I used to know a guy who owned a furniture store, Crazy Mike’s. The shtick, of course, was that his prices were so low he must be crazy. It made me so angry that all these customers would come in to take advantage of a man who was clearly suffering from mental illness. That said, though, they were invariably disappointed to find that he sold furniture at a reasonable markup since his ability to set prices was largely unaffected by his anxiety disorder and chronic depression.
It’s not something people like to talk about a lot, but mental illness touches many of us. As for me, there’s a history of mental illness in my family. When she was younger, my maternal grandmother was boy-crazy. My uncle was insane in the membrane, but he’s doing much better these days since he moved out of the inner city and got out of the hip-hop industry and just generally de-stressed. I have my own struggles. I always thought I was pretty normal, just a regular, average guy, but a psychiatrist told me that I’m experiencing severe delusions of grandeur and in reality I’m a total loser. It’s actually kind of empowering to finally have a diagnosis and to be able to put a name to my condition. And I feel liberated too — I realize now it’s not really me who’s suffering those delusions, it’s actually this priest who secretly lives in my attic and manipulates my brainwaves at night through ultra-high frequency electromagnetic radiation.
Though mental illness still carries stigma in our society, we’re fortunate that we live in a time and place where people are more likely to be compassionate and understanding to those with mental illness. You don’t have to look back very far to find egregious examples of maltreatment. In Cold War days, people in the Eastern Bloc who experienced psychotic episodes were even more isolated and alone than their counterparts in the Western Bloc. Psychiatrists in the USSR used to say, “in Soviet Russia, you don’t dissociate from reality, reality dissociate from you.” Medieval Europe, of course, was rife with horror stories of people with mental illnesses being locked up in squalid madhouses and burned as witches, while actual witches and people tormented by demons walked away scot-free. And as recently as 2009, people suffering from a range of mental health challenges were forced to sing and dance and perform the moonwalk on stage for millions of screaming, adoring fans across the globe. And though we now live in far more enlightened times, we shouldn’t be too smug. There are still so many people who simply don’t have access to the care they need, whether it be a simple trepanning procedure, a lobotomy, or an exorcism.