None jumping sharks…

In June 2012 I was fortunate enough to attend a talk Henry Winkler gave at a school in North London. I was there to sell signed copies of his Hank Zipzer books. ‘The World’s Greatest Underachiever’ – Zipzer is a young dyslexic growing up on the Upper West Side, who’s experiences mirror those of Winkler’s youth.

It was a relief, discovering what a fabulously nice guy he is. The average age of his audience was 9 years old, but he deftly managed to work some self-deprecating Fonzie gags in there for the elders. His warmth and enthusiasm was infectious and he deserves every accolade for the work he is doing.

There was one repeated phrase which lodged in my mind: ‘learning challenges.’ Cynicism calls P.C. bullshit – ‘learning disabilities’ remains the stable phrase for those facing dyslexia or similar conditions. Was Winkler simply smoothing the edges of his rhetoric or, as I personally suspect, attempting to subtly undermine any associated stigma?

My reasoning may be spurious, but are there parallels between his approach to dyslexia and any radical appreciation of mental health? Here’s a quote from an interview Winkler gave to justonemorebook.com:

First of all, if you are dyslexic or if you have a learning challenge, kids know. They know that it’s hard for them. They know that they’re not up to snuff. They know that they’re not doing as well as 75% of the class. So then to compound it by labeling them, by putting them down, by yelling at them, by grounding them because, you know, they’re not reading fast enough, it warps their ability to grow into a healthy self-image.

It has to be acknowledged that, like epilepsy and unlike bipolar disorder, there is support for a neurobiological theory of dyslexia. Regardless, Winkler’s quote – emphasising stigma, productivity, labels and self-image; puts me in mind of attitudes towards the mentally ill. The levels and quality of support and acceptance are critical in determining the outcome of such a challenge; more so than any point of origin.
Is it naive to hope for a day when a kind, funny guy in a tweed jacket is invited to address a hall of school kids and tell them about his ‘mental challenges?’ Hopefully this gentleman would use a better phrase than that. Maybe he’d be sharing the adventures of a young person finding their feet and making their way whilst hearing voices and constantly shifting moods.
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On Monday The Guardian carried an exclusive interview Hadley Freeman conducted with Michael J. Fox. Like Winkler, Fox will ultimately be remembered for the green shoots of his early roles – those enduring, iconic characters whom neither the march of time, nor recurrent internet memes will ever unmake.
Another parallel is their later callings as representatives and campaigners for respective challenges. Winkler only received a diagnosis for his dyslexia later in life, around the time his step-son was in the third grade. Fox received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease back in 1991, arguably at the height of his fame.
I’m conscious of the minefield I could meander into here. I’m tying three separate conditions together; and I must emphasise that I am not calling them equal or necessarily equivalent. If I’m making a point its that adversity too often leads to surrender, and that the opinion and attitudes of others seems to be, more often than not, what holds us back.
Listening to him talk, you get the impression Mr Winkler remains amazed that he has achieved anything at all. Aged 30, Fox was told it’d be a miracle if he could continue working by the time he was 40 (his new series premiered in September. Michael J. Fox is 52.)
From Fox:
I take the medication for myself so I can transact, not for anyone else. But I am aware it is empowering for people to see what I do and, for the most part, people in the Parkinson’s community are just really happy that Parkinson’s is getting mentioned, and in a pitying way…
He considers pity to be ‘…just another form of abuse.’ Though I struggle to put it into words, I think I get what he means. Pity is intrusive, a value judgement has been made and you’re devalued by stealth. Written off and with your agency reduced, based upon a snapshot. His comments on medication have a resonance too, in that he has made the judgement on whether to follow a regime; which is quite a bold move for someone with a bona fide medical condition (one which, interestingly, Fox describes as ‘a gift…that keeps on taking.’)
Exemplars and role models are essential in all walks of life. As an epileptic I was pleased to discover the existence of a ‘Parkinson’s community’, though I guess “we” can’t get our shit together in quite the same way. In researching this piece one curious thought cropped up – who amongst the bipolar could be considered the equals to Fox and Winkler? There’s going to be a hell of a lot to choose from it seems, and for a Brit the obvious choice is Stephen Fry.
Fry has done a great deal in terms of advocacy and myth-smashing; and his candour, compassion and talent have long been a boon. However the bipolar appear to have a larger pool of famous faces and affluent names to draw representatives  from compared to dyslexia and Parkinson’s. The spectre of ‘manic depression propaganda’ looms large – is this because bipolar disorder walks hand in hand with creativity? Or is it because the diagnostic criteria is so unreliable.
I find it difficult to believe that Stephen Fry or Vivian Leigh wouldn’t have been as talented if they hadn’t been bipolar.  A diagnosis has many applications – it excuses Mel Gibson’s potent homophobia and antisemitism, while taking credit for Elgar’s Enigma Variations.  But as Ophelia’s Mirror reminds us, a label like bipolar tells us very little about a person. And Darian Leader notes that; ‘Emphasising the manic-depressive’s public creativity is, of course, also insensitive and stigmatizing to those who do not write or sculpt or paint or conquer to world-wide recognition.’
Perhaps what the bipolar need are fewer celebrity representatives. Stories of living day to day with the disposition, however one might choose to define it, will do far more to reduce stigma and challenge attitudes than the endless celeb confessionals; which reinforce stereotypes. Misunderstood genius or impressive train wreck. Everyone clamouring in and claiming ‘I’ve got that too!’, while Marty McFly and Hank Zipzer focus on ‘look what I can do.’
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On Thursday I was discharged from the psychiatric service.

After 12 years I no longer have a psychiatrist. I’ll see my GP every so often for bloods and that’s it. Winding down has been touted in the past and we’ve always, mutually, decided that staying in the service was a good idea. Just to see. For my part there was some kind of fear of freedom – 12 years, and I will not deny that Dr Sri has done right by me.

Apparently I’m a ‘success story.’ He said this with the wistful tones of someone who rarely scores any wins. Dr Sri always acknowledged the collaborative effort involved, but I can’t help but feel that he’s missed certain details. I’ve done better because I could no longer operate as a victim. No longer infested; no longer suffering under some invasive disease entity.  As trite as it may sound I tried to accentuate the positive and face the dark down rather than acquiesce to some spurious pseudo-scientific definitions. He gave me breathing space, and this is where I credit lithium because it gave me cover.

We fundamentally disagree on the nature of my disposition. I do not see disorder, certainly not pathology, and he wasn’t shy about telling me I was wrong. But he wasn’t militant about it, and we did respect each other. What’s sickening is that the quality of our relationship is something of a rarity. It has to be noted that part of the reason patients are being discharged from his books is because his unit is being wound down. He is moving onto a long term treatment programme – i.e. working with those we are told will never be “successes.” I know that his patients are fortunate to be under the care of such a patient, conscientious, intelligent and caring man. But he is wrong. Or, as he has hinted in the past, he is unable to afford his charges the treatment they might require. In at least one meeting he told me about his frustration with the service’s limited resources. Read into that what you will.

There was a certain degree of system shock when I left the meeting. I entered the service when I was 17. Crashing into it through blood and muddy water. I’m struggling to reconcile the disconnect between the person doing the talking and the fractal composition debating the issue upon our exit.

A safety net has been folded away. Getting back into the system is easier for alumni, but the principle is that (whilst not being cured), I am convenient enough to be released into the wild. I guess the question becomes what decisions can and should I make, now that its a little more unilateral around here?

Idiocy Unchained

Sometimes something completely outrageous occurs, provoking righteous indignation and justifiable challenges to narrow minded prejudices. A prime example of this arose last week, in the shape of Asda’s promotion of a blood-soaked “Mental Patient” Halloween costume.

After a hasty withdrawal, Asda made a tidy donation to Mind; and the story turned attentions towards similar products sold by Amazon and Tesco. An indignant mental health campaigner gave an impassioned and well reasoned response on The Today Programme, highlighting how such contorted representations simply reinforce stigmatisation of those with mental health concerns.

One thing I found strange about all this was my reaction. This sort of thing lacks any justification, but any anger I felt wasn’t born of the imagery itself, rather the astonishing levels of incompetence which allowed the product to exist in the first place. Numerous departments had to sign off on this, and at no point did anyone think ‘Wait a minute, some people may find this offensive.’ They wouldn’t have given the green light to some kind of Bongo Bongo tribal outfit, nor any kind of weird stereotypical, inflatable “gay best friend.”

Oh wait, they absolutely did.

Treating “g*y” like a swear word is just the cherry on top.

 

I try not to dwell on it too much, but as time passes and I gain new insights about who and what I am – and the places in the world they’ll take me – I find increasing validity in the notion that the “normal” world is what’s actually insane. I’m not even sure anger is the right word for how I feel about this. Disbelief, incredulity are perhaps more accurate.

This level of casual sanism has to be challenged and excised from our culture. One thing that might help is if people open their eyes and think for one goddamn minute. There is no single part of this story which couldn’t have been avoided, had those concerned engaged the critical faculties gifted to sturgeon.