I walked to the final gate arm in arm with cancer several years ago. I grabbed the rusty steel, rattled the gate vigorously and considered swinging it open. Despite the fact the illness had dulled my thought process, the choice was in my hands. Walk through and just be done, or crawl away? I crawled away and soon came to understand getting in the final word is more important to me than walking through the final gate. At least for now.
So, I write.
The whole experience convinced me, we arrive with the human intelligence required to begin life and the intelligence to exit life. The end comes naturally, we know how to die. Although this deep human intelligence influences our psychology, physiology and our humanity it is rarely acknowledged or consciously developed.
Unlike intellect, human intelligence is rarely orderly or factual, instead also messy, inconvenient and random. Clever intellect may fill up a bank account, but deep human intelligence remains indispensable from birth to death. The fingerprints of human intelligence cover everything required to live a good life. Sustenance, health, sexuality, evolution, and the softer arts, compassion, empathy or service to others. Combined, the body of knowledge within each of us represent the handprint of humanity.
I’ve written in the past about the gate, enduring fatal illness and end of life, mostly because the whole experience blew me away. To be clear. I never caught a glimpse of a white light, or heard angels sing. I did sleep all hours of the day and night and my dogs bark a lot, so I may have missed a few things.
I write because the reality of being uncomfortably close to death and stumbling over my own human intelligence astonished me. The experience informed my fear of death and provided deeper access to my humanity.
I learned people would rather avoid reading about the end of life, maintaining an irrational belief that if we speak of death at all, the grim reaper will take us on the spot. Death gets a bad rap, it’s kept in the closet, sanitized and denied.
Mental health shoulders a similar level of denial and social stigma.
If someone behaves in an erratic manner and appears out of control we tend to look the other way. We keep our distance and pray a professional or HR will arrive to deal with the situation. Often a mental health crisis is addressed by the police or paramedics with a seventy-two hour hold in a psychiatric ward, a toxicology report and possibly a brief assessment. The get out of jail free card is a solemn promise not to harm yourself or another. It’s a low bar. Released into a safety net full of holes, carrying a hand full of pills and a card noting an appointment scheduled two weeks away they walk out the door.
Keep in mind, whatever crisis, confusion, or desperation motivating this ball of runaway emotion is still rolling along. “Promise you won’t kill anybody,” seems shortsighted, necessary and naïve at the same time. I’ve seen veterans in distress fall under the blunt edge of this system, tagged with the additional stigma of PTSD. and therefore, assumed dangerous.
The truth is the system has limits, designed to address little more than triage. A one size fits all methodology fails to relieve the desperation or confront the underlying cause. Family or concerned friends are left with the heavy lifting.
I don’t rail against the system. Underfunded, understaffed and poorly understood the level of social stress and complexity has increased, and our remedy for a mental health crisis is past its expiration date. One size fit’s all can’t be expected to address the wide range of current human emotional experience. One need only study suicide statistics or absorb the details of a recent public shooting to grasp the social gravity of mental health care.
I challenge us all as fellow human beings, consider how our innate compassion, understanding and empathy fits into the equation. It’s possible we have human intelligence we’re unaware of that may ease social distress. Mental health is and always has been a social issue critical to the survival and evolution of humanity.
Why the reluctance? A mental health crisis is not generally “catchy,” (unless political beliefs are involved.)
I’m not suggesting we all head out on the street, befriend someone having a mental health crisis, reassure them they are not alone and offer a hug. The issue of mental health is far more complex. I simply ask us all to consider how our fear or unwillingness to get involved contributes to the isolation and profound sense of disconnection the desperate experience.
Let me make it personal. People who suffer a mental health crisis are not strangers. They are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children. Reluctant to acknowledge the warning signs or fearing an angry reaction and rejection we cling to the false hope they will just get better. “Straighten themselves out.” If families and neighbors turn a blind eye, desperation is a certainty.
I was called recently to respond to a crisis involving a decorated combat veteran. His wife told me he’d been in the backyard the entire afternoon yelling at the sky, weeping, and splitting wood with an axe. She’d tried to talk to him, but he angrily refused. She was frightened. Neighbors had called the police by the time I arrived, and the quiet residential street was clogged with police cars and emergency vehicles. Word had spread he was a veteran, and everyone feared the worst outcome.
We had a previous history of difficult and intimate conversations, so when I walked into the backyard he knew why I was there. “What’s going on with you man?” I asked. “I’m angry, and nobody understands,” he snapped back.
“Give me a try,” I answered.
In a suburban backyard, sitting knee to knee, I listened to this man grieve the loss of friends to combat, rail against the violence he’d witnessed, and attempt to describe the suffering he experienced feeling as though no one had his back.
Sadly, a common story, almost a cliché at this point and socially serious as a broken leg. Our conversation just smoothed the raw edges, allowing a small measure of his emotional compression to ease. A long road lies ahead before he reconciles the losses he’s endured.
It’s a mystery to me exactly when humanity replaced compassion with a system. I realize the irrational fear of mental health contagion may be compelling, yet?
A seventy-two-hour hold, a bottle of pills and a handshake, or a compassionate emotional de-compression? Either may be appropriate given the situation. What course of action would you choose if it were a loved one enduring a mental health crisis? Do you have full access to your human intelligence? Are you prepared to offer empathy and understanding or settle for a quick phone call to the police? As a younger man I would have walked right by. I began life with my eyes shut tight and many caring people took time to help pry them open, I’m grateful. Today, I recognize and utilize my human intelligence.
Perhaps turning away limits the development or recognition of our own human intelligence in the same way refusing to speak of death fills us with fear and ignorance. We come equipped with the sensibilities to offer understanding and compassion. Qualities that may have been neglected or underdeveloped, nonetheless the raw material is embedded in our shared human experience.
Inhibited by fear or denial, failing to grasp our full empathetic human content can only result in us all becoming the ultimate losers. – Snake