Human Compassion, Seamus Heaney, and George Floyd

One of my favorite poets is Seamus Heaney. While I enjoy his poetry, I even more love his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Crediting Poetry.” I encourage all of you to read it.

There is one section of the speech that applies to all moments of history, but particularly this one. This is one of the most profound stories I have ever encountered, and I believe that it articulates our steps forward amidst the importance of #blacklivesmatter, and how to honor George Floyd:

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate of Literature, 1995

“One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, ‘Any Catholics among you, step out here.’ As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA…

The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens

“[The poem] knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.”

Kirkus Reviews Profile

from Kirkusreviews.com

It’s interesting to see the life that your book takes on. Each one is different, and you can’t always predict how things will turn out. (Or so I’m told; after all, this is only my first book.)

My book Fallible: a memoir of a young physician’s struggle with mental illness, can be hard to read given it’s subject matter. While book sales are overall up during the COVID-19 quarantine, Fallible hasn’t sold much because it’s tough to read about such hard things when we are going through difficult times. People tend to want more comfort at such times.

There is also the matter of critical “acclaim” versus actual readers. I have received some very positive reviews from prominent outlets. Sometimes it makes me think that Fallible is more important of a book than enjoyable as a book, which shouldn’t surprise me too much. It’s a critical topic that we continue to talk about, but that doesn’t always lead to sales. That being said, I think it’s one that we all need to read. Of COURSE I would say that as the author, but the topic is so timely and needed that we all should have a greater awareness of it. I feel very strongly about that. It is well worth your time. If you don’t think so, check out some of the reader reviews (in addition to the professional reviews linked to above).

Kirkus Reviews has been great with promoting the book. They gave me a very nice review initially, and now have provided a wonderful profile on me. Please check it out!

And as always, order Fallible now and spread the good word!

Is mental illness a choice?

from Treehugger.com

I received an interesting and very kind letter from Patch Adams recently after sending him a copy of Fallible. (Of note: he is one of the few people I know of that still hand-writes letters. It’s very charming.) He relayed to me his story of severe depression. Instead of receiving treatment however, he simply decided to “never had a bad day again” many years ago, and he supposedly hasn’t. He also mentioned that he has been able to “cure” PTSD in a small group of returning soldiers with humor. In all his years of practice, he has never diagnosed someone with a mental illness nor treated anyone with a psychotropic.

I’m having a hard time with this. I don’t want to disbelieve him, or the many others who have similar beliefs that mental illness is little more than a pharmaceutical company invention, but it is certainly inconsistent with the medical view of mental illness. There was a great book that I quote in Fallible called Lost Connections by Johann Hari. It’s a very interesting read, but the main thesis is that the dramatically changing ways in which we interact with each other and the world is the cause of increased “mental illness.” He also points to evidence that much of the scientific data on the medical model is weak at best, though he doesn’t boil down the presence of mental illness to a choice. He mainly focuses on depression and anxiety.

I definitely think that Hari’s correct on the origins of the current epidemic of depression and anxiety, but I’m torn as to what the best response may be. There is a strong likelihood of an element of placebo in taking a psychotropic medication for depression and/or anxiety, probably even in my own case. I frankly don’t care if it’s a placebo effect for me or not. You could argue that the side effects outweigh the placebo benefit, but I do feel that my medications make a difference in my anxiety and depression.

Dr. Adams, a very kind and generous man, takes it beyond depression and anxiety to any mental illness, choosing not to diagnose mental illnesses that can lead to psychosis such as bipolar or schizophrenia. I do think that is too far, but could someone with depression or anxiety simply “decide” to not struggle with that anymore? There is always an element of choice in how we respond to external or internal stimuli, but you wonder if deciding not to deal with such things depends upon a matter of degree; it begs the question of whether the individual truly had a diagnosable condition in the first place.

As with most things in life, there is unlikely to be a black-and-white answer to any of this. Some people require medication, but it should not be viewed as an ultimate solution in and of itself, no matter the circumstances. There is likely a large cause of depression and anxiety from our ever-evolving interactions with life, but that doesn’t make it less real, or negate the need for true treatment. Some of us probably can improve our illness through deciding how to approach it differently. But to boil it down completely to a basic choice is too simplistic and binary to fit in the real world.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.