The Road to My Father’s Death / RAW DAYS


Freedom is never free.

It’s more than a road that I follow to death’s door. Ahead lies night a continent across – a corridor of loneliness, of absence, and of terror that will return me to my father’s presence. How shall I conquer my own Dark Continent to be at his side, a frightened traveler who confronts an impossible journey, one that is tangled by the difficulties that complicate a personal and fond farewell?

Someone lend me an undivided heart to guide my actions, so that I may show those who attend him that his daughter has not turned out too badly. Let the darkness ahead yield its depth and fold a pocket in which to conceal a breaking heart. Then let my grief be sealed by time, as if there is no mystery to our departures.

My world was injured by driving east to Rawlins, Laramie, and the familiar streets of Cheyenne, where common sense asked me to stay the night, but ahead lay a spiral galaxy that turned toward my father’s death, and I must ride the circumference of that terrible disk in some way.

The truck sped beyond the border of Wyoming and into the Pine Bluffs of Nebraska, where we stopped at the first rest area. The dogs dragged me into the petrified blackness that was transparent to their senses, tugging me along the ghost trails of summer visitors, the dead grass sending aloft stale messages of happy journeys; family trips. The cold wind briefly chilled my fears of what lay within the night of the dark road, and we drove on.

One hundred miles farther we left the highway for the lights of a prairie town; its main street was as efficient as a rifle barrel and lined with cafes and comfortable motels where I might close my eyes to the nerve-wracking night, perhaps to awaken to the comfort of a blue and friendly morning, but I fed my fast food dinner to the dogs while pumping gas at a brightly-lit service station where young Friday-nighters were fueling their vehicles for fun. The black cold emptiness of the prairie was their arena: I was a stranger who counted the distance to my father’s death in gallons of gasoline.

By winter’s clock the terrible darkness was only a summer’s evening, but by my father’s way of thinking, rest was forbidden when so many miles could yet be taken up as if the truck were hauling in a rope that ended at his door. Suddenly, my head floated away over my right shoulder, tethered to the rest of me by the slightest will. Familiar furies escaped from the long-locked suitcase of former journeys and fear seeped in confusing colors between the cracks in my growing disarray. There it was – overwhelming panic and I knew that the road had closed for me as surely as if the highway had been ripped up by its roots.

Familiar Cheyenne was an easy two hours behind us, but it was a distance that seemed unreachable without the sight of the smooth prairie to channel my senses, which had become ungovernable in the claustrophobic night. At that moment I wanted to drive the entire distance home, passing Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins: a great distance with nothing but the cold dark and my anxiety to fill the space between sparse towns strung out along the interstate.

In night-abandoned Cheyenne I found a room with the indecent charm of an interrogation cell. A television set that hung from the ceiling by chains buzzed incessantly. A heater was stuck on cold, rattle, and blow. The dogs had to be dragged through the door, which was a threshold of terror for them also. After long minutes of hysteria, they crowded around me on the frigid bed, and I hung onto them through the night, paralyzed by my own stunning fear of the black road to my father’s death that waited outside.

In the early, early brightness, we fled. A minute’s delay might have broken my glassy hold on the steering wheel. Westward we fled, into the shining mountain plains of Wyoming, into a lens of the whitest fog that had engulfed the town of Laramie. The truck burrowed through that heavenly cloud; a brief journey through peace, but the phone call to my father’s death waited at home and the disgrace of my flight caused my heart to beat wretchedly.

Home: a slow and quiet Saturday afternoon. I ached to be invisible to my neighbors. I wanted to drive into the country where failure has no meaning, but I parked behind the house – a place of poor countenance – a yard of packed mud that somehow gives life to an old broken cottonwood. Why, out of all the miles of western brush and rock is this place home, when any scrap of earth could do as well?

It came to one moment on that dark road to my father’s death, when in panic I traveled the wrong way: not east, from Nebraska to Iowa and Illinois, but back to Wyoming, across the mystical, psychological, soul-bounding border of a hidden corner, to renew my exile in a waste of yellow rock and twisted board houses. None of this was new: I had come west, the wrong way from a daughter’s duty, many years before.

Knowledge folded over me as gentle truth. (Yes, the universe is gentle, eventually.) I hid in the house, hating winter’s early dark. The scene outdoors rippled with change as sunlight worked its way through empty snow clouds. The asphalt street glistened briefly. An old shoe that the dogs have worried to death, and an elk rack propped upright in a barren flowerbed, ought to have comforted me, but it was time to call my father.

His voice sounded oddly high-pitched and raspy, as if a little Egyptian mummy had taken his place. He began by recalling the age at which his father had succumbed, which was sixty-nine. At this far end of the lesson, his mind had returned to counting age in the way of a child and he noted that he had turned eighty-three and a half on Halloween. I wanted to say that eighty-four would come, but couldn’t. Instead I recounted my strange trip; the tide of panic, the terror that I might complete my own journey of death, which had begun five years before. He agreed, but without evident emotion, that I had done well to turn back. Perhaps he had come to expect disappointment from me, but he said that he was glad that I was home and safe and not playing again with chance on that dark road. It was unthinkable to turn around in the night, away from my father’s death, but I had.

Some quiet devil within wanted to know why he didn’t beg me to come home, to share his last dark night, as a daughter should, but he transferred the phone to my brother, who barely disguised his relief at my failure to appear, letting me know how unimportant to him that I had become. Something like a gravity wave passed through my pain, making concrete the fact that my behavior had often been irresponsible. Not in advance, but in retreat, lay progress.

Last night my father was moved into a nursing wing of the hospital. He described the room as being empty except for a hospital bed and a television set, which he complained was too loud.

“I don’t know where your brother is today,” he said. “He’s all upset again.”

“Over money.” I said. My parents had always funded him: I knew that there would be a wretched mess over that later.

“Yes,” he said.

We talked about the coming week, about his treatment schedule and when he might go home. The ability to walk unaided has become an important chimera, but he’s grateful for not being in pain, radiation treatments having knocked back a tumor that encroached on his spine. His raspy voice unsettled me – what is the cause? But the cause is that he is very ill.

His beard has grown too long to shave it by himself, he said. A nurse popped in just then to give him a wash up, which cut our visit short. An image lingered after I hung up the phone, of a cheerful young woman carrying a basin of water as if entering a temple. How has it come to pass that a stranger is more intimate with my father than I have been? Shouldn’t the Good Daughter serve at his bedside, my children gathered like birds in my skirts, to show him, and the world, that life goes on? But I have created no such family, no best accomplishment. Neither has my brother. Crazy ends here.

At the end our relationship was no little different than it had been during the years that we had traded the rinds of our minds over telephones scattered around the West, linked to the one in his kitchen, exchanging factoids about automobile maintenance, home repair, and amazing artifacts from the sciences, so I made a point of thanking him for moving the family in the 1950s to a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and I had access to good schools.

“Growing up where we did provided a foundation for my life that wasn’t only practical, but…”

“Spiritual,” he rasped.

As far as I could remember, my father had not uttered this word ever, but it was apt, coming from the man who had taught me that there is something outside the human ego that must be acknowledged as preceding us and outlasting us. A shared reverence for nature’s depths had helped two damaged people fumble toward love. My mother and brother were alien beings who existed outside reason and were therefore, dangerous.

Compelled by an obsession to make something useful out of everything, I had studied the two as if they were rogue planets, convinced that one more observation might bring them into the realm of order, but nothing is ever solved. People just pass away.


I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote this, but today I see AS as the primary ground of my “differentness”. I believe that many Asberger symptoms are the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, refused treatment, and lived with our parents, who enabled his paranoia and protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened, and let him abuse me, as well as adding dashes of abuse of their own, so I stayed away for years at a time.

I didn’t piece together until much later that my father was an “obvious” Asperger – and that I was also, which eventually led to a diagnosis. This revelation explained so much about my childhood that was inexplicable, tellingly, that I understood intuitively that my father’s “odd behavior” was familiar, and yet, it wasn’t. I was aware that my behavior was “out of sync” and constantly pursued the subject; my family didn’t seem to have a scrap of insight. This bizarre situation became a lifelong laboratory that helped to develop my thinking skills.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder and decoder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanied my daring escape.





At my father’s house in Illinois / RAW DAYS


At My Father’s House in Illinois

I am accustomed to writing about landscape, but at present the internal picture takes precedence. The outer view encompasses a gray-skied, bare-treed, cold and windy Midwestern midwinter day. Longing overwhelms my inner state and I am thankful that the land is bleak. A blue sky over red cliffs, shadowed hills, or a dark, abrupt mountain side might provoke an unbearable contrast to the lock that despair has placed on my heart.

A fir tree composed of a gently curving trunk, its branches resembling dogs’ tails, stands in front of my truck. I start the engine periodically and slide the heater lever far to the right to counter cold air that sinks through the windows. My brother paces outside, indifferent to the cold. He is not lazy per se, but for some reason he is not productive either, expending energy on the complications that can be made to adhere to any project, and in the process, derailing his efforts into lost canyons. I confess that this compulsion baffles me. A monthly flea market located west of Chicago attracts thousands of buyers, come rain, snow, or as we have joked, nuclear attack, but my brother will not sell there.  He mentioned a dealer with whom he had a disagreement of some sort, hinting that the man had stalked him afterward: that is, he showed up at the same place once or twice. This was years ago, but he will not sell at that market.

Today we have dragged a trailer load of goods to the parking lot of an antiques store, the same store my brother refused to venture into last week. He sent me instead, carrying a box of things to sell. The owner was not in. I waited for an hour, passing the time by dusting egg cups and figurines, and straightening doilies.

My brother urged me to repeat the effort some days later, but I declined. Surprisingly, and to his profit, he went himself, but last night he refused to attend an auction that this same store owner frequents.

I look through the windshield at the gray Illinois sky to where my brother leans against the flank of my truck. Rotund and nearly fifty, with a gray knit cap squashed over his forehead, his greasy black hair straggling from beneath it, he wears a surplus parka with a rip in the sleeve and many stains on the front. He tilts his face toward the dark snow-spitting sky, and I notice that his eyeglasses are dirty, too. He smiles at me and I smile at him. Two people could not be more unalike, but nevertheless, we are family.

Winter’s box besets my father’s house. Barricaded by black trees, it is impossible for me to know what transpires in the larger world. A storm cloaked northern Illinois with ice during the night, and a thick skin mimics the shape of my truck. A red concrete goose, a lost daughter of Juno’s flock, is stationed at the entry to the house; she acquires a mantle of white wood ash that drifts above the sidewalk. The source is a trowel held in my father’s hand.

Last night my brother scrubbed the kitchen floor and I swept the porch. My father knows that we’ll track the mess inside, and yet he shakes the ashes onto the walk like some medicine man describing a chant.

A patch of blue sky can be seen for the first time in days, just above the tangled black oaks growing at the edge of the lot. A small forest begins there, dense and unlovely, like lines of type overprinted by a printer that is stuck. When I was nine years old my father ditched his mother and sister as if they were nothing. The shock of this event caused me to flee to the perimeter of the Garden, but his harsh judgment of the women followed me there, worn into my thoughts like hollows in the rocks beneath a waterfall. My father taught me that contrary to Christian conceit, it is not a supernatural Father that picks and chooses who among us shall suffer, but our earthly one.

Spring ought to have made gains, but the days remain gray and ice-sheathed. Without notice, something sharp and cautionary breaks through. Impulses one could call manic threaten the compliant and silent demeanor I have cultivated these many weeks. Happy hysteria is feared and yet longed for; the green brightness within has become something to withhold – a peculiar, protective, irrational impulse in someone who badly needs a lift.

Tiles fall away from a tub surround that is black in places with mold. Chunks of plaster tumble into the tub. I shower anyway, feeling a shadow of guilt by doing this healthy and normal thing. According to my father and brother, my insistence on bathing is ruining the tub enclosure; the extra and unneeded water will hasten the rot. The two calculate that by not bathing they can delay making repairs indefinitely. I recall seeing my brother with damp hair on two occasions; my father never, but he hasn’t much hair.

My father cuts deadfall with a chainsaw this morning. The branches are about three inches in diameter. He cuts enough to fill the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, and then rolls it up the lawn to the screened porch, which is sealed by plastic sheets that remain in summer. Unavailable as a bug-free haven, the space is reserved for makeshift stacks of scrap wood, which he loads into the fireplace day and night, winter and summer, like bodies into a crematorium. It is my observation that neither the heat gained, nor the life of the flames, propel what he calls recycling.

Broken pallets and dismembered furniture, roof shingles and plastic are burned as a sacrifice to the darker purpose of being perverse for perversity’s sake: he punishes the air we breath in order to punish us. The abundant deadfall is the result of my father’s indifference to the health of the trees on his lot, which are not trimmed, shaped, sprayed, or removed when dead. Infested branches plummet audibly to the ground. Several metal rods dot the yard, each with a rusted can balanced on top, marking where volunteer trees grew long ago from the seeds of a rotted hickory. My father marked them in this way in order to avoid mowing them down. He may have done so anyway: regardless, they died. I offered to remove the rods and cans that remain, but was forbidden to do so.

We never mention my mother, but I thought of her tonight as I plucked giant yellow tulips from the yard in front of my father’s house. The tulips grow in the lawn along a line that marks a relict garden, which is why I thought of my mother. It was only to remark how she would have liked to see the flowers, but as they were before she died, when the lawn was mowed, the beds were readied for planting, and weeds were kept at bay. A section of sidewalk has subsided so that a fault scarp, as well as a pair of overturned urns, must be negotiated on the way to the door. Next to the stoop, a crater of unknown origin is being colonized by bright cones of convallaria that erupt through ferns that lie brown and prostrate as if blown down by an explosion. We never mention my mother, as if there had always been just the three of us.

My brother and I searched the yard for scrap materials to build flower boxes – anything to focus my attention. Our contact over the last three months has been like that of wild animals forced to drink from the same small water hole. At one point I looked at him and wondered, What’s wrong with clean clothes, a hair cut, and polished eyeglasses? Just then a spasmodic cough overcame him: I turned to face a giant pear tree dressed in thousands of fragrant white blossoms. Where did this apparition of life, this white tower of profuse flowers come from in such a place?

My brother halted every few feet on his way to the house to bend over and cough. Whatever is wrong with him, it is none of my business, although if he were an acquaintance or a stranger, I would ask. His health is yet another part of the family’s world from which I am excluded, a world where nothing is open to discussion.

The drive home from town lends a reprieve when the highway crosses a valley edged by low glacial ridges. The view ahead clears and the sight of a narrow asphalt thread snaking eastward toward my father’s house reminds me of roads that cross western plains. The rolling gray road lets me know that I belong to the universe, not to my family nor to anyone else.

My existence tears and flutters like tissue, and yet I survive. Last night I checked inside, looked into the goo that resides at the bottom of the well. The stuff began to rise like a gas bubble in heavy oil and strange things appeared as it broke the surface; bouquets of sea creatures appeared black and metallic, and yet glinted with color. A nuclear wind reduced me to a crouching corpse transformed into a lump of ash. I breathed a short gasping breath. Someone spoke and I was encouraged: my father entered the room where I cowered in bed.

“I’m in bad shape,” I told him, a confession of weakness that pegged me as the perfect audience for a monologue about what a clever lad he had been. The man possesses a remarkable memory for data such as the height of the fence posts at his childhood home, or the dimensions of a boat that he constructed as a boy, but he can’t recall that I’m staying at his house because I’m quite ill. Despair overcame me as he droned on, but the ordeal helped to pass the time.

Days slide underfoot, passed from front to back like buckets of debris in a rescue brigade; my days are wasted in the knowledge of the Gothic cathedral and its chain of souls, the apex of daring among men and women who imagined heaven as an experience. Love comes to me in post cards of traveling stones and earthbound sagebrush, of grassy islands in the dust, of seed wands that nod beneath boiling clouds.

On the morning that I didn’t leave my father’s house for the 5th, 6th, or  7th time, I can’t remember which, the air was cold and the sun was shining. The rumble of a prop plane carried into my escape pod, a travel trailer parked in front of a shed nearer to the road than to the house. The dogs lay with me on top of an electric blanket, unaware of the journey that they would miss that day. I was sick with confusion, cigarettes, and self-hatred and I wanted to lie in bed until I died. I lit another cigarette and tried to imagine that the three of us were parked along a clear stream a thousand miles west. Soon I must go up to the house: hunger and humiliation called. I closed my eyes and sought relief in the warm blanket, but the airplane circled and my stomach dipped and dived with it.

“You are a coward,” my throbbing head observed. Two days earlier I had informed my father and brother that I must leave: this was true. My confidence slipped as I spoke, but having declared that I was leaving, I had to. My father reacted as if I were planning a vacation; he brought a dusty bundle of fishing rods up from the basement. He looked as if he would cry. I felt dismal, and worse, I felt my strength and resolve dissolve.

I didn’t have the courage to leave this morning, but went up to the house and drank three cups of coffee, saying things like, “I hate myself,” which I did.

My father said to me what he used to say when my mother was ‘blubbering’ over something: “Quit getting all worked up.” He still doesn’t know that lamentation is the result of distress, not its cause.

“It’s good that I’m crying – I haven’t cried for ten terrible months,” I said.

Signs of life were brief, so it was out to the trailer and back to bed, the aluminum hull a serving as a second skull that protected me from whatever would happen next. The sun went down and I walked back to my father’s house like a shipwreck unwilling to let go of her leaky raft despite having washed up on a beach.

The day that I left my father’s house, my destination was a motel a mere eight miles away, a small affair attached to a dairy farm. A German shepherd met me inside the office, so I was encouraged that my dogs might be welcome.

I returned to my father’s house to tell him what I’d done. He may have been upset; it was hard to tell. He was likely thinking that it was a fool thing to do when I already had a roof over my head. The empty motel called to my confused grasp on the idea of salvation, but I spent one more night at my father’s house, gathering some clothing and a box of food.

In the afternoon I left for the motel, but the room seemed ugly and smelled like vomit. Feeling silly, I asked the manager to move. The new room proved to be warmer in color, the carpet was newer, and the room didn’t smell, but I panicked around dinner time  and felt ridiculous.

The next morning I didn’t feel well, but this had been going on for months, so I did what I’d done every morning: brushed my teeth, showered, dried my hair and dressed, then pulled on rubber boots. It had snowed overnight and a drift blocked my truck. Two orange shovels leaned on the wall by the office door, but no one was about. There was nothing to do but dig in. Eventually the owner joined me.

“That shovel you’ve got doesn’t work too well,” he said. We kept digging until the truck was free.

I drove to a coffee shop and surprised myself by eating a plate of eggs, hash browns, and toast, with three cups of coffee. Encouraged, I drove to my father’s house where I discovered that whoever had plowed the driveway had also piled the snow in front of my trailer.

The dogs burst into the yard when I opened the truck door, running circles around the big oak trees and plowing trails through the snow with their noses. No one was at home: the house felt less awful now that I no longer lived there, but I crept around like a thief collecting shampoo and a scarf, my electric teakettle and mouthwash.

Back at the motel I felt all right, perhaps relaxed. That night I lay sleepless as the curious situation played on my mind: eight miles from my father’s house and homeless. What did that mean? Was I capable of hooking up the trailer and driving away? If so, where would I go and what would I do when I got there? Could I pull off my own rescue without ambition or desire?

On the second morning after I left my father’s house, I began removing the snow that blocked my trailer. The plow had scraped leaves and gravel into the pile, and the resulting melange was difficult to dissect. My father came out to see what I was up to: an irritable comment escaped my lips.

On the third day after I left my father’s house, I didn’t go there.

On the fourth day it was time to finish off the snow that barricaded my trailer, since more bad weather was predicted. My father again appeared, this time carrying a garden shovel. He jabbed at the snow and leaves looking for an entry, then mumbled something about his failure to dispose of the snow pile for me.

“Don’t help her!” My brother shouted as he emerged from the house. He pushed past me, as if I was no more alive and present than a concrete statue. “This doesn’t concern us,” he added. No surprise, but why antagonize me now, when I would soon be out of his way?

“I didn’t ask for help,” I said. This brought a vicious reprimand from him, so I called him a jerk. He countered by hurling grudges from the stockpile of warheads he keeps armed like a Russian who aches to launch a few missiles, for old time’s sake.

Our father stood aside like a wounded sack of coal, passively sanctioning the bullying initiated by my mother and perpetuated by my brother. When I was a child there had been no escape, unless turning into a nervous wreck is a form of refuge.

“I’m leaving for Wyoming,” I told my father. That was the last time I saw either one of them.


raw days editThis piece is from RAW DAYS, a book about being bipolar.

I had no idea I was Asperger at the time I wrote it, and now I see AS is the primary ground of my “differentness” with bipolar symptoms the result of an attempt by the brain to “adjust” to stress created by my dysfunctional family and to The Social Pyramid, an alien environment that is toxic to “people like me.”

My brother was schizophrenic, in denial, and refused treatment. He lived with our parents, who protected him from consequences of his disease. He attacked me viciously whenever I turned up, like a rabid fox protecting a hallucination. My parents never intervened and let him abuse me, so I stayed away for years at a time.

Despite being bipolar and Asperger, I was the healthy one in the family: the observer, the analyzer, the recorder, the documentarian. Survivor’s guilt accompanies my daring escape.




Epigenetics / Basics

What Is Epigenetics?

Brief info from University of Utah Health Sciences – excellent website for an  overview of genetics, which (if you’re like me) can be very confusing.

As an organism grows and develops, carefully orchestrated chemical reactions activate and deactivate parts of the genome at strategic times and in specific locations. Epigenetics is the study of these chemical reactions and the factors that influence them.

Epigenetics and the Human Brain

Throughout our lives, the brain remains flexible and responsive. In addition to receiving signals from the outside world, the brain allows us to form memories and learn from our experiences. Many brain functions are accompanied at the cellular level by changes in gene expression. Epigenetic mechanisms such as histone modification and DNA methylation stabilize gene expression, which is important for long-term storage of information.

Not surprisingly, epigenetic changes are also a part of brain diseases such as mental illness and addiction. Understanding the role of epigenetics in brain disease may open the door to being able to influence it. This may lead to the development of new and more effective treatments for brain diseases.

And now for the bad news: worth watching!

Misdiagnosis of Gifted Children as Asperger and Mentally Ill

  When intensity and sensitivity are combined with idealism, as so often happens with bright children and adults, good things can happen because they can keenly see how things might be. But this can also lead to frustration, disillusionment, and unhappiness. Sometimes this prompts perfectionism; other times it results in existential depression. Through our relationships, we must provide understanding and nurturance so that they do not feel alone and helpless in a world that seems so paradoxical, arbitrary, and even absurd. We can help nurture their idealism, and indeed we must if the world is to become a better place.

Diagnosis Mental Illness / Ancient Greece and Rome


From site dedicated to mental health abuses

The theory behind ECT (electro shock therapy) hasn’t advanced beyond that of the ancient Greeks who tried to cure mental problems using convulsive shock created by a drug called hellebore. A revival of ECT occurred in the early part of the 20th Century.

In 1938, Italian psychiatrist Ugo Cerletti developed electro shock treatment for humans, after being inspired by a visit to a slaughterhouse in Rome to observe butchers incapacitating pigs with electric shocks before killing them.


Diagnosing Mental Illness in Ancient Greece and Rome

Gods-given hallucinations and suppressing anger for the greater good: How what’s considered “abnormal” has changed.

THE ATLANTIC / Julie Beck Jan 23, 2014

William V. Harris, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, studies mental illness in the classical world—ancient Rome and Greece. Though the body of knowledge we have at our disposal is still not totally sufficient to understand mental illness today, there’s an added level of difficulty involved in trying to apply today’s knowledge to earlier civilizations. Or in understanding those civilizations’ concepts of mental illness in a time when the gods were thought to be involved in everyday life and hallucinations weren’t something to worry about.

Orestes chased by the Furies: in Ancient Greece, vengeance was often delivered by the Furies as a descent into madness

Many people in antiquity thought that mental disorders came from the gods. The Greek gods are a touchy lot, quick to take offense. For instance, they took a hard line with Orestes after his matricide. [Ed. Note: After killing his mother, Orestes was tormented by the Furies.] And in a world where many important phenomena such as mental illness were not readily explicable, the whims of the gods were the fallback explanation.

Physicians and others fought against this idea from an early date (the 5th century B.C.), giving physiological explanations instead. Many people sought magical/religious remedies—such as going to spend the night in a temple of the healing god Asclepius, in the hope that he would work a cure or tell you how to get cured—[while physicians sought] mainly medical ones. No one thought that it was the duty of the state to care for the insane. Either their families looked after them, or they ended up on the street—a nightmare situation.

In the introduction you wrote to Mental Disorders in the Classical World, you talk about “medicalizing mental illness.” When and why did people start to be seen as sick instead of crazy?

 Some time in the late 5th century B.C., some member of the school of Hippocrates wrote a treatise “On the Sacred Disease,” in which he argued that the “sacred disease,” i.e. epilepsy, was a physiological syndrome, and very soon all doctors and scientists (in so far as such a category existed) came to think that crazy people were sick (but not that they were not crazy). Greek doctors did not distinguish sharply between physical and mental disorders, and they did not have concepts that correspond simply with “depression” or “schizophrenia.” Roberto Lo Presti, in the book we are talking about, examines at length the development of Greek thinking about epilepsy. Greek doctors always tended to think that what we call psychoses were physiological in nature.
How did doctors diagnose the mentally ill back then? What were the criteria they used? And how did they go about treating them?They were mostly (not entirely) concerned with psychoses (externalizing disorders such as antisocial personality disorder and drug and alcohol use disorders) rather than neuroses (internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety), and they took into account a full range of hard-to-define symptoms including inappropriate behavior in public, delusions, delirium, and hallucinations. Treatments also covered a whole range from physical restraint to counseling; they did not make much use of pharmaceuticals.In the essay you contributed about hallucinations, you mention that in the classical world, people often saw gods and otherworldly things. Was there an evolution of hallucinations from being seen as a supernatural experience to as a symptom of something medically wrong?

There was no simple evolution: the Hippocratic doctors already recognized hallucinations as a purely human phenomenon, but many ordinary people went on supposing that the gods were involved. The moral idea that anger was dangerous forms part of the widespread ancient idea that the essence of good behavior is self-control.
Does this mean that hallucinations were more commonplace and less stigmatized than today?No more commonplace, I think. Less stigmatized, yes, somewhat. One would not have sought treatment.Socrates had hallucinations, right? Did that affect how he was perceived?Socrates seems to have had recurrent hallucinations of one particular type: A voice spoke to him, usually advising him not to do things. His disciples were in awe of this phenomenon, but some of his later admirers thought they needed to explain it away—they thought it suggested that he was slightly cracked.

One of your older books is about rage—why was anger seen as an illness, or something to be controlled?

It took me about 400 pages to answer this question! Partly because it was seen as dangerous in the state, partly because it was seen as a danger in the family (especially because of slavery), partly later because excessive anger came to be seen as a personal moral failure.

Anger was dangerous to the state above all because it led to political violence, including tyrannical behavior by absolute rulers; dangerous to the family because of its potential to cause feuding and violence (as for slavery, the angry slave-owner could generally treat the slaves as he wished—but they might and did react). The moral idea arises out of these concrete political and social imperatives I think, but it also forms part of the widespread ancient idea that the essence of good behavior is self-control.

Are there difficulties applying today’s conceptions of what is “abnormal” to historical figures? Or vice versa?

There sure are, both ways. The conceptual and moral differences are huge. People have argued that, for example, Herod the Great and Caligula were schizophrenics, but tracing the way they actually behaved is rendered difficult by the inadequate sources [available]. And in the Roman world, a great deal of violence was normal, as was much of what we consider pedophilia. But this makes the work of scholars such as me more interesting as well as more difficult.

Are there any ideas the ancient Greeks or Romans held that would be helpful for us to think about in the discussion surrounding mental illness today?

Yes, as far as neuroses are concerned, see in particular Chris Gill’s contribution to the book I edited, with his emphasis on character. He looks at the idea that we should train our characters so that we are ready for life’s disasters and can face them robustly.


Zoochosis – Psychosis / Making Living Things Insane

Zoochosis is mental illness in animals, and it’s source is human cruelty and the Neotenic need for novelty. Notice that the pattern of symptoms is strikingly familiar to the description-diagnosis of ASD and related “behavioral disorders.”


In the mid-1990s, Gus, a polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, alarmed visitors by compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool, sometimes for 12 hours a day. He stalked children from his underwater window, prompting zoo staff to put up barriers to keep the frightened children away from his predatory gaze.* Gus’s neuroticism earned him the nickname “the bipolar bear,” a dose of Prozac, and $25,000 worth of behavioral therapy.

Gus is one of the many mentally unstable animals featured in Laurel Braitman’s new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. The book features a dog that jumps out of a fourth floor apartment, a shin-biting miniature donkey, gorillas that sob, and compulsively masturbating walruses.* Much of the animal madness Braitman describes is caused by humans forcing animals to live in unnatural habitats, and the suffering that ensues is on display most starkly in zoos. (Zoos practice animal abuse hidden under lies like “conservation” “saving endangered species” “creating awareness” “educating children”  Animals are exploited as objects, which is a pornographic view of life.) 

“Zoos as institutions are deeply problematic,” Braitman told me. Gus, for example, was forced to live in an enclosure that is 0.00009 percent of the size his range would have been in his natural habitat. “It’s impossible to replicate even a slim fraction of the kind of life polar bears have in the wild,” Braitman writes.

Many animals cope with unstimulating or small environments through stereotypic behavior, which, in zoological parlance, is a repetitive behavior that serves no obvious purpose, such as pacing, bar biting, and Gus’ figure-eight swimming. Trichotillomania (repetitive hair plucking) and regurgitation and reingestation (the practice of repetitively vomiting and eating the vomit) are also common in captivity. According to Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, authors of Animals Make Us Human, these behaviors, “almost never occur in the wild.” In captivity, these behaviors are so common that they have a name: “zoochosis,” or psychosis caused by confinement. (In human children confinement can be physical: schools, dysfunctional families; or environmental: social regimes that require obedience, conformity, and behavior that is alien and damaging to any child who falls outside rigid and unhealthy social definitions of “normal human.”

The disruption of family or pack units for the sake of breeding is another stressor in zoos, especially in species that form close-knit groups, such as gorillas and elephants. Zoo breeding programs, which are overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Animal Exchange Database, move animals around the country when they identify a genetically suitable mate. Tom, a gorilla featured in Animal Madness, was moved hundreds of miles away because he was a good genetic match for another zoo’s gorilla. At the new zoo, he was abused by the other gorillas (bullying of “outsider” students in schools is an epidemic) and lost a third of his body weight.

Eventually, he was sent back home, only to be sent to another zoo again once he was nursed back to health. When his zookeepers visited him at his new zoo, he ran toward them sobbing and crying, following them until visitors complained that the zookeepers were “hogging the gorilla.” While a strong argument can be made for the practice of moving animals for breeding purposes in the case of endangered species, animals are also moved because a zoo has too many of one species. The Milwaukee Zoo writes on its website that exchanging animals with other zoos “helps to keep their collection fresh and exciting.”

To combat zoochosis, many zoos have enrichment programs in which animals are given distracting toys or puzzles to play with, food that takes longer to eat, or more complex additions to their enclosures. (We call it Special Ed classes, therapy, counseling or even Discipline – schools are permitted to use physical restraint or punishment in many states.”) While acknowledging that enrichment is better than nothing, Braitman says it is “a band aid … when you have a lemur in an enclosure, even if it’s a great enclosure, it’s still an enclosure.” Enrichment has been found to reduce stereotypic behavior 53 percent of the time.

Drugs are another common treatment for stereotypic behavior. “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried,” Braitman told me. She explained that pharmaceuticals are attractive to zoos because “they are a hell of a lot less expensive than re-doing your $2 million exhibit or getting rid of that problem creature.” But good luck getting some hard numbers on the practice. The AZA and the Smithsonian National Zoo declined to be interviewed for this article, and many zookeepers sign non-disclosure agreements. Braitman also found the industry hushed on this issue, likely because

“finding out that the gorillas, badgers, giraffes, belugas, or wallabies on the other side of the glass are taking Valium, Prozac, or antipsychotics to deal with their lives as display animals is not exactly heartwarming news.”

But it’s “okay” for our children.

We do know, however, that the animal pharmaceutical industry is booming. In 2010, it did almost $6 billion in sales in the United States.

After reading Animal Madness, I visited the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I encountered a pair of burrowing owls in a small glass enclosure whose informational placard unironically stated that their natural habitat is “open spaces.” I also encountered a meerkat pacing for nearly all of the four minutes I stood at his enclosure. In the Great Ape House, I watched Mandara, a 34-year-old female gorilla, as she sat with her back against the glass, facing away from the children gathered behind her. The children touched the glass to get her attention before losing interest. In Animals and Society, author Margo Demello explains that zoos often disappoint visitors: “People do not just want to see animals; they also want to connect with them, a condition impossible given the structural limitations of the zoo.”

The central conundrum of the zoo is that people love animals and remain curious about them, and yet the very animals that attract crowds pay dearly for our affection. Lowland gorillas in the wild have a range of roughly one to 16 miles, and Mandara’s enclosure, though full of tires, hay, and artificial tree trunks, is the tiniest fraction of that. While taking notes in the Great Ape House, a zoo volunteer inquired about what I was doing. I explained that I was a journalist writing a piece about animal well-being. My response seemed to concern her and she told me that the gorillas “are very happy here.” She encouraged me to touch a sample of gorilla hair she carried in a pouch. It was rough, but surprisingly human-like.

Zoos portray themselves as the arks of the animal kingdom, safeguarding the future of biodiversity. And it’s true that many zoos do have conservation, research, breeding, and reintroduction programs, which are certainly noble projects. But what about the rest of the animals that are not endangered? At the National Zoo, only one fifth of the animals are endangered or threatened.

And for those animals that are endangered, is it a requirement that the same kinds of animals being conserved also be kept in zoos? Zoos argue that they are promoting appreciation of wildlife that will translate into environmental conservationism. The AZA released a study in 2007 on the educational impact of zoos, arguing just this point. However, an examination of the study by researchers at Emory University found the results exaggerated, noting that “there is no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in their visitors.” Animals and Society highlights research that found that the average visitor spends 30 seconds to two minutes at an enclosure, and that most visitors do not read the labels at exhibits. Stephen Kellert, a leading social ecologist at Yale, argues that zoos encourage the notion that humans are superior to animals, rather than encouraging kinship with nature.

Many zoos cite the longer life expectancy of zoo animals to show that living conditions are humane. The animals are free from the danger of predators, so how bad can it be? To this, Braitman writes, “A tally of years lived and calorically balanced meals eaten doesn’t account for quality of life or the pleasure that can come from making one’s own decisions.” (An accurate description of the human social Zoo.) But longer life expectancies are not found in all captive animals. A study in the journal Science found that zoo elephants’ life spans were less than half that found in protected wild populations in Africa and Asia. (All the billions of dollars pumped into the medical industry have not made Americans healthy; live spans are “increased” by extreme chemical and surgical interventions at insane expense. Like captive animals, human beings are objects of profit: a pornographic view of life.)

When I spoke with Braitman, she went to great lengths to explain that zoos’ failures to provide satisfactory habitats are not the fault of the zookeepers, adding that most truly want what is best for their animals. (So, it’s okay to enable abuse of animals if one has an infantile need to see wild creatures as “pets” or “children.” During my visit to the National Zoo, I too was touched by my encounters with zookeepers. I met one gingerly handling a tenrec (a hedgehog-like creature native to Madagascar) who knew the answer to every question I peppered him with about the animals in the exhibit.

Gun Sickness / American Hypocrisy Re-Post

Is the core NRA membership “guilty” of insensitivity to the reality of gun violence; do they proudly display a shameful lack of compassion and concern for the welfare of communities across the U.S.? Unavoidably the answer is yes, but those who rail against the NRA won’t admit the part they play in gun violence. Hypocrisy? You bet. Follow the money. The Federal government is in the business of supplying arms to nations (nice and naughty) all over the globe and secretly arming really evil people: our government is in the business of gun violence. Hypocrisy, yes. How can the American government and U.S. citizens condemn gun culture, when “we” are the largest gun runner on the planet?

Hypocrisy is not a strategy; it’s cowardice.

The NRA does not stop people from notifying authorities when suspicious communication and actions are exhibited by a troubled young male. The NRA does not prevent parents from seeking help for child instead of hiding his bizarre behavior year after year. The NRA does not hire school counselors and psychologists who pass over serious signs of depression, obsession and violence because they are undereducated for the serious responsibility placed upon them. The  NRA does not force police to act as mental health experts, judges to be experts on mental illness, and jail staff to serve as psychiatrists, because there is no funding for real treatment. The NRA is not responsible for fathers abandoning their sons, when young men desperately need male guidance. We instead turn them over to the entertainment industry which saturates their minds with an ultraviolent model of male behavior – a model in which there is only one form of relief – rage acted out.

Claiming that the gun lobby is some monolith of power that prevents reversing the brutal character of violence in U. S. cities, schools and homes is a dangerous cop out.


The gun lobby does not leave loaded guns lying around the house where curious young children, who think guns are toys, accidentally shoot people. Parents do.


Jan. 10, 2013: 6-year-old playmate shoots and kills 4-year-old Trinity Ross, Kansas City, Kan.

Feb. 11: 4-year-old Joshua Johnson shoots and kills himself, Memphis, Tenn.

Feb. 24: 4-year-old Jaiden Pratt dies after shooting himself in the stomach while his father sleeps, Houston.

March 30: 4-year-old Rahquel Carr shot and killed either by 6-year-old brother or another young playmate, Miami.

April 6: Josephine Fanning, 48, shot and killed by 4-year-old boy at a barbecue, Wilson County, Tenn.

April 8: 4-year-old shoots and kills 6-year-old friend Brandon Holt, Toms River, N.J.

April 9: 3-year-old is killed after he finds a pink gun that he thinks is a toy, Greenville, S.C.

April 30: 2-year-old Caroline Sparks killed by her 5-year-old brother with his Cricket “My First Rifle” marketed to kids, Cumberland County, Ky.

May 1: 3-year-old Darrien Nez shoots himself in the face and dies after finding his grandmother’s gun, Yuma, Ariz.

May 7: 3-year-old Jadarrius Speights fatally shoots himself with his uncle’s gun, Tampa, Fla.

June 7: 4-year-old fatally shoots his father, Green Beret Justin Thomas, Prescott Valley, Ariz.

and many, many more



Who am I after all these years?/ Re-post

Visiting Great Gramma at her farm

Visiting Great Gramma at her farm; that’s me at the far left, looking very awkward and uncomfortable.

I grew up in a family in which mental illness was a fact of life. I’m Asperger (a valid brain type from my POV) and bipolar. My brother was schizoid. Everyone functioned – not great, but well enough, but I was the only one who actively searched for answers and treatment. It caused a rift in the family and I was essentially kicked out for wanting to be healthy. I would see my brother suffering, but he refused all treatment, even when he began to get into trouble with authorities and help was offered. It is  incomprehensible to me why a person would want to stay in a frightening and agitated state and not want to live as well as possible. But then, I observe the lives of so-called normal people and think the same thing. It’s difficult for me to remember that I once had a family, so great was the gulf between my expectations and theirs. From a young age I began building a “ghost” family of artists and writers whom I admired through their works, and from landscapes and buildings in the environment,  which is populated by thousands of strangers as well as friends. The habit became so rewarding that I just kept it up, accumulating a complex library of rich characters and environments that never leaves me. This creative act is likely to be the result of being a visual thinker.

Most everyone, especially when young, asks, Who am I? The answer for me turned out to be simple: I am everything I have ever seen.

Religious Perceptions of Mental Illness / C. Orthodox


According to WIKI, all  Christian Orthodox churches share theology.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

Again: I’m no help with interpreting religious material.


I have to admit that Byzantine art drives me INSANE with happiness. Carved rock crystal and gold lamp, 11th C.


A visitor asks about demonic possession:

“I am completely dumbfounded when it comes to topics like demonic possession. In the Bible, those that are possessed are described as having tremors and violently shaking and engaging in weird behaviors. But whenever I read that, I just think of medical terms such as seizures and mental illness. How do you distinguish between the two and recognize that someone is possessed? And how and why does it happen? And does it happen to all humans equally, in the sense that Christians can get possessed too or is it just those who deny or don’t care about Christ? Thank you :-)”

I think many people have this question, but rarely have the opportunity to ask it. Christ’s Holy Church presents the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene Demoniac as part of the daily recommended readings several times a year. Demonic possession is real, and so is mental/physical illness. (Take a moment and listen to Fr. Chris Metropoulos’ interview of Fr. Andrew Demotses (a priest of nearly 50 years) and his description of how to discern between the two by clicking here.)

Also, Archimandrite Vasilios of the Holy Athonite Monastery of Iveron addressed this very topic in a powerful way as well.

The topic of demon possession is very important to us as Orthodox Christians on many levels. In the New Testament, we see Christ encountering demonic possession on several occasions: the demon-possessed Gerasene(s): Mt 8:28-34, Mk 5:2-20, Lk 8: 26-39; a demon-possessed mute man: Mt 9:32-34, Lk 11:14-26; a demon-possessed blind and mute man: Mt 12:22-28; the Canaanite woman’s daughter: Mt 15:22-28, Mk 7:25-30; an epileptic boy: Mt 17:15 -21, Mk 9:14-2 9, Lk 9:3 8-43; the man in the synagogue at Capernaum: Mk 1:21-28, Lk 4:33-36.

While the encounters Christ has with the possessed are dramatic, and certainly Hollywood presents horrifying, graphic representations of demonic possession, I think we face much more frightening forms of possession on a daily basis.

The evil one is very clever and subtle, so much so that we as a society have become comfortable with the concept of evil in our lives. Take a moment and consider the reaction of the townspeople when they see the formerly possessed man sitting in his right mind listening to Christ. They don’t rejoice at this man finally being free; they ask Christ to leave. Think about that for a moment. They were more comfortable with a possessed naked man in the graveyard than with Christ and His Holiness.

I’m sad to say that the devil has subtly won many battles around us, and that we are in the same category as those townspeople. While almost all of us will never experience the Hollywood level of possession, we are almost all, to one extent or another, possessed by evil things. Almost daily, we choose evil over good, even though we certainly know that this is not what is best for us and our spiritual lives.

Thankfully, we are rapidly approaching Great and Holy Lent. With the proper spiritual guidance and mindset, we can use Lent (fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and contrition) to fight our evil addictions and behaviors that drive a wedge between us and Christ…namely our egos.

The greatest victory that the evil one can achieve is to make us believe that evil and the demonic are not real.

Great and Holy Lent, tied with the Holy Sacramental life of the Church, brings us to repentance and to realize that we have to fight against evil. There truly is unseen warfare raging around us. I am reminded of a quote from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Every evil screams only one message: ‘I am good.’”

When we realize the strength of keeping close to Christ in our lives, then we can turn our back on the devil who didn’t even have enough power to control a herd of swine! The only power the devil has over us as baptized Orthodox Christians, who are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, is what we give to him.

Let us begin Great and Holy Lent with a renewed vigor of conquering evil in our lives. ΚΑΛΗ ΜΕΤΑΝΟΙΑ ΣΕ ΟΛΟΥΣ ΜΑΣ! Good repentance to all of us!

Hmmmm…That doesn’t actually answer the question.

Religious Perception of Mental Illness / Buddhism

My note: my own experience aligns with this cognitive approach. A significant problem with “disturbance” is understanding which symptoms are due to a “brain problem” and which are environmental-emotional: suffering caused by false concepts, social distress, acceptance of hostility as normal, and the belief that an individual cannot change how he or she negotiates life. An “authority” must tell us who we are and how we must behave.

Our body will tell us when we have found a healthier “way of being,” by returning us to “a mental place” at the center of our “self” rather than being tossed around by ever-changing human chaos – our own and that of western societies.

Lecture by Master Sheng-yen on October 25, 1990 at San Francisco General Hospital

Buddhism and Mental Health


Buddhism originated in India. It was there that Sakyamuni Buddha began to deal with the problem of illness. Illness begins at birth; when one is born, the peril of sickness begins. The person who has not suffered illness has yet to be born. Only after death does illness cease. We must suffer both mental and physical pain and illness in this life. Buddha said that we should see a doctor for physical illness, but mental illness should be treated with Buddhadharma.

Buddha saw that it was more important to save the mind than the body. One who has a healthy mind and a good attitude will be much less afflicted by physical difficulty than someone who has mental problems. If all of our mental problems are cured, that is liberation. One with a healthy body but a sick mind will suffer much more than someone who only has physical problems.

Physical illness is pain; mental illness is suffering. Buddhadhanna does not rid us of pain. It is not an anesthetic. It alleviates our suffering.

According to Buddhism, there are three causes of suffering:

1. Ignorance of No-beginning

Western religions talk about a beginning. Western science theorizes about the beginning of the earth and the universe. The problem of a beginning is quite difficult to solve. Buddha says there is no-beginning. Where is the starting point of a circle? Although there must be one, try as you might, you cannot find it. Thus we have no-beginning. If you ask, “Where does suffering come from?” a Buddhist will answer, “Suffering comes from no-beginning.”

2. The cause/effect cycle of vexations

The effect that we suffer now stems from a previous cause. This effect in turn becomes the cause for a future effect. As we move forward in time, we incessantly create future causes.

3. Vexations themselves

The vexations from which we suffer arise from three sources:

A. The environment

On this visit I’ve really had a chance to see what a beautiful city San Francisco is. The climate is quite varied: there is fog and wind; the temperature moves quickly from chilly to warm. Much as we may think that San Francisco is like heaven, it is no surprise that people do get sick here.

Earlier today I was riding in a car with a householder. At one point she sneezed and I asked, “Are you sick?” She said, “No, I’m just allergic to cold air.” Yes, there is sickness even in San Francisco. Obviously the great hospitals here were built for a reason. Even in such a place as this, with its clear sky and clean air, there may be pollutants or diseases in the air or microbes in our food that will cause us to become ill. The environment can be a great cause of our vexations.

B. Relationships

Relationships can cause us a great deal of suffering. Who is responsible for most of our vexations? Most people think it is their enemies. This is not necessarily the case. The culprit may be your husband, your wife, or your children. The people with whom we quarrel most are not our enemies but those closest to us. Each day we must deal not only with our close relations but many other people, some we know, some we don’t. Some help us, some hinder us. People compete endlessly with one another.

Yesterday I gave a lecture at Stanford University. Someone came up to me and complained that academics are really petty. Of course academics are bright people. Ideally, they should help and support one another. The last thing they should do is tear each other down. However, even intelligence does not obviate the basic pettiness and competitiveness that exists in human nature. I often ask, “Is there anyone here who has never competed against others or felt another’s competition? Anyone at all?” The answer is always no.

C. Emotional turmoil

Our greatest enemy is not to be found on the outside, We are vexed most by our own minds. We constantly change how we feel. We may move from arrogance to regret, but we never look at something in the same way as time passes. Thus we are in conflict, and we feel powerless to make a decision. We worry about gain or loss, right or wrong, and we cannot decide what to do. This is true misery. And there are many people who suffer in this way and yet believe that they themselves have no problems. As they protest that they have no problems, they may jump up and down, throw tantrums, and work themselves into states of extreme agitation. I once asked someone like this why he had so many vexations. “It’s not me!” he cried, “it’s these other rotten people who are making me so miserable.” Actually, he had many problems that were of his own making.

Yesterday I was riding in a car with four people who were involved in a heated discussion. One said to me, “Sorry that we argue so much, Shih-fu.” I replied, “You’re the ones arguing, it’s really none of my business.” Did I hear what they said? Yes, I did. But I was simply not part of the conversation. This morning another one of the four told me, “I cannot stand to hear people argue. The very sound of it upsets me.” You might think that he is reacting to something outside himself. The fact is that he is causing his own vexation. It comes from within him.

In Buddhism there are five kinds of mental vexation: greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt. When we are distressed, we can try to analyze the nature of our vexation. When we can determine into which category our vexation falls, and then reflect on it, we can greatly reduce its intensity. When we are distressed by greed, we may reflect: “I am greedy, I have strong desires.” Then the vexation of greed will automatically diminish.

When we suffer from anger, we may reflect: “Why am I so angry? My distress is directly related to my anger.” In this way the anger and distress will begin to subside. You look inward, not outward. It is not the problem but your own mind that you examine.

When we have done something stupid and we feel miserable about it, it is best for us to see what we have done for what it is. If it is something stupid, then reflect: “I have acted in a stupid way.” Thus will your suffering and vexation lessen.

Similarly, arrogance is itself a kind of suffering. To be aware of such feelings when you have them, will enable you to overcome them.

Doubt is also a type of suffering. Doubt will prevent you from making decisions. You will not be able to trust others and you will not be able to trust yourself. This is suffering indeed. If you know you suffer from doubt, you should reason as follows: “I want to accomplish such and such task, so I had better believe that I have the ability and that it is the right thing to do.” If you really believe this, you will be able to accomplish whatever you wish to do.

Doubt can be an invidious influence in our lives. Imagine a man who has decided to get married, but is plagued by doubt. He wonders if the marriage will end in divorce, will she abandon him after the marriage has begun, or did she lie or has she withheld something important from him. If this doubt is unchecked, he will be miserable at the prospect of marriage and miserable within the marriage. Even if there was no real cause for the couple to break up, the doubt itself can furnish the reason and result in marital problems.

If you have such doubts, you should say to yourself: “If I really have so many doubts, it would be foolish for me to marry. If I want to marry, I should accept her as she is and trust her absolutely.” If you cannot maintain such an attitude, you would be better off single, for marriage would only bring you misery. Are there any of you who have no doubts? I have yet to meet someone who has absolutely none.


According to Buddhism, there are five general causes of mental disturbance:

1. Pursuit of a given objective without considering your strengths and weaknesses. A variation of this is that you are not aware of the resources that you have and that you are never satisfied. Or when faced with a situation that is beyond your control, you are constantly tormented by the desire to resist the inevitable. Many people, especially the young, believe that they have unlimited potential. What they see others have done, they believe that they, too, can do. But when adverse conditions arise, they feel personally wronged, and resist rather than understand what is happening.

2. An insatiable desire to expand and conquer. Someone with this disturbance always wishes to magnify what he or she has. Such people wish to extend their influence beyond all limits. Some strive for fame so that they will be known to the world. Others use power to directly conquer those who oppose them. Power struggles such as these may occur among nations or simply within families. A wife may try to conquer a husband, or vice versa. Such desire to overpower others is indeed a mental disturbance.

3. Having achieved a particular objective or station, arrogance sets in. This may lead to callousness and a general disregard for others. An arrogant person may believe that he or she has the right to hurt others or sweep them aside according to personal whim.

4. Failure to achieve a goal leads to despair. Someone with this disturbance may tend to be greatly discouraged and lose all confidence in himself or herself. There will be a tendency to blame others.

5. Doubt pervades the mind. There is a profound sense of insecurity. Confidence quickly evaporates.

I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I do not have a deep knowledge of classical psychology nor am I versed in the standard classifications of mental illness. I only know the Buddhist point of view which divides mental problems into the five categories above. These five may generate a myriad of other mental problems. Note that Buddhism is not concerned with the causality or the pathology of the particular elements that lead to a person’s mental distress. It is concerned only with the recognition and elimination of mental disturbances.

Now I will talk about how we can deal with balancing the mind and the treatment of mental illness.

People often confront their own mental disturbances by using two ineffective methods. The first is denial: “I am not sick. I have no problems. There is nothing wrong with me.” The second is self-treatment: a continual review in one’s mind of a list of faults and what one believes to be their remedies. This builds one false assumption on another. Both of these methods only make matters worse and more serious.

Psychiatrists and psychologists use a talking method to analyze and help explain their patients’ problems. Although it is true that the aim of this method is to have the patient come to his or her own realization, from the standpoint of Buddhadharma this is incomplete and temporary. This is because the doctor can discover only a part of your problem and you yourself can only know a part but not the complete picture of your illness. And it often happens that problems reoccur after counseling, and sometimes a patient continues in therapy for ten or twenty years with no real resolution. This might be enough to make the doctor sick.

The Buddhist method of healing is divided into two broad categories: change of concepts and methods of practice.

A. Change of concepts

1. The concept of cause and effect

While this concept is a religious belief, it is also a fact. It is a fact because throughout our lives, no matter what we do, there will be a response or an effect to our actions. Through faith we believe that there was a life before this life and one before that and so on through innumerable past lives. Much of what we experience now may seem unfair, but it is simply a consequence of actions we have performed in the past. To the extent that we believe this, we will be willing to accept what befalls us, good and bad.

2. The concept of causes and conditions

All phenomena arise and pass away because of the accumulation and interaction of different factors. The cause of a flower is the seed, but soil, water, and sun must be present for the plant to come into existence. Time, or uprooting, or lack of water or sun will cause the plant to wither and die.

When we have succeeded in something, there is no need for us to be particularly excited or arrogant. No matter how much we have accomplished, it was not without the direct or indirect help of many other people. And since we know that which is now coming into being will one day pass away, there is no need to despair when we encounter adverse or unfavorable conditions. As the proverb says, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”

A calm mind will get us past unhappiness or elation. This is a sign of psychological health. (Note the contrast to Western social demands which require ceaseless activity, emotional chaos and no respite: drugs, alcohol and consumerism do not supply peace of mind. 

3. Compassion

People usually wish others to be compassionate towards them, but the idea seldom occurs to them to be compassionate towards others. There are those who when they make a mistake demand to be forgiven: “Don’t measure me against the standards of a saint!” they say. But if they see someone else err they will say, “You’re incompetent. Why couldn’t you do it right in the first place!”

Compassion requires four criteria:

  • Understanding of one’s own conflicts and the development of inner harmony.
  • Sympathy for other people’s shortcomings.
  • Forgiveness of other people’s mistakes.
  • Concern with other people’s suffering.

The first criterion is especially important. In order to be at peace with yourself, you must have a calm and peaceful mind.

To do this, keep in mind the concepts of cause and effect and cause and conditions. This will give you a calm and peaceful mind. You will then be able to be compassionate, sympathetic, forgiving, and caring towards others. (Note: Compassion or empathy is not a “magic module” within the brain – isolated from thought and experience. There are preconditions, like learning to crawl before we walk.)

B. Methods of practice. (I think that these are not necessarily a “fit” for westerners; we can use the practices as a guide to developing our own.)

1. Mindfulness of the Buddha. This consists of chanting the Buddha’s name.

There are two reasons for this practice. First, reciting the Buddha’s name in order to be reborn in the Pure Land will provide you with a sense of hope for the future and consequently make it easier for you to let go of the present. Second, reciting the Buddha’s name can help alleviate your mental problems. When you are psychologically off balance, you can remove anger, doubt, or others mental disturbances by concentrating on Buddha’s name. I often tell people, “When you get angry and want to yell at someone, chant Amitabha’s name.” You will be sending your anger to Amitabha. It will be Amitabha’s problem.

2. Meditation

Sitting meditation can collect the scattered mind and stabilize a disturbed mind. There are many methods of meditation as well as levels of attainment, which we do not have time to go into in great detail. However, I can give you an idea of some of the more profound stages you might experience:

When you reach the point where there are no wandering thoughts in your mind, that is called samadhi. In that state there is no one and no problem that can bring you vexation. From the point of samadhi you can develop the wisdom of no-self. This is enlightenment in Ch’an, or Zen, Buddhism. To reach enlightenment is to be free of mental disturbance and illness. At the point when you are always in this state and you do not fall back, that is called Great Enlightenment. Short of that is Small Enlightenment. Your old problems may arise after you have reached this point, but you will know how to deal with them. Even Small Enlightenment is a significant step. But remember that even when you first begin to meditate that is a very important step, also.

Again from my experience, a western person can find a “way of meditating” that produces “no-self” (which to me means existing in the present) –  those moments when there is no past or future illusion. Motion may not seem like meditation but it works for me; walking or even driving in the wilderness does it for me.