I'm mentally ill but I'm no mass killer

Will people with schizoaffective disorder be lumped in with psychotic murderers?

Published April 23, 2007 10:29AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

To many, the shootings at Virginia Tech are another senseless tragedy perpetrated by a mentally unstable person. This is doubly depressing for me. Not only is the specter of over 30 innocents killed by one individual depressing, but because I, too, am mentally unstable, I fear I will suffer even more stigma after events like that.

My official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, which, I am told, is a mild schizophrenia combined with a mood disorder. I currently take two medications for my condition and see a counselor, along with a doctor for my prescriptions. I wish I could say I got help as soon as my condition developed. From college onward, I have, on and off, behaved badly and hurt some people.

So I feel some sort of empathy with the shooter. Like Cho Seung-Hui, I've written some disturbing things, spent time in a mental institution, and been accused of stalking women. (Although looking back, it could be one of my delusions, since everyone involved has denied any accusations.) But then again, I am quite different from Seung-Hui. I'm not hostile to most people, I don't like guns, and the most violent I ever got was putting someone in a headlock. I've apologized to those whom I've hurt and for the last five years I have been trying my best to keep from hurting another human being.

My question is, though, shouldn't that count for something? Fighting to remain reasonable and pleasant is a hard thing to do when your moods are nearly uncontrollable and your perception of reality is skewed. Yet most of my old friends and acquaintances are still angry with me. When I run into them, few will greet me and most just respond with a cold glare. At times it seems like people are going out of their way to glare at me. So when a tragedy like Virginia Tech happens, part of me feels it will just give people more reason to hate me.

I know I should expect it and for most of my life I've been dealing with the stigma of being mentally ill. My father was never shy about showing his anger to me about behaving "oddly." In high school, I was known as the strange kid. Worse was the psychologist who said my attempts at self-injury were a "narcissistic effort for attention" and screamed at me for "accusing" a priest-coach of forcing players to strip to their jock straps and wrestling them. (Which was true and, by the way, the priest in question has since confessed to raping teenage boys.) I also realize that my behavior, even now, isn't easy to deal with. But that doesn't stop the hatred and anger from hurting.

So I wonder, is most of my life to be filled with anger, fear and hatred because I am mentally ill? Will I be lumped together with monsters like Seung-Hui?

Unbalanced but Trying

Dear Unbalanced,

You are thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech.

The worst thing of all, the hardest to fathom, the most infuriating but the most important, is this: It literally means nothing. It is random, senseless, incomprehensible. We wish it meant something. It would feel better if it meant something. We try hard to manufacture something that it can mean. But it stubbornly means nothing. Literally, it is a sign of nothing, the nothing that surrounds us, the nothing we must face, the implacable end we come to.

The fact that it means nothing is the worst thing about it. We can make up meaning, and we must. But we must know we are making it up. We make up our faith. We make up our rituals. We do what we have to do to live with it without going mad.

All the while, our impossible burden is to live with the nothingness that it means. Let us try to do that with dignity and grace. Let us try not to take shelter in illusion. Our illusions are manifold, our rituals abundant. It helps to lay wreaths. But there is no safety from madness.

The universe is random and cruel. Death will come. You can't know the hour.

So live in the world now, as it is.

That is the bottom line, my friend. You have to live in your world as it is and in order to live in your world as it is you must find peace with yourself. To find peace with yourself you may need to spend your whole life taking your meds and seeing your doctors, praying, digging vegetables, swimming upstream in the river, walking alone through crowded streets, brandishing a neutral face in alleys of consternation, paying in cash, sitting zazen with the master, making your therapy appointments on time, forgiving yourself for past transgressions, expecting nothing in return, rising at the same time every morning and never missing a pill, never skipping a meal, sleeping your allotted hours, keeping your hair combed and your clothes clean and your shoes shined, exercising regularly and saying please and thank you, remembering birthdays, paying the rent on time.

These are the things we do to get us through. Our thoughts fasten on drama like candy. We churn and churn about events beyond our ken. Meanwhile we work on the motorcycle, hoping for another hour of sunlight.

There's not a whole lot else you can do. Your thoughts will soar and dive. You have a disease of the mind. It is controllable. But it is not curable. It will have outbreaks like eczema. You take your medications and live a life of moderation. You treat people with as much respect and even-handedness as you can muster. The rest is out of your control. Occasionally you may have to go into the hospital for a while. But you will come out again. You will have good days and bad days.

What people think about all this is beyond your control. More than that: It is none of your business. What people think is their own concern. What they think of you, what they think of me: It's none of our business what they think. Let them think what they think. Their thoughts are their world. Our world is here, the waking every day, the arising from troubled sleep, the difficult interactions at the hardware store, the creeping sensation of omnipotence, the unreality on the subway. That is our world, the world of the half-sane, half-dreamer. We barely know what we ourselves are thinking. If you think you know what other people are thinking, that is your disease. Your disease is your delusion. You cannot know what people are thinking. You cannot read their thoughts on their faces. You cannot hear their thoughts.

You can believe that you can. You can say that you can. But that is your own mind telling you things.

People will pass you and give you dirty looks. They are limited in goodness. They are limited in forgiveness. They are not holy. They are just people.

They will go on the Internet and say whatever they want. That does not make it true, or meaningful, or useful. People go on the Internet and blab blab blab. Blah blah blah. Wah wah wah. Primitive, primitive, primitive. Monkey screams. Jungle sounds. Tribal dissonance. Parrot squawking.

They can say you are crazy. They can say I am crazy. That does not make it true or useful. Meanwhile we put one shoe in front of the other, making a line in the sand and following it, day after day, through the weird storms.

You and I, we are just nameless travelers. You have your problems and I have mine. You have your burdens and I have mine. The world is crazy. It always has been. What can you do? Imagine you are living in Beauvais, north of Paris, in the 12th century. A builder needs some help. Go help him build a cathedral. It takes your mind off. You cart the stones up the hill, you get paid at the end of the day.

That's how we get by. We find things to occupy us. In the end, a cathedral is built. But nobody knows your name. Nobody even knows the name of the builder.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Mental Illness Psychology Since You Asked