Sunday, April 7, 2013

"Just a nut case with a gun": the tragedy of Matthew Warren

Something has been rumbling underground - you can't say it's in the air, because it doesn't live there, but down under, in the murky land of social stigma.

Every so often it dives to the surface. When that happens, society is ill-equipped to deal with it or even talk about it at all.

I came across this tidbit of news on Facebook (which I almost never look at):

LAKE FOREST, Calif. - Popular evangelical Pastor Rick Warren asked members of his Southern California church for prayers as he and his family coped with the apparent suicide of his 27-year-old son.

The church said on Saturday that Matthew Warren took his own life at his Mission Viejo home.

Matthew Warren struggled with mental illness, deep depression and suicidal thoughts throughout his life, Saddleback Valley Community Church said in a statement, after his body was found Friday night.

"Despite the best health care available, this was an illness that was never fully controlled and the emotional pain resulted in his decision to take his life," the church said.

Allison O'Neal, a supervising deputy coroner for Orange County, declined to release the cause and manner of death pending an autopsy of the young man.

Rick Warren, the author of the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life," said in an email to church staff that he and his wife had enjoyed a fun Friday evening with their son. But their son then returned home to take his life in "a momentary wave of despair."

Over the years, Matthew Warren had been treated by America's best doctors, had received counselling and medication and been the recipient of numerous prayers from others, his father said.

"I'll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said 'Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?'" Warren recalled.

Despite that, he said, his son lived for another decade, during which he often reached out to help others.

"You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man," Warren wrote. "He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He'd then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them."

This article brings up so much stuff for me, so many "issues" (as those chunks of living gore are so euphemistically called) that I don't know where to start. What jumps into my head first is the irony: this pastor who wrote a wildfire bestseller on how to live a meaningful life had a son so driven by despair that he simply could not go on with his own life and had to end it.

Another thing is the rather elaborate, detailed explanation of Matthew Warren's exhaustive (and no doubt exhausting) medical treatments over the years, how he had tried everything,and how in the end "even prayer" (the panacea for fundamentalists) didn't work.

Why does this cause that squirmy twinge in the pit of my stomach? 
Compounding the shock and horror of this unimagineable tragedy is a sad public pressure to "explain". If he had died of a heart attack or an accident, I don't think there would have been any need for all these elaborate verbal back-flips. He was sick, yes - but he couldn't help it! He tried everything, even prayer! So it could not have been his "fault", it could not have been personal weakness or a spiritual taint. 

I see "mental illness" (a term I loathe - I'll explain that later) as an issue that's slowly coming out of the closet, but unfortunately it only seems to show itself when someone commits a horrendous and very public suicide or shoots up a shopping mall or a primary school.

"Suffering from mental illness" - that's the tag. So it really isn't ALL his fault - well, maybe not - or maybe he went off his medication (a very bad decision on his part). In spite of all this faux compassion, the taint of judgement hangs around like a faint but noxious odor.

Never are we presented with an example of someone "living with", not "suffering from". Our society is big on suffering, but it was only recently we changed our vocabulary from "cancer victim" (almost universal 20 years ago) to "cancer survivor". And it took a lot of effort on the part of activists to wake people up.

Public attitudes towards mental illness are much more distorted and resistant to change. People's perceptions are tainted by a combination of pity and fear. Or terror. Only recently, Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of Congresswoman Gabby Gifford, declared that before anyone was sold a gun in the U. S., they should have a thorough background check (so far, so good). Two groups should be eliminated immediately without question: convicted criminals and "the mentally ill". 

I love that "the" part, a little three-letter wedge driven between those with this illness and the rest of humanity. But what scares the shit out of me is - no, several things do, actually. To automatically lump in the "mentally ill" with criminals makes me want to chew tinfoil because it hurts me less. They're all corralled in the same pen, it seems: wild-eyed, inherently violent, unable to control themselves, and deserving of a sort of wary contempt.

When something sticks out like a sore thumb, like a rusty nail, that's all we see. If I were bipolar and had not had an episode of any kind for 20 years, I could not (theoretically) buy a rifle for duck-hunting because I am "mentally ill" and therefore a bad risk for handling firearms, presumably for the rest of my life.

OK, I hate firearms on principle and would never think of buying one for any reasons, but is it fair that a person with a treatable medical condition should have the same kind of "background check" as a convicted criminal? How exactly do they DO this background check? What sort of private medical records would need to be invaded? Does anyone even think of the sense of personal violation this could create?

Oh, but if it saves even ONE child it's worth it, people say, using the kind of cockeyed logic that seems to rule this twisted culture.

Why not apply that rule to all the Charlton Heston-esque yahoos who keep a gun in every room of the house? Why not take THEIR guns away, in case somebody gets totally hammered one night and "loses control" (maybe deciding his ex-wife or her boy friend have inhabited the earth for long enough)? Isn't it worth it to confiscate all these potentially-deadly weapons, even if it only saves ONE child?

We might do background checks on criminals and perceived nut cases, but what about assholes, sons-of-bitches and nasty little men with a grudge? If we took even one step in that direction, they'd be waving signs claiming someone was violating their civil rights.

I once talked to a psychiatrist at a cocktail party who shocked me by saying, "The vast majority of my patients lead stable, productive lives if they are willing to participate in their own treatment."

The vast majority.

This is a silent, buried majority, obviously. I guess they're too busy going about their lives to jump up and down and scream about these things. When the sons of bestselling preachers who seem to have all the answers to life's dilemmas shoot themselves in the head, we notice. When a congresswoman is mowed down and permanently disabled, we mutter, "Mental illness".

Better maybe than cracked or whacked or all the other lovely synonyms we've come up with. But what does it mean to be "mentally ill"?

How can one be "ill" and "well" at the same time?

You can't. You're stuck in "ill". You're sick for life. You "suffer from", you don't "live with". 

In other words, you're a victim.

As for the "mentally" part: I don't need to tell you that in a culture that worships the idea that we have total control over our lives (see Pastor Warren), being "mentally" out of the groove in any way at all is a sign of weakness, of passivity, of giving up. "Mentally" means "of the mind", and if it's "of the mind", it is voluntary, under our control, like bad habits or unwise decisions. 

When the stigma is so buried in the nomenclature that no one even notices it, we have a problem. I see it as something more like diabetes. It can vary in severity, perhaps waxing and waning throughout life, but the one constant is that it needs to be monitored. But if it IS monitored, the person no longer "suffers from diabetes", but has learned to live with it, can live a long life, a productive life, with diabetes existing in the person's peripheral vision, not constantly staring them in the face.

Why isn't the culture even aware that an alternate vision of this disequilibrium (as I like to call it) exists? Because we like drama. We don't like shootings, but when there IS a shooting, we must quickly point a finger of blame at a subject that will make us all say, "Ohhhhhhhhhh." (One of "those".) There is even a degree of comfort in telling each other, "He suffered from mental illness." "Ohhhhhhhhhh." That explains it, doesn't it? Isn't that the way "those people" are? The solution, the thing that will "fix" it: let's get that legislation in place as quickly as possible so that NOBODY with "mental illness" can ever buy a gun.

If it violates their privacy and their civil rights, if it marginalizes them and makes them feel like gum on the bottom of somebody's shoe, hey, isn't it worth it if it saves just ONE child?

POST-POST: Since writing this piece, I've had a ton of other thoughts, but it's a mistake to try to fit them all into one piece.

What hit me just now - while tacking away at my antique keyboard - is WHY the stigma is so damaging. When you're stigmatized, that is, if you have a stigmatizing condition, you may be driven to pretend you don't have it, or to deny it even to yourself. This leaves you much more vulnerable to your illness (if in fact you're feeling ill: I DO believe in the mentally well, and will insist on believing it for the rest of my life!). If you feel stigmatized, you might not want to take "those pills" that you're invariably supposed to take. The pills remind you of the stigma. That leads to another stigma, of course: "Oh, she went off her medication." The most insidious form of stigma, or denial perhaps, is feeling so well that you are sure the illness has gone away forever. Society LOVES this attitude because it implies "triumphing", "vanquishing" and all those bullshit terms that mean absolutely nothing ("victory" being the worst, with its warlike/Christian fundamentalist taint). Living with something that lasts a lifetime makes a great many people profoundly uncomfortable. 

GALLERY. Maybe this is yet another form of stigma, or one of those clunky, heavy-handed attempts to "banish" it that only serve to underline it. But when I was compiling images for this post (all of them taken by me in my back yard with my 1923 Brownie box camera), I kept coming across celebrities grinning away. Then I realized: oops, this is the category of "celebrities with mental illness"! This is either supposed to make sufferers feel better (if, in fact, they are suffering), or to make us all less uncomfortable about nut cases, since SOME nut cases seem to become famous! Famous is the ultimate goal in our society, better even than being rich, so if you're famous AND mentally ill, whoo boy, it must be OK to be mentally ill, or at least not horrible!

I liked this shot of Dick Cavett grinning away. He has been open about his bouts of depression and (I think) bipolar, though I think he was only manic once (which is, believe it or not, relatively common). I like it because he's 70-something, still has good cheekbones and that Nebraskan resonant voice, and looks happy.

I couldn't really find a good shot of Carrie Fisher, because she seems to have erased herself with plastic surgery and no longer looks like herself. But she has surely had her innings with bipolar (I refuse to tack "disorder" on it - why do I need to?), and come out the other side more than once. She's a veteran, and besides I like this hair style.

I did a whole post on Stephen Fry ages ago, a poem actually. He is monumental: it's that Easter Island face of his. Like some of his confreres, he has been open about his experiences with depression. The only thing that bothers me about all this is: when a celebrity comes out like this, they are forever "branded". "Oh, didn't he have shock treatments a couple of years ago?" If you don't give a fuck, however, I heartily approve.

Patty Duke had a hard go of it from the start, but has come through it all. I like the warmth in her face and the LACK of self-erasure (rare in Hollywood and making her a target of unkind remarks). I purposely featured only older people here because they have the stuff, obviously. Brittney Spears: come back in 20 years.

Ah! The blahs!

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