dealing with mental illness is about decisions. That doesn’t mean that a mentally ill person can just decide to be well, or have no symptoms. And it’s true that his brain may not always produce the best decisions. And the options he has to choose from may range from reasonable to horrific. (A situation not limited to the mentally ill by the way.) But those are the options he has, and that’s the only brain he has handy to work with.

And that leads us to decisions about treatment, and especially about medication. Any mentally ill fellow has to decide whether to get help. That decision may seem more obvious if he can’t get out of bed for days, or he sees monsters that aren’t there, or he compulsively spends his family into bankruptcy. But even people with less severe symptoms look for treatment, and treatment is out there.

I personally have thought, “Hey, there are pills for this kind of thing. Take a pill every day, get this under control, and move on.” I thought that before the reality of brain chemistry revealed itself to me like a blossoming flower made of rancid Spam. How can I describe this? Say that prescribing cholesterol medication is like cooking a turkey. You’re dealing with just a few, well-understood factors like the size of the turkey and the oven temperature. You can still burn the heck out of a turkey, but it’s straightforward for the most part. Prescribing medication for a mental illness is more complicated. Instead of cooking a turkey, it’s like cooking a turkey of unknown weight in your neighbor’s fireplace by remote control from your own living room. You are dinking around inside a brain, so you have a lot more complications that are harder to see and less well understood. It’s often a trial and error kind of thing, maybe combining multiple drugs and trying different dosages before you find something that works. So it’s not exactly a “take a pill” proposition.

During the trial and error phase, the mentally ill person often feels worse than before, as an incorrect mix of drugs in the wrong doses careen through his brain like flying monkeys at a tea party. A fair number of people just give up on treatment at this point. Treatment that makes you feel worse seems like bad treatment, right? They go back to living their life without treatment and coping the best they can.

But some people stick with it and get to a drug combo that helps them a lot. That’s great, because now they’re not doing those things that the rest of us find so annoying, and they may be enjoying their lives more. Everything’s going smoothly, so naturally a bunch of them stop taking their drugs at this point and slide right back into all their awful symptoms.

Why the heck would someone do that? It seems crazy. Well, in fact there’s some bad decision making behind it, and we know he can have problems with his decision-making apparatus. But to put ourselves in the mentally ill person’s place, he now feels pretty good, so there’s a strong temptation to stop taking the $500 a month drugs that give him uncontrollable shakes and make him impotent.

As another side note, insurance companies are covering psychiatric drugs less often these days. The new ones are really, really expensive. The old ones are cheap but often have nasty side effects. So for people who can’t afford to pay a lot of money for drugs, there aren’t many great options.

Even with all of that crap going on, a lot of mentally ill people find a medication balance that works for them, and their lives get a lot better despite whatever side effects they’re willing to live with. That may or may not last. Brain chemistry changes, and the drugs that work for someone today may not work for him in five years. But if he hangs on for another round of trial and error, he can usually find another combo that works pretty well.

But there’s really no simple “take a pill” option. And the “just suck it up” option isn’t always realistic, depending on the severity of someone’s disease and their situation.

I still don’t have what I would call an understanding of mental illness, but I do intend to keep all this in mind the next time a mentally ill person is annoying me and I wish he’d just get his act together. As I said before, I think mental illness is about making decisions, not making excuses. A mentally ill person may have some great choices to select from, or all his choices may be appalling. That’s true of everybody though, mentally ill or not. The mentally ill have been metaphorically kicked in the crotch with regards to decision making ability, because their minds aren’t always in the best shape to make good decisions. But in the end, either they make the best decisions they can, or somebody else makes decisions for them, and I know which one of those I’d choose.

I accomplished a lot this weekend, if you count hair growth and peristalsis as accomplishments. If you don’t, then I didn’t make much happen in my part of the world. I’m sure my inert existence even prevented things from happening, as if I were a flabby, slack-jawed black hole reducing the net balance of energy in the universe. In my house we have something called The Whirling Vortex of Lethargy, and for 48 hours I lay at its core, as occasional infrared signals from the TV remote conveyed the only signs that I still lived.

On Friday I read a fantastic book about writing. It’s one of those books that’s so powerful and insightful that it plunges you into a profound depression about the inadequacy of everything you’ve ever written. This is like finding out that despite all your love and nurturing, your children have grown up to be carnival geeks. My weekend writing and editing goals evaporated. Cold air washed unchecked into the front yard beneath my un-weather stripped door. Weeds flourished, dirty laundry lay fallow, and my mom remained uncalled.

Saturday morning I crumple onto my green couch, which is twice as old as any of my friends’ children, and I click on my TV, which is shaped like footlocker and weighs as much as my refrigerator. I flip to a crime drama with 248 episodes available for instant viewing. If Netflix had a graven image, I would happily sacrifice goats to it. By Saturday afternoon I catch my wife, seated on the other end of the couch, giving me sidelong looks of concern usually reserved for the terminally ill. I either pretend I don’t notice, or I smile at her in what might be a reassuring manner, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

By Saturday night I resolve to climb out of this cesspool of pity, right after I find out who’s behind the murder of the genetically altered prostitutes, and whether he gets 25 to life. My cats continue to migrate across me one by one, as if I were an tiny island and they were seals pausing to sleep on their way to the Aleutian feeding grounds. My end of the couch is the perfect place to take a plaster cast of my butt, if someone were so perverse as to want such a thing. My wife goes to bed at an hour appropriate for sane people. I stare at the TV as if Dick Wolf were an electronic Svengali, until I slither into unconsciousness, my face mashed into a couch cushion.

On Sunday my wife has things to do with real people, and while I’m sure I’d be welcome, no one expects me to come along. I bring the TV to life once more. If Netflix had been out of service, I might have wept. Throughout  the morning I witness a panorama of felonies—murders, fraud, sexual assault, drug possession, and more. Somebody has a disturbingly fertile imagination. “Bravo,” I think. I’d never appreciated how entertaining a series with no continuing storyline can be. It’s perfect for someone who’s depressed and inattentive.

My cats no longer come near me by Sunday afternoon. They seem to find my degree of lethargy excessive and unnatural. I realize that I have accomplished something. I’ve demonstrated that I can live for two days on Tostitos, Junior Mints, and Diet Coke. By mid-afternoon the TV presents me with the seventeenth child pornography case of the weekend, and my hand seizes the remote control in a spasm of button-pushing. The TV settles on another series without much continuity between episodes, but this one is about the military. I figure the potential for child pornography investigations is low during assassination missions in Afghanistan, so my hand flops back down, the remote rolling out of it.

My den sinks into dimness on Sunday night, and the loosely organized mass of body parts on the couch is barely recognizable as me. Inside, I’m trying to corral my willpower as I prepare for work on Monday. I’m failing. Then on TV I see a brief exchange between characters:

Girl: Do you think people can change?

Big Guy: No.

[Girl exits]

Small Guy: You really don’t think people can change?

Big Guy: No. But I have seen it happen.

I laugh at this for a while. For some reason this dialogue strikes me as hilarious and great. But not impossibly great. I could see myself writing something like this if I worked hard and took my vitamins. I rewind and look for the screenwriter, and I see it’s a David Mamet script. Well, go Dave. It’s not like I’d compare myself to DM, but maybe I’ve written something in the past that is not repugnant. Later Sunday night I slide a cat out of the way and flip back the bed covers at an appropriate hour for sane people, and I find the lullaby “My stuff’s not repugnant” to be oddly comforting.