He did it again.
Charlie dumped an insane workload on me. But, he has a habit of telling me to do things there’s no way I can do, but then I go ahead and do them anyway, so I guess I’ll do this one, too.
What happened is the other day, after we were done working and ready to head to lunch, he pulled me aside and told me that the ally who helps him lead hikes on the island trip has quit. If you remember, the yearlings go to an island (which I intentionally do not name) for a week. It’s kind of a group bonding thing plus a chance for each of the masters to teach some things in a different context. Charlie, of course, leads a couple of nature hikes, but there are too many people to fit on one hike. So he has an assistant to lead half the group for him.
“What, he just quit?” I said, all indignant.
“He had his reasons,” Charlie said, raising his chin a little. I don’t think he liked my getting defensive of him. “I want you to take his place.”
“What? Charlie, I hardly remember anything about the Island. I don’t know enough to lead a hike.”
“Well, you’ve got a month to fix that.”
“I’m not going to just dump you into it, Daniel. I’ll give you a species list to learn and some reading. A lot of the species you already know. The others you can find in the herbarium—even if you can’t get really solid on them that way, you’ll get a head start on learning them in the field. Then, you can come up and stay with me on the Island and I’ll train you. You ok with that?”
“Um, yeah. Of course.”
“Ok, good. I’ll write up your reading list and your species lists and get them to you later today.” And he walked off.
I only had to think about it for a few seconds. Really, I didn’t have to think about it at all. Because the more insane things Charlie decides to teach me, the more I learn. And—I think I heard this right—I’m going to the Island, with Charlie, just me. Most students don’t get that. They can’t, it’s impossible, because there’s only one Charlie. So, yes, of course I’m going, if I have to learn the name of every blade of grass on campus to do it.
But I keep saying “insane,” or “crazy” about this sort of thing, which is really ironic given what we did in Allen’s class this past week.
A big part of what Allen keeps coming back to in this class is who is crazy and who isn’t, and what craziness is and what it isn’t. I understand that, historically, there have been a lot of different definitions of craziness, and I understand that there’s this…when you hear words like crazy, insane, mentally ill, you don’t really picture a person. You picture a disease, a stereotype. So it made perfect sense why Allen did what he did.
When we got into class, there were a group of outsiders there, all dressed in the brown uniform and white belt of someone who’s already graduated. That was strange, but not that strange, because a couple of outsiders have attended most of our class meetings so far. Allen explained that they are allies and friends of his who were interested in the class so he said they could audit it. Some have come one day and others on other days, and the only unusual thing I noticed was that on this day they all showed up together. No big deal.
Anyway, so Allen gives this lecture on the difference between psychological and neurological problems. I’m not sure if this was his own idea or something current in the professional world generally, but he said psychologists assume that human mental processes are learned. So, if you learn bad processes from trauma or bad parenting or whatever, you can go to a therapist to learn good processes instead. Neurologists, in contrast, assume that human mental processes are the result of brain function. So, if your functioning is bad, maybe your functioning can be improved in some way, or at least you can learn to cope with the functioning you do have.
“Now, I am, by training, a psychologist, but I’m agnostic on which approach is more true,” said Allen. “Clearly, from a certain perspective, they are both at least partially right, since human minds clearly do have a learned component, and, to the extent that our minds are linked to our brains, whatever is in our minds must have its echo in brain structure. I’m more interested in which approach is more helpful.”
So, he continued to talk for a while about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, what the differences are between a neurological disorder and a mental health problem, and how and why different variations in psychology or neurology are considered pathological or not. As you can imagine, he asked more questions than he answered.
And then he had us all get up and talk to each other. We had three minutes for each conversation and then we had to switch and talk to someone else. After each conversation, we wrote down whether we thought the other person had a problem or not, and what we thought their problem might be. We did that for half an hour or so, and then we all turned in our guesses anonymously. He said he’s tally the results, just for fun, and let us know next week what we all thought of each other. We took a five minute break, and then came back, and Allen asked if any of us did have a neurological or psychological issue we were comfortable sharing.
And of course all eight of the visitors raised their hands. They were all plants.
I almost can’t believe I didn’t guess that. This is Allen, after all, and Allen plays tricks. But he plays very good tricks, is the issue.
The eight visitors included a recovering alcoholic, a bipolar person, a schizophrenic (on medication), a person on peyote who was otherwise quite sane, two autistic people, a stroke survivor, and a person in treatment for PTSD following an assault. I hadn’t correctly guessed any of them; I thought everybody was normal, except the person on peyote and one of the two autistic people, both of whom I thought probably had schizophrenia because they just seemed subtly “off.” When I did my homework later I found out that unusual body language is typical for autistic people and so a lot of them seem “off” or strange. It has nothing whatever to do with their minds, which are different, but as sound as anyone else’s.
The eight of them formed a kind of panel and answered our questions and talked about their experiences. None of them were what I would have expected. The woman on peyote didn’t act crazy or react overtly to any hallucinations, though she did act a bit distracted at times. Someone asked her if she was hallucinating and she said she was and described some of them. She was apparently having a pretty good trip and had not taken very much. The bipolar person and the schizophrenic person both seemed utterly normal, although they were both on medication and both said they did have trouble staying employed sometimes. Both described themselves as mentally ill, but both denied being “crazy.” The alcoholic man, in contrast, insisted that he was crazy, and the woman with PTSD said she felt crazy, but didn’t actually know if she was.
At the end, Allen invited us all to have breakfast together the following morning, so we could talk more casually. I suppose the idea was to further present these people as people, not as representatives of problems, and most of us seemed really into doing it. One of the two autistic people begged off because, she explained, dining rooms are way too noisy and she wasn’t staying over anyway as she can’t sleep in any bed but her own. The woman on peyote pointed out that she’d be happy to have breakfast with us, but that by breakfast-time she wouldn’t be on peyote anymore and would be, in her words, “very boring.”
“I have seen you sober many times, Cecelia,” said Allen, “and you have never bored me.”
Two things struck me about the afternoon, and got me really thinking. I’m still thinking about them. One of those things is that, and I didn’t notice it until later, after the fact, Allen always said “we” when he referred to people who are not neurotypical (not neurologically normal.) He didn’t elaborate and I don’t think I’m going to ask, but it has me wondering.
Second, as I was going out, I asked Allen if the results from our surveys would be skewed because the visitors knew some of them had diagnoses and that we were just students.
“They didn’t know you don’t have psychological or neurological diagnoses,” he told me, sounding surprised. “I don’t know that. Statistically speaking, some of you probably do, or could. Remember, all of them graduated from this school. They represent you just as much as they represent their diagnoses.”
I wonder how many of them thought I was crazy?
[Next Post: Friday, April 11th, Passover]