Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where Is My Mind?

In 1989, my father came and asked me how I felt about moving to England.

I was 9 years old at the time. I had no idea what "moving to England" really meant. Neither did my Dad really explain it to me because, I guess, he didn't really know what it meant either. Not that it would necessarily have made a difference anyway, since my father's mind was already made up, and (being 9 years old) I would have done anything to please my Dad. Our tendentious relationship hadn't yet started.

When I got to England, I ran into culture-shock, a broader and stricter pedagogy, and (I guess) my first real identity crisis. I didn't fit in. In an all-boys school, I didn't know how to play rugby or cricket, didn't know the football stars, didn't play football (soccer) as well as everyone else, didn't get the cultural references, didn't know the history of the place, didn't know the social tropes... worse still, I didn't know enough of the American things that the boys there thought I should know about: the rules of American football, for example (I could tell you baseball - I liked baseball - but I never learned American football because I never played it). I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land, only I also didn't know all that much about my own land either.

The experience was traumatic. I didn't fit in, but neither did I stick out. I was a blank, a background, an unnoticed entity. My father was at work most of the time, and my mother was busy with my (newborn) baby brother. I had to learn to handle the situation largely on my own.

Simultaneously, I was ill a lot. I had repeated tonsil infections on top of a good deal of allergies. This meant that I also didn't get out much. I had no friends, spent a lot of time at home and by myself, so I turned inward.

I guess this was the beginning of what I now call a "spiritual" life. I made up an imaginary friend, Julius Caesar, to play board-games against. I developed a rich imagination. The times when I was well, I would get on my bike and explore the footpaths in my town and the ones nearby, pretending they were other lands far away. I read a lot. I went to the movies by myself. I learned to cope with being alone, though I was none-the-less intensely lonely. I got by.

When I was 10 or 11, things began to change. I had my tonsils and adenoids removed, and the infections stopped. I was less ill, discovered what the sense of smell was, and put on weight. I began to acculturate. I started hanging out with kids in my class. I found a best-friend. I fleshed out an identity: I wasn't good at most sports, but I could run track. I liked computers. I became a bit nerdy. My grades, which had not been the greatest, began to improve. By the time I was 12, I was thinking about taking my GCSEs, going on in the English curriculum.

Then we moved again. To Minnesota.

There was less discussion, before this second move. My Dad kinda made the decision for the family: it was a good career move for him, and so there was a great deal of pressure on us all to accept the decision. My sister and I, having both learned to fit in finally, wanted to stay on in a boarding school or similar. We were talked out of it and/or given a categorical "no." I was more the former, my sister the latter. After talking with my parents, I thought that I could move, thought I could do it. Maybe it was "hubris," but I thought that if I could move to England and fit in - even if that was difficult - then I could move back to the United States and fit in, even if it was difficult.

Maybe that was the first big mistake of my life, because the transition back to the United States was even more traumatizing than the move to England. You have to remember: I was 12. Puberty had begun. Adolescence was starting. Suddenly social dynamics was everything. Hormones meant that girls were important, and if girls were important then social standing - being as close to "alpha male" as possible - was everything.

God's cruel joke being, of course, that at the same time we all go through this, He gives us growth spurts, acne, vocal changes, dropping testicles, menstruation and the like.

Shy, an outsider, not getting the cultural references (again), not understanding the sports (again) nor being particularly good at them, terrified of girls having gone to an all-boys school in England, having no clue about the (American) Civil War (I could tell you all about the English in detail) or Teapot Dome... I fell to the bottom of the pecking order. I was Omega Male, shunned by all around me.

Like the previous time, I retreated inward a great deal; but something - the hormones, I'm guessing - made the experience much more traumatic. It was... scarier. More lonely. More saddening. More... depressing. My chronic, lifelong fight with depression began around this time.

Then, one day, my 7th grade class was taken out ice-skating. I hadn't ever really been ice-skating before; while everyone around me (who had grown up in MN) whizzed about on the ice, I spent my time falling down consistently.

On the way back for a 7th-grade dance (a novel concept, to me), I sat alone on the bus. I doodled in the condensation on the window - absent-minded doodling. I drew a swastika. Now, I was not, am not, and never will be a fan of Nazism or white-power or the like. I'm a Muslim socialist who does human-rights work and is married to a Jew. Being around right-wingers gives me hives. I drew the swastika without any intent to cause harm. I just drew the damned thing because I was doodling in the condensation.

My cohorts didn't see things that way.

I don't blame them. We were 12 or 13 years old, play-acting at an adulthood that suddenly and for the first time seemed attractive and "good." And part of that adulthood meant not-liking Nazis. I didn't like Nazis either. Indiana Jones fought against them.

So at the dance - a traumatic experience for every 7th-grader anyway, I think - one by one, or sometimes in pairs, my classmates came up to me to register their disapproval of me. "How could you draw that?" "Do you know what that means to me, as a Jewish person?" "What you did was awful." "I can't be friends with you." "The fuck is wrong with you?"

It was my own personal middle-class American version of a Maoist "struggle session," where your friends and neighbors tear you apart, verbally and emotionally.

Coming on the heels of the recent move to the United States, this experience pushed me over the edge. I wasn't just excluded; I was shamed. I wasn't an outsider; I was a pariah. In this adolescent world where social status meant everything, I wasn't the omega male. I wasn't anything.

I took the lesson to heart. I am a bad person. I desperately want acceptance - but I don't trust that anyone will give it to me. More than acceptance, I want to be welcomed, but there is no "welcome" that can ever satisfy me. I am, and always will be, an outsider. I can never be a part of a group. When I become part of a group, I consciously or unconsciously edge my way to its edges; if I can, I try to leave it. I know that, soon, they will not just shun me, they will punish me. It won't be for anything I can prevent; it will be for something I do wrong without knowing it. I am bad by default.

In some moments, when I have fight left in me, it's not my fault. In those moments, it's you: it's your fault. You are cruel. You don't know the whole story, and punish people for things that aren't really their fault. You jump to conclusions, act rashly and irrationally. Here is the original of my do-gooderism. I jump to defend the defenseless, stand up for the victims, the little guys. I see, in them, myself. But it means that you and I are always at odds. It means you have no capacity for compassion, mercy, or good in you; or at least, not enough. And I will never trust you because of that.

I always need to know more than others. Knowledge is power: if I know all the cultural references, then you will never have any "legitimate" reason for ostracizing me. I will fit in, and the only way you exclude me is by disliking me. Of course, I can never fit in - my gut tells me I can't - and since everyone will or does tell me (on some level) that I am less-than, I will tell myself than I am more-than. I am smarter than you are, a better person than you are; and I am worse than you are and I have suffered more than you have. Because I am so vulnerable, I will become arrogant, aloof, a know-it-all. I'm desperate for your approval, needy for you to want to be around me, but I won't let you near me.

Since women (in this adolescent world) hold all the cards, women became my focus. I "need" to be accepted by them; preferably, desired by them. I was obsessed with having a girlfriend. When I had one, I was elated; when I didn't, I was catatonic. When I had one, I was looking for another, better one; when I didn't have one, I was looking for one, any one. At the beginning of a relationship, I was excited: here was potential, here was the possibility of finally being accepted, wanted, welcomed. The more time passed, the more than wore off and the greater the fear of discovery - of being "found out" - became. And so I would begin to preemptively pull away: become cruel first, before cruelty could be meted out upon me.

Meanwhile, that inner life that I had ripened - and rotted - into a spiritual life. God - or nirvana, or THAT - was and still is the ultimate Relief-with-the-capital-R. He is the All-Accepting, the Merciful, the Forgiver, the Compassionate. He is the Power and Strength that I need; if I have Him, then all the rest would fall away.

The problem was - and is - that I recapitulate all the same behaviors I employ towards women in my relationship with Him. The only difference is that He is the Absolute, and they are the relative.

I am compulsive and obsessive about my relationship to Him. I am desperate for any tidbit of information that will give me an "in" with the Almighty, and so I purchase and read spiritual literature like it's going out of style. I make spiritual life into a vastly more complex process than it actually is. As I grow closer to Him, I fear He will find me out, and so I begin to look elsewhere; when that "elsewhere" doesn't pan out (as the relative is wont to do), I drift back to Him.

I became a "God" addict. About 10 years ago, I had a moment of non-dual bliss, a taste of absolute love. I became obsessed with recapturing it with whatever cheap, easy, simple and direct method I could find. It has caused me a great deal of pain, both emotional and physical, and in spite of the consequences I have not stopped grasping after Him, hoping that this time, with this new insight, we can be reunited.

It has been the only really real and lasting relationship with anybody or anything that I have maintained, consistently, throughout my (admittedly brief) life. It has been a sick relationship, undoubtedly unhealthy for me and undoubtedly not of any benefit to Him.

Where I am now is a precipice.

I've seen... well, myself, or my self. I've seen a long-standing pattern of thinking and emotion and behavior, and I've seen how on the one hand it protects me, and on the other hand, it harms me. In a grosser, more obvious, more harmful form it has actually destroyed my life.

But do I get rid of it? Maybe that seems like an obvious question: if it's harming you that much, get rid of it. I don't know, however. The question becomes: if not that, then who? Meaning: if I let go of this set of behaviors, this identity, then who I am? What's left? What becomes of me?

And that's where the fear comes in. Because I have no idea what life without these behaviors - without this identity - would be like. Would it mean giving up my spiritual life? How about my collection of spiritual books? How is it going to affect my relationship with my wife? Any change in one person in a relationship has the potential to seriously destabilize the relationship itself. We just got married - what if this leads to a divorce? What about my relationships with women generally? Wouldn't it just mean being - once again - a stranger in a strange land who doesn't know about his homeland either?

Mostly, though, the fear is silent. It sits just below the surface. If I have something to do, something else to think about, then I don't notice it. The instant I have a quiet moment, though, there it is: a rim of fear around what seems like an entire ocean of loneliness and sadness. Or rather, like the fear is a dam, a barrier, holding back this ocean's worth of sadness. The dam is beginning to crack, and I'm concerned that the ocean will drown me, if the force of that emotion smacking into me like a tsunami doesn't crush me all at once.

Meanwhile, a woman has written me online. It's rather like throwing chum in the water. My mind, prodded by all that fear, went insane: here is a woman expressing an interest in, well, me. So obviously, here is the potential for the acceptance and welcome that I so desperately want.

In my head, a thousand permutations of the possible relationships we might have are being played out. They range from the ridiculous - a polygamous marriage including her and my wife - to the incredibly unlikely - I leave my wife, marry the new girl - to the very unlikely - we have an affair - to the possible though not likely - we become best of friends forever - to the possible - we become close friends - to the likely - we become friends - to the more likely - we become acquaintances - and so on, along with all possible combinations of these and more.

This crazy, fantasizing part of me knows it has been found out. It knows that very soon, it might be "killed off," after a fashion. So it's working overtime to repeat the pattern behavior, just this one last time. Like an addict about to go to rehab, it wants one last hurrah before it has to stop, and it's working furiously to make that happen. Just this one, last time. For old time's sake. Besides: maybe this new girl is the answer. Maybe she'll win out where all the others - and God Himself - have failed.

It's running around like crazy, trying to mortar the dam before it gives out. I'm sitting, leaning back against a tree, watching him. The world is about to end. Israfil is blowing the first blast of the trumpet, the mountains swirl like dust motes in late afternoon sunlight. My center cannot hold and I'm watching it all fall apart.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Last Day At Work

Today is my last day at work. Next week I have surgery, followed by two weeks of recuperation, and then graduate school, internships, a new chapter in my life begins. Just: not before I close this one.

For the past year and a half, or so, I have been a mental-health paraprofessional in a group home for people with mental illness and co-occuring substance-abuse problems. When I started this job, it was exactly the line of work that I wanted to get into: helping people overcome their addictions, begin the long and slow process of rebuilding their lives, getting in on the ground floor of bottoming out and hopefully being helpful. I came to the work armed with personal experiences, healthy realism, and buckets of hope.

The last of these is the only thing I leave behind, now.

The reason, interestingly enough, isn't the clients I've had. That healthy realism that I had meant that I brought no expectations that they would be returned to health, give up their addictions, magically become 'productive' members of society. Mental illness, and substance abuse, can be oppressive; recovery from them is a long, ongoing process that likely consumes the rest of one's life. Add on to that poverty and the stark racial segregation of Connecticut which goes along with poverty in this state, and the difficulty is compounded exponentially.

I knew all this, though only dimly, when I started. I knew that my job would be to attempt to empower my clients as best I could by creating a relationship and an environment in which they could regain autonomy over the course of their lives, and accept responsibility for the actions they take. Both are, I think, the essential ingredients of the act of recovery: taking control and being accountable.

What I didn't realize, and the reason which led to my current state of burn-out, is the systematic way in which my clients have been, are, and will be disenfranchised. I came to the job with a naive optimism that the mental-health system, and mental-health advocates, worked for the recovery of their clients (the current preferred nomenclature is actually 'consumer', which I find dehumanizing; I shall stick to 'client'). That's not the case at all.

Mental healthcare is underfunded, I think it is fair to say. Mental healthcare is a part of healthcare, of course, and suffers from the same set of problems. I'm not entirely sure how insurance corporations, which are legally obligated to seek the highest return on investment to shareholders, are the best instrument for providing the best healthcare to those they cover. If I need a test which is expensive, insurance companies must perform some strange calculus to determine whether it is better to let me have the test or to add some profit to their bottom-line. Given the legal obligation to add profits, one cannot entirely blame them for choosing the latter. Insurance companies are not evil; they are simply a construct of the business world applied to the medical world.

But this does, of course, have impact on mental healthcare. Go check your benefits; you are likely to see that they will cover short-course, or 'brief' strategic therapeutic help. You shall have a limited number of sessions in which to deal with your mental health issue before coverage is up and you're on your own. Brief, strategic, targeted therapy or counseling sounds great, only some mental health problems are anything but brief with identifiable targets.

Substance-abuse is the perfect example. The most proximate goal of substance-abuse treatment is to reduce, or preferably eliminate use of a substance or substances. Detoxification, and short-course therapy, is usually covered under an insurance plan. However, substance-abuse is, by definition, a chronic relapsing disease. If people didn't use a substance in spite of negative consequences, substance-abuse would not be a concern. In fact, people would get better on their own, as the negative consequences of use, abuse and dependence mounted.

Substance-abuse is also simply the most overt symptom of a constellation of related psychological, social and other issues. Underneath it are issues of self-esteem, stress, family and other relationships, social and cultural mores, etc. Unless these are also addressed, a problem which takes time and effort, there is likely to be an eventual relapse or some other flaring into different symptoms.

That is with insurance, and to have health insurance, someone in the (legally-defined) family needs either an employer who can provide it or the financial resources to pay for insurance. Without insurance, an individual is left with state-run plans. In this case, poverty is a requirement. This means folks who do not have a full-time job including benefits - folks who work multiple part-time jobs, for example - must make so little money that the government is willing to pay for them. In such situations, it actually pays not to have a job in order to have medical, including mental health, coverage. Given the increasing reliance of companies upon part-time employees, so as to avoid the rising cost of providing health insurance (again, not because any given company is evil per se, but because that company is legally-obligated to seek the highest return to investment for its shareholders; or, in the case of small businesses, simply because the business cannot afford to cover the benefits that accrue with full-time employment), this is an increasing problem as well.

So if you have an illness - mental or not - it is better not to work in order to receive government benefits. One of the ongoing questions of my clients during my tenure has been: is finding a job worth it? What impact will work have on my benefits? Will I still be able to collect social security payments, access food-stamps, utilize housing programs, retain Medicaid health insurance? Given that my clients are 99%, poor, uneducated (high school or below), and unskilled, the answer is almost always a resounding "No."

Reagan, long ago, spoke about so-called "Welfare Queens." What he did not actually understand is that in my clients' situation, the rational economic consideration is to remain unemployed, as the resources to move out of poverty disappear beyond a certain point. There is poor, and then there is working poor, and then there is the very bottom rung of what you and I would call 'middle class'; rationally, for any given individual, it is better to remain poor until and unless one can jump to lower middle class than to become part of the working poor.

In fact, the only reason why clients such as those I have had should seek employment is to fulfill non-rational goals, such as an increased sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. My clients have almost universally described employment as a goal for these reasons. Something we working people often forget until we are out of work is the array of non-rational and emotional securities that working provides. As I, myself, have become burnt-out from this job, I too forgot this. I feel shameful for doing so. Many, many people would be happy to have the job which I have, especially given current economic conditions, while I have spoken only ill of the job. Actually, I've been lucky to have it.

Of course, poverty does not decrease the desire for financial well-being, and social services provided by the government cannot, do not, and are not intended to fill that need. When you cannot become employed (or you lose your benefits), and the social welfare benefits you receive do not fulfill your needs, to what can you turn? Essentially, three options:

One can beg, or 'panhandle.' This is intensely degrading, and does not offer much financial return.

One can work 'under the table', for cash. Such opportunities do, sometimes, exist; though in areas of concentrated poverty (i.e., Hartford, Connecticut), it is usually more difficult to find someone with money who can offer such employment.

Or there is crime. One can steal, which carries a specific risk, but - for the morally conscious - is also degrading to one's sense of self. Or one can get involved in the production, distribution and sale of illicit substances: drugs. This is less degrading to one's sense of self. In fact, it is simply a black-market business carrying both increased risks (prison, murder by a rival outfit, etc) as well as increased reward. There is plenty of money to be made in the drug business for those with the right sort of business acumen suited to such an industry.

Given all of these circumstances, it is no wonder that any individual would seek to continue receiving welfare and turn to a life of crime, most especially drugs. The cruel circumstances of poverty, and the lack of supports as one transitions out of poverty, make the rational individual choose such a life.

Now add mental illness to the mix.

In 1963, the Federal government passed the Community Mental Health Act. The idea: get the mentally ill out of state-run psychiatric facilities - places straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - and into the community, and treat them there. Let psychiatrists in the community provide psychiatric services; let social workers in the community help them to find stable housing, employment, etc and connect individuals with other social supports; let counselors and therapists provide ongoing treatments; let patients reconnect with their families, perhaps even live with them; let patients adapt to society and - not mentioned at the time - societies adapt to the mentally ill. Let newly-created Local Mental Health Authorities (LMHAs) provide all of these services through Community Mental Health Centers (CMHCs).

A wonderfully well-intentioned idea that went horribly wrong. Now sanctioned to shut down expensive state-run hospitals and trim their budgets accordingly, states did precisely this without getting community mental health centers up to speed. Patients left the hospitals without adequate supports for living in the community, and communities were left without preparation to handle such a sudden influx of individuals with chronic mental problems and everything that went with them. Families suddenly had to care for sick individuals who sometimes needed 'round-the-clock care on top of the increased financial burden of an additional member of the household who, perhaps because of the severity of their illness (or the nature of their medication -- see below) could not add to the household income.

Mental illness is tricky; it is not something fixed by anodyne bromides. Talk to an individual who has successfully recovered from mental illness, and they are likely to talk about a variety of conditions and responsibilities which allow them to live with their conditions: medication, talk therapy, proper diet, exercise and sleep, a positive social milieu, etc. The constellation of factors which create success is often built up over a long period of experimentation, with frequent 'relapse' (or 'decompensation') a prevailing characteristic of this learning period. Each of these factors is different for different individuals; there is no single solution.

Most medication for severe mental illness comes with a long list of side-effects and contraindications. Thorazine and Haloperidol, for example, are notorious for reducing individuals to near catatonia. Thought and movement are slowed down so much that the experience is a living hell. Some medications cause tardive dyskinesia, a series of physical tics that appear like Parkinson's and are just as non-reversible. Akathesia - the inability to stay still - is another problem, as individuals are simply unable to remain in one place. Obesity is nearly always a concern, as most medications cause significant weight gain; and along with obesity come diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases. One medication, clozapine, carries the danger of agranulocytosis, which is potentially fatal.

Given the severity of these side-effects - as well as the fact that in many cases, the medications do not work, or only reduce symptoms to some degree without alleviating them entirely - is it any wonder that the mentally ill do not want to take them?

Many people - including several clients - watch a movie like A Beautiful Mind, and wonder about dealing with mental illness without medications. While I would applaud John Nash for his recovery, as well as raising questions about antipsychotic medications, I have seen this as a danger for many clients. Delusions are a priori fixed, false beliefs. You know something is a certain way before you look at any evidence. One client I had believed the NSA were tracking him with sattelites; no amount of rational argument or evidence could convince him otherwise; just as with all conspiracy theories, evidence that the theory is wrong is proof that the conspiracy is covering up the truth. Given this, it is hard for a delusional person not to act or react to their delusion. It is, after all, more real to them than what you and I call reality. Medications, can (and I stress 'can', and not 'do') help to reduce the potency of delusions. So in deciding with a doctor whether or not to take a medication, I think it's important to weigh the side-effects of the medication versus the benefit of not having to wear tinfoil to stop Major League Baseball tracking you through dental implants.

So I find it no large surprise that mentally ill individuals would not want to take medications. The side effects are too painful and the benefits too minimal for the drugs to seem in any way useful. At the same time, lacking the (minimal) anchor that the drugs might provide, a mentally ill individual is likely to forget to pay bills, go to work, make appointments, clean his or her home, shower, etc. The illness becomes all consuming.

And illicit substances become appealing. I could not tell you why illicit substances, many of which exacerbate symptoms of mental illness, should be so appealing to those with mental illness. In the case of marijuana, there is some evidence that the chemical cannabidiol acts as an anti-psychotic (it's mechanism of action still unknown); however, the active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is known to produce psychotic symptomology itself. Mentally ill individuals may smoke pot because the cannabidiol helps to alleviate symptoms of mental illness, but the varying ratio of cannabidiol to THC makes any single joint a crap-shoot.

As for cocaine, especially in the form of crack, the substance can only exacerbate mental illness to a large degree; however, since the drug overloads the brain's reward circuitry to such a high degree, any given individual is likely to feel compelled to use more whether they like it or not. As for alcohol, we still barely understand how it affects the brain of those without mental illness.

The only drug, actually, which I have seen reduce symptoms of mental illness is nicotine, perhaps the most deadly and addictive drug in existence. ALL clients that I have worked with have been smokers, usually heavy smokers if not chain-smokers. In one case, I could visually see a client with severe mental illness calm down and become more settled as he smoked.

All of these things create the image of the crazy homeless man which has become an accepted part of the urban landscape, a trope of it if you will. Unclean, raving about sattelites following him, probably smelling of alcohol or the peculiar "burnt plastic" smell of crack cocaine, begging for change. Or the crack-whore, an unattractive woman in hideous clothing too small for her body, bitter, nasty, reminding you in some not-so-small way of a rabid rodent in human form...

These were my clients.

I do not mean to deride them by my description. I am not entirely willing to accept that their fate is the outcome of their decisions, just as I am not entirely willing to blame the rest of us for creating them. Since I am not the severely mentally-ill, I cannot speak to their willingness or responsibility to effect a recovery and 'join society'; I can, however, speak to the various obstacles we put in their way.

The mental health system, to put it bluntly, is overwhelmed, underfunded, undertrained, and designed seemingly to obfuscate. It is not designed to move people from illness to health, but simply to move people. Perhaps the clearest example I can give of this is that of an obese diabetic alcoholic with some variety of schizophrenia. Through the program for which I worked, she was able to stabilize symptoms of her mental illness, develop social skills necessary for leading a good and decent life, navigate the medical and mental health systems with some competence, and to obtain a few precious months of sobriety.

The local CMHC, using state-funding, moved her into a third-floor apartment above a liquor-store that could be reached only by stairs. This was not a move designed to place her in housing that supported her continued recovery; this was a move designed to add a tic-mark in the agency's "success" column. Numbers do lie: just because her level-of-care dropped does not mean that she is on the road to no-level-of-care. Given those circumstances, it is a matter of time before she is once again utilizing more and more supports - and the state's resources, and more of the taxpayer's money.

Politics - and therefore government - is about the short-term, however. Lower taxes for my term in office, and let the next guy worry about the budget deficit I create. Democratic governments, as a rule, do not invest in long-term projects without being able to present some evidence to their electorate of benefit, the more immediate the benefit the better. Given that the poor and disenfranchised are less likely to donate to your campaign - and that the working poor, saddled with multiple jobs and responsibilities, are even less likely to donate or even vote - government is not likely to address issues important to such communities. When you're mentally ill and poor, forget about it.

The government and its agencies are therefore likely to look for programs that provide immediate 'results' that can be shown to an electorate that is, after all, not entirely selfish: we want to do something for poor people, even if we put our own needs first. Those programs must not only be 'effective' on paper, but should be as low-cost as possible, else the electorate shall accuse the government of wasteful spending.

The criminal justice system is a good example. It is easier to warehouse criminals in prisons than to provide rehabilitation and the necessary community development to reduce recidivism. The electorate responds well to the idea of locking up prisoners and throwing away the key; it is easier to politically justify the expense of building more prisons than finding ways to make productive members of society out of criminals. Mental health works in a similar fashion.

For a state, the most cost-effective way to deal with the problem of mental health for poor individuals is Medicaid. Medicaid is a program whereby the federal government provides matching funds to the states to provide medical care for poor individuals. The Fed pays half, the state pays half, and poor individuals are provided with a (very) minimal level of medical attention.

Given the constellation of additional issues that go along with mental health, however, and the fact that the Fed only pays out for certain treatments (usually those that have known courses of treatment with known outcomes, just as insurance companies are only like to pay for such), states are in a bit of a bind when it comes to illnesses of a chronic relapsing nature, such as mental illness and substance-abuse, or those which require an indeterminate amount of time to treat, such as mental illness and substance-abuse.

Tucked away in the Medicaid legislation is something known as 'Medicaid Rehabilitation Option', or MRO. MRO allows the states to receiving matching funds from the Fed for certain courses of treatment, such as a group-home for people with mental illness and substance-abuse problems to receive housing, food, and some treatment services. This is the piece of legislation that allows for the group-home in which I worked.

Of course, the state is still under pressure to keep costs to a minimum. The Fed may foot half the bill, but the state is responsible for the other half, and both governments want things to run as cheaply as possible.

The solution: contract out to local agencies to provide these services. Find the agency able to provide the best service at the cheapest cost. Use the strength of market capitalism, in other words, which is to find the best product at the cheapest cost. The types of agencies which usually provide such services may be non-profit agencies; never-the-less, they are looking to utilize the money they earn to provide additional services through additional programs. A non-profit, though less driven by the profit motive, is never-the-less driven by profit motive. The program in which I worked, for instance, loses money routinely; the deficit is made up by other programs of the agency, while the program in which I worked provides a service to the state and the community and allows the agency to demonstrate competence in handling such an assignment.

Keeping costs down is never-the-less incredibly important; that means the physical plant - the 'house' part of the group-home - needs to be cheap. Cheap, in Hartford, means "in a bad neighborhood." The group home is situated in an area of Hartford that - while not absolutely horrible - is known for drug activity, petty theft, and rape. For all of the clients, recovering as they are from substance-abuse, the drug activity constitutes the most prevalent environmental concern, while for female clients the rape is a strong concern as well. Various clients have commented on the difficulty of recovering from drug abuse when it is possible to walk across the street (literally) and score crack.

It also means that employee salaries must be sufficiently low. Although I would be grateful to have had a higher salary, it is the side-effects of low pay on services that concerns me more. Low pay, for example, means a higher turnover rate of employees. If there is an opportunity to earn more, an individual is more likely to consider it. This was a part of my own decision to leave: I could seek further education in order to earn a higher salary, as well as pursue advancement of my career, for which a graduate degree is necessary. A higher turnover is problematic when dealing with mental illnesses, as stability and structure are usually necessary components of recovery, and relationships with counselors have a high turnover as well - one is always starting new relationships with people, and never able to benefit from more long-term continuity of care with a single person.

It also means that people with little to no interest in mental health and/or substance abuse are likely to take the job. It is, for them, simply a way to pay the bills, and they have no personal investment in job-performance or their clients. I left a training early yesterday, when individuals with which I was partnered chose to ignore the exercise we were given in favor of making sarcastic and nasty comments about their clients. They did not want to be there; they did not want to know how they might perform their jobs better; they just needed a paycheck.

Low-pay comes with something else, and that is low education and training. Most individuals working in my program are in school, but in unrelated fields. They lack practical or even theoretical background in severe mental illness or substance abuse (unless they have dealt with such issues in their personal lives; however, such experience is very much different from formal training). Though the agency for which I work seeks to educate its employees as much as possible - for example, through the training I received yesterday - it nevertheless runs up against the fact that it can only provide brief trainings; and such training means nothing to someone who simply doesn't care.

This means that the interventions we as counselors provide to our clients is suboptimal. Though we provide, in the eyes of the state mental health agency, some of the best services throughout the state, I cannot help but observe that our work falls far below the current standards in the field. That isn't because we, as staff, are not driven, inventive, compassionate hard-workers; it is simply because we don't have the training and tools to perform the job well.

Low pay also makes us expendable. We can be replaced. That factor makes organizing for better pay, better training, better anything, much less likely. I mentioned that I suffer right now from burn-out as a result of this job; I believe, actually, that all of my co-workers suffer from some degree of burn-out as well. I have felt that an enormous burden has been placed upon me not by the clients with which I have worked, but by the agency and the state. I am required, for example, to obtain a certain minimal number of contact-hours with a client over a given month, or the agency is not payed for services rendered. However, in some cases - many cases, actually - clients have not wanted to meet with me, or indeed any other individual on the staff. I cannot force a person to talk with me about their substance-abuse problem; yet if I do not achieve that minimal number of hours, I receive official reprimand. I am punished for someone else's decisions: what better way to create a feeling of impotence, and thus burn-out?

Burn-out, I know, is best treated by time off, allowing an individual to regain perspective, composure, optimism and compassion. When you work with mental illness and the people who suffer from it, it is necessary to have the time and resources to maintain your own mental health. But when you are a mental health paraprofessional, such as I was, time and resources are scarce, and because you have no organized recourse to demanding better pay or more time off, the chances of burn-out increase. Add to that the fact that my own position was shift-work, and you can add problems of getting adequate sleep some nights, and a general disconnect with the rest of the world working the 9-5, Monday through Friday schedule. You become further disconnected with your family and friends simply because of the hours you work, and these supports for your own mental well-being lose some of their strength.

Burn-out, seems to me, is pretty much par for the course in mental health. My clients' clinicians usually seem to have some degree of burn-out too, often to a worse degree than I have experienced myself. I've heard Mobile Crisis workers, individuals trained to provide over-the-phone counseling to folks with mental illness, yell at the people they were supposed to help (and no, yelling is not an effective form of therapy, especially to those in crisis). Psychiatrists, too, seem to prescribe medications without consulting their patients, often telling their patients to deal with the side-effects rather than attempt to work with them to find the optimal medication(s) at the optimal dosage. Everyone seems to be working in their own crisis mode, in a panic, at a frantic, unsettled and unsettling pace. The result is a deep, pervading bitterness and cynicism that provides an unattractive backdrop to the field. There are often a few individuals, full of enthusiasm and optimism, who appear to the rest of us incredibly naive: there is no hope. We watch and wait for their cheer to die an agonizing death with obvious schadenfreude.

Worst of all, however, and the largest problem with which I have grappled over the course of the past year and a half in this job, has been the utter hopelessness of my clients. They seem to have no hope for the future, no interest in recovery, no desire to do what they can to improve their lives. I don't blame them: in their shoes, I would feel the same way. There is no point in finishing their education, seeking employment, addressing their symptoms... none seem like objectives which would significantly alter their lot in life. They have become 'institutionalized', used to saying whatever people in authority think they should say in order simply to get those people off their backs, whether they be police, judges, social workers, doctors, therapists, counselors, or any other social-service provider, and then doing exactly as they want to do.

This, perhaps more than anything, is the reason I leave the field: I simply do not have the constitution to hold out hope for these people when they cannot do so themselves, and the reason that I cannot hold out hope for them is that I know they are hopelessly outnumbered in any such struggle. I feel as they do: powerless, the play-thing of forces larger than me. The people who work in this field and manage to avoid burn-out have my respect.

Though, this job has been beneficial in that it has shown me something of the nature of poverty and disenfranchisement, things which I did not understand much before (and about which I very obviously have a great deal to learn). I'm leaving the job in order to go to school to receive the training I need to work at a more systemic level. Recovery is about creating an environment in which natural health is able to take root and flower. Create the environment, and it will happen in its own good time. In order to create that environment, though, the 'System' needs to change, and that requires a certain shift of perspective.

Government's role needs to adjust to a more long-term perspective. We need to be willing to invest in our future, and I believe that we the electorate know this, though we would prefer to ignore it. In the long-run, the costs of ongoing treatment of the symptoms of the mental health problem exceed the cost of changing treatment to the underlying pathology. Investment, now, in better treatment, now, means less treatment - and therefore less cost - in the future.

For one, we could require mental-health paraprofessionals to have minimal certification for the job. Certification means that we have an established baseline level of training amongst those working in the field. It helps to weed out individuals who aren't looking to do the job as part of a larger career, people who don't care and are just working for the money. Why invest in training and passing a certification exam if you're not going to use it down the road?

It also creates the incentive for workers to organize, as they cannot be as easily replaced, and to demand better pay and/or benefits - such as enough time-off to be able to cope with burn-out. Better pay necessitates more professionalism: workers have to demonstrate that they are worth the better pay. And professionalism means better interventions provided to clients, who then have a better chance of effecting recovery.

That means additional costs to the government, federal as well as state. It will not be popular with the electorate. But it does mean that over the long-term, hopefully, there are less crazy homeless drug-addicts on the street, reduced crime, and reduced use of other social services. The benefit is distributed in a systemic way, so that no politician can point to the change and point to the benefits; and yet society will be better. That, of course, requires a courageous politician: a politician who works for the benefit of the community, and not the aggrandizement of his or her own ego. In itself, that's a tall order.

Of course, it is only a part of the problem. Also needing to be addressed is the way in which our society helps people out of poverty - provide incentives to people to transition into work, rather than remain in poverty because of the benefits of the social safety net that classification provides. And other issues.

Until these are addressed, though, I will not be the last mental-health worker to quit in frustration at not being able to help his clients to recover from their illnesses.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fuck You Day

It was eight years ago today that I was paralyzed.

Eight years. A lot has happened, in those eight years; a great deal of growing up was done. Five of those years were some of the hardest living I've ever done, some near-constant struggle for sanity amidst a hell of a lot of seductive madness - to most of which, I gave in, because I'm not as morally strong as everybody seems to think I am. I seem a decent guy, but I'm a right fucker and I know that.

I didn't know that then. Or didn't want to know that then. Doesn't matter - I was a right fucker and pretended I wasn't, and that's pretty sick.

But last night as I was falling asleep I prayed for something for which I haven't prayed in a long, long time: for health. I prayed to be healthy again, to have at least the mobility I used to have, even if I cannot get back the sensation. I want to be done with physical therapists and doctors, Western or Chinese, with orthotics and prosthetics, with scalpels and blood and calluses and the pain - the never-ending pain.

I don't mean the emotional pain. Emotional pain is easy; I can handle that. Three years ago I broke, and when that happened I unleashed a tidal wave of emotional-type pain. I made it through that, so I know I can handle it. I've been given the tools to handle that sort of thing. I'm mentally and spiritually prepared for that kind of awful.

No, I mean the physical pain. I mean waking up to hurt first thing in the morning, going to bed with hurt the last thing on my mind, waking in the middle of the night to some kind of obnoxious hurt that will not let me rest.

I tell myself: this is the price you pay for the fun you had. This is the price you pay for the way it felt, then, to escape. You pay for what you did, and if you know what's good for you you'll find a way to turn that hurt to some good use. You'll use the pain to help somebody else avoid the mess you got yourself in. That's the good you can do, that's how you can give the whole fucking ordeal enough meaning to make it alright.

But it doesn't seem to help much, because I still end up falling asleep, every year, dreaming about waking up to it being gone, waking up and finding out that the past 8 years were all some shadowy morality play in my dreams that night, long ago, in India.

I try to make deals with God, promise Him the life I'm already supposed to have given Him in exchange for health. I dream about going back to India with tears streaming down my face in thanksgiving. I'd give almost anything - maybe anything - to have it back.

I wonder what sort of devil I would be willing to cut deals with in order to make it come true, and grow afraid I may have already done so and lost it all, unwittingly.

I wish... I wish it were all over. I wish this stupid fucking anniversary stopped popping up, waylaying my mind for one day of the year, and reducing me to this sniveling pathetic piece of shit.

Fuck you, June 9th. Fuck you.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

At Home in the Madhouse

I started my new job last week.

I now work in a group home for substance-abusing individuals with co-occurring mental disorders. The overwhelming majority of them have schizophrenia, along with depression and post-traumatic stress - I have yet to see any bipolars, but I know that they are out there.

I love it. I've learned an amazing amount in a short period of time, and I've been able to actually use all the skills I've accumulated and learned in the past to be able to help someone, and been fortunate enough - alhamdulillah - to be given the chance to see the results of my work, how well they have turned out.

The first thing I noticed working there, though, was simply how terrified I was, am, at chaos. Meaning: I'm not so much scared by mental illness itself, as when it manifests in a chaotic, disorganized, non-sensical manner. I can handle disorders of mood, I can understand paranoia. What I can make neither heads nor tail of is, well, gibberish.

I have one client who, more than the others, exhibits the classical schizophrenic symptoms of disorganized speech, and who suffers either from a degree of social anxiety, or else is suffering tremendously from the akithisia which is a side-effect of all the medications he is on, because he finds it enormously difficult to sit still.

In certain ways, he frightens me more than the others. It isn't that his illness is 'graver' than the others, because in all likelihood I doubt it is. I think there is also a great deal of intelligence just below the surface. It's more the surface itself, its chaos, disorganization, gibberish. I don't know how to act or react or interpret and understand what is going on. I have a hard time... well, reading his mind.

We all read each other's minds all the time. We may attention to a thousand small little cues in behavior and speech - both content and affect - which allows us to perform that singularly human and incredibly powerful act of placing ourselves in one another's shoes. With this client, I cannot do that. I cannot tell what is going on within him. And it terrifies me.

(I am led to understand, though I could be wrong, that this is rather what the autistic experience is like, which only heightens my appreciation for the bravery and perspicacity of autistic individuals)

Lacking knowledge of what else to do, I took this client out yesterday to get some coffee and play chess. As it turns out, we were pretty evenly matched at chess, though I beat him; that itself was a mistake, though, since I think he may be more averse to playing against me again in the future, therefore providing yet another obstacle for me to see how to connect with him. I am supposed to be working with him - with all my clients - on achieving rehabilitation/recovery goals, but I am unclear about how to proceed with this particular client. I am hoping that something, anything, will come along to point the way.

The more I work with all my clients, though, the deeper my appreciation for both their resiliency and bravery as well as the profundity of their illness. Most powerful of all, though, has been a growing understanding and recognition that really, they are not so different from myself, illness and all.

As I've begun looking into severe mental illness and psychosis, I've been pounded with two voices, one of which says that mental illness of this sort is organic and demands both organic - meaning chemical - solution as well as some degree of skills training. It says that the illness has no progressive order or makes any sort of underlying sense. Any view which postulates underlying order is merely imposing such a system from without.

The second set of voices says that there is an underlying order to mental illness of this sort, and that talk-therapy can both find this order and provide a framework for recovery without the need for a chemical solution, which is often a blunt-force-trauma instrument when it comes to attenuating the positive symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions. In fact, this view says, 'mental illness' is, in fact, sanity in a world gone mad.

I'm unconvinced by either voices entirely. My own battle with depression has been enormously aided by chemical solutions. In all likelihood I would not be here, functioning as I am, without the help of chemicals. I don't believe other solutions would, in fact, make a dent in my own problem. Nor am I willing to see my depression as 'sanity' in a world gone mad. Claiming that my suffering is some sort of political and social critique is really attempting to use my suffering to further one's own political and social agenda. Sorry, I am crazy.

Rather, as I learn from my clients as well as other case-study sort of materials, I'm discovering that what they experience is, perhaps, simply a more intense, actualized version of the inner dynamics of all minds; or at least my own. That's why there can be 'drug-induced psychosis' - the drugs do not cause the psychotic material per se, but rather heighten the latent material of the mind.

Which means, to me, the insane are no more, nor less, sane than the rest of us. The capacity for sanity is within them - and the capacity for insanity is within each of us. All it takes is the appropriate stimuli to activate these things.

The good news of this, to my mind, is that it means recovery is possible. These people, all of them, can live happy and healthy and meaningful lives. It requires effort, perhaps medication, and almost undoubtedly sacrifice, but it is possible.

The problem psychosis-prone individuals face, I think, is that we 'sane' people don't want to make the effort, and they do not want to make the sacrifice. Coping with my own mental illness(es) has required that I give up a lot of concepts that I once cherished - the prime example being that I should be able to live medication-free. I have had to accustom myself to the fact that, simply put, it is not my life when I choose to eschew medication, but a life which involves all the people around me. To go off-med is to cause suffering in far too many other people. Side-effects be damned - I have a responsibility to others.

Such sacrifices are rife in mental illness. Giving up paranoia means giving up the idea that one can ever be entirely 'safe'. Giving up delusions means giving up the idea that one is 'special' enough to be chosen by demons or angels. Accepting that one is crazy means accepting a degree of humility that is often hard to swallow.

Simultaneously, though, I think we 'sane' people are all too often eager to avoid working with the mentally-ill in a mutual effort towards greater sanity. Because, really, it is an enormous effort. It is not simply a matter of finding the right pill to cure the symptoms, or sending them off to 12-step meetings and expecting them to be able to cure themselves, but it takes something of us: courage to face the chaos, to overcome fear of being harmed, of treating these individuals as... well, human and sane.

At least, I know that's something with which I struggle.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Appeal for Help

I've recently, unwittingly, become embroiled in an out-of-country dispute related to my religious community at large. As mentioned in a previous post, the Harabati Baba Teqe in Tetovo, Macedonia, is under siege by armed Sunni extremists, who want to bull-doze these grounds:

Beautiful, no? Since I came across photos of the place on Google Earth, I've wanted to go and visit. The fact that it is a Bektashi teqe made all the difference, too, as it the buildings belong to my religious community.

But the Sunni Muslim majority in the country want to tear down these buildings and build a 'mega-mosque' on the site instead; something totally unnecessary in a town with 24 mosques already. But Macedonian law recognizes only one religious organization per religious community, and it chooses to recognize the Islamic Community of Macedonia - all Sunni - and not my community, the Shi'i Bektashi.

Never mind the fact that it recognizes Roman Catholics and Macedonian Orthodox, rather than just one 'Christian' community.

My willingness to jump into the fray and do whatever I can to try to save the teqe has pushed me into some sort of ad hoc leadership role in the fight for the teqe. Some friends have been requesting the chance to bring Alevi supporters down from Germany to physically throw the Sunni invaders out of the teqe, but I have been trying to insist on a more Gandhian approach. Most of the invaders are young, poor, unemployed ethnic-minority Albanians - people without power, looking for people with less power to bully around, in an attempt to feel big about themselves. They're just puppets, really, of the Islamic Community of Macedonia in their bid to gain unfettered control over the entire Muslim community in Macedonia.

Meanwhile, the Slavic, Christian Macedonian majority is unwilling to interfere. Of course not: this is a squabble between Albanians and Albanians, Muslims and Muslims - the minority fighting with itself, leaving the majority to consolidate it's power.

The international community is no more open to helping. With the legal situation in limbo, journalists have no interest in it. Macedonia's relative stability by comparison with the rest of the Balkans has earned it favorable reports from the U.S. and E.U., and the country will likely reap the reward of NATO membership early next month. The U.S. Ambassador has, meanwhile, diplomatically refused to meet with the Bektashi community spokespeople - a shameful shunning on her part.

All of which leaves my little community with no real friends. I am trying to generate an interest in the Alevi diaspora community, as they share many features of Bektashi belief and are likewise shunned by the Muslim majorities, but running into a language barrier. I am remiss to appeal to traditional Twelver Shi'a in the United States, Iran, Lebanon or the like out of fear that doing so will either replace armed Sunnis with armed Shi'a, or that it will result in a violent confrontation. The Bektashi community appears to have asked that a non-violent solution be found, and I am in total agreement with them on this. The invaders may take our teqe, but we are refusing to let them take our honor.

They do seem to be taking our hope from us, though. Apart from my Macedonian counterpart and I, we seem to be poor on pure gumption.

So... I guess I'm turning here for some help, as well. I know that there may be a few Quakerly types who read this blog; can I appeal to that of God in you to lend a hand? We do not ask much: we are trying to organize an appeal to an authority, any authority that will listen, and all we are asking for that authority to do is to help us get our teqe back, and pressure the Macedonian government to grant us our autonomy as a religious sect.

It's weird; I've never been much for political activism. Yet here I am.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sunni Extremists Besieging Macedonian Religious Heritage Site

On August 15th 2002, and group of Sunni extremists besieged the Harabati Baba Tekke, a traditionally Bektashi Sufi lodge. In spite of documentation attesting to their ownership of the lodge, the Macedonian Bektashi community is locked in a legal struggle to maintain their right to the tekke. More recently, the extremists have laid claim to more of the lodge, and have begun firing their weapons inside the tekke grounds.

If you are an American citizen, we the worldwide Bektashi community ask that you please write to your congressmen in both the House as well as the Senate, to express your strenuous objection to such a gross violation of religious freedom.

You can write to your representative, and your senators . You may also wish to write the Department of State, or just plain ol' President Bush, or Vice President Cheney. You might also try using FaxZero.com to send up to two free faxes a day to your congressional representatives, the Albanian American Civic League (914-762-5102), or others. I recommend that you state the following in your fax:

"I write to you in strenuous protest of invasion of the Harabati tekke in Tetovo, Macedonia by armed Sunni extremists, and ask you to call upon the U.S., E.U., and U.N. authorities in Skopje, who monitor terrorist threats in the Balkans, to pressure the Macedonian government for the immediate removal of the extremists from the Harabati tekke, by legal force if necessary, and protect the tekke from further interference.

The extremists are currently besieging the Sufi dervishes inside the compound, have threatened or intimidated visitors, and have been discharging their weapons around the compound. I feel this is unacceptable, and ask you to address the issue immediately.

Naim Frasheri, poet-laureate of the Albanian national cause and Bektashi Muslim himself, said of us: "Let them be peaceable, let them remember the poor, let them shun evil and folly, let them cast into the Way all works that are needful for mankind and for religion, and let them forward all things good. Together with the chiefs and notables let them encourage love, brotherhood, unity, and friendship among all Albanians: let not the Muslims be divided from the Christians, and the Christians from the Muslims, but let both work together. Let them strain towards enlightenment, that the Albanian, who was once reputed together throughout the world, be not despised today."

Our brothers in Macedonia have been seeking recognition from the government since 1993, to no avail; we ask you to help us in calling upon the United States government, the European Union, and the United Nations to press the Macedonian government to recognize our religious freedom, and restore to us our Sufi lodge."

Also, please write an email to the United States Embassy in Macedonia.

If you are a European - or just plain outraged - you can also write to the EU Mission in Skopje and voice an objection about Macedonia's prospective entry to the EU while this matter goes on. Brits, please email Andrew Key, the British Ambassador to Macedonia and voice your complaint.

Within Macedonia, you might try the president, Branko Crvenkovski, or his ruling party, the VMRO-DPMNE, or the Macedonian mission to the United Nations. You can also try Arben Xhaferi, former head of one of the major ethnic-Albanian political parties in the country, or Menduh Thaqi, current head of one of the major ethnic-Albanian political parties in the country.

Human Rights Watch might want to know about it, and the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, and the International Association for Religious Freedom, who consult with the UN.

Finally, if you have any contacts with media outlets, please let them know.

You may wish to use the following when you write to these individuals and agencies (included in some of the mailto links above):

"I write to you in strenuous protest of invasion of the Harabati tekke in Tetovo, Macedonia by armed Sunni extremists, and ask you to call upon the U.S., E.U., and U.N. authorities in Skopje, who monitor terrorist threats in the Balkans, to pressure the Macedonian government for the immediate removal of the extremists from the Harabati tekke, by legal force if necessary, and protect the tekke from further interference.

The extremists are currently besieging the Sufi dervishes inside the compound, have threatened or intimidated visitors, and have been discharging their weapons around the compound. I feel this is unacceptable, and ask you to address the issue immediately."

And finally, all prayers are, of course welcome, especially for our beloved brothers who are being harassed.

Ashk Olsun.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Theologie Gastronomique

Karen Armstrong once said that good theology should be like poetry. It's a fine analogy: both are, or at least should be, used to describe qualities which are beyond empirically quantifiable measures. There is nothing dryly 'scientific' in good poetry. It has a numinous aesthetic. And an appropriate theology should likewise reveal a numinous aesthetic.

That said, I am perhaps more amenable to science than she is. That is to say, I think good science has a numinous aesthetic all of its own. Mathematicians will tell you that an explanatory equation that isn't 'elegant' is probably wrong, which I think betrays the fact that even in a field such as mathematics the human need for beauty is present. Personally, when I read about, say, the functioning of the brain I find in myself a sense of awe and wonder at the contraption by which I apprehend the universe. There are more synaptic connections in our brains, for example, than there are stars in our galaxy: if that thought doesn't produce in you a sense of the mysterium terrible et fascinans then I'm not sure what will. Certainly not direct revelation of God.

Therefore, I would propose that instead of good theology being 'like poetry', that good theology is like cooking.

I'm biased in this proposition - I like to cook. I haven't a creative bone in my body unless I'm in the kitchen. Everywhere else I stand on the shoulders of giants to glimpse the Ineffable, but in the kitchen I stand between their legs: not as great as any, but at least standing on my own.

Good cooking, to my mind, is predicated upon three things: science, craft, and art.

To cook - to cook well, that is - one needs to know what one is doing. Why does grilled food possess a flavor unique to it, and therefore different from, say, boiling it? Well, the answer is in the science. Grilling causes the Maillard reaction, an interaction between an amino acid and sugars capable of being reduced to an aldehyde or ketone. A chemical reaction between these two in a relatively anhydrous, hot environment produces a variety of molecules responsible for odors and flavors, all of which are dependent upon and characteristic of the food being grilled. Additionally, you have molecules from the grilling materials (charcoal, for example) which adhere to the grilled material producing additional flavors and interacting with those produced on the grilled material by the Maillard reaction.

Boiling, because it occurs in a hydrous environment (amongst other factors), does not produce the same chemicals responsible for odors and flavors associated with grilling.

Of course, you don't need to know exactly what's occurring when you grill versus boil in order to grill or boil a food. Most cooks don't, they just know that these two methods produce two different results. Knowing it, though, allows you to understand why you would want to a certain food in a certain way, and that can affect what you do creatively later on. It is the basis, the backbone, of good cooking, and only heightens one's ability to produce good food.

Theology - good theology - similarly needs a strong 'scientific' background. A theology which is not grounded in reality is not a good theology. For example, a theology that denies or minimizes the basic fact of human suffering, that strives to cover it over or evade it, does not work.

It seems to me that all the religions, all of the faiths, have both the good and the bad of these. It is understandable to want to evade the reality that suffering exists, but that does not make it beneficial to do so. "God wants it so", "It is their karma", "Suffering is inevitable, therefore to act doesn't really change anything": such pat-answers are unacceptable because they are simple and simplistic attempts to avoid a fundamental truth, rather than address it.

Good theology doesn't attempt to avoid reason, empiricism, or science. Science has demonstrated that the Earth is millions upon millions of years old; scripture does not abrogate such an independently-verifiable truth. Sticking fingers in our ears and denying something which can be repeatedly demonstrated does not make it vanish.

Yet, neither - I would say - does science possess the single and sole route to truth. Mathematics may be able to tell us that the construction of a minor chord is dependent upon logarithmically-related sinusoidal waveforms, but that still does not explain why minor chords appear 'sad' to us. There are some things not dreamt of in science's philosophy.

Primarily, however, cooking is craft. It is taking raw materials and transforming them into usable - edible - substances. Craft is a matter of skill and technology, the application of usable science in a skilled manner to create a desired end. In cooking, we grill (technology) to both decrease the likelihood of parasitic or otherwise-pathological contaminants entering our bodies, as well as to produce odorous chemicals which heighten the flavorful nature of the foodstuff.

(An interesting scientific question would be: which came first? The flavor or the safety of the food? Are we drawn to the flavor of cooked foods, or are we drawn to the safety of cooked foods because of a learned or genetic association of 'safe food' with those flavors?)

There is skill involved in the appropriate utilization of cooking technology, because we may apply too much technology, which decreases the bioavailability of the substances we eat in order to metabolize them. There is a world of difference between a well-charred steak and a steak that has been burnt to the point that it is nothing more than charcoal: one tastes good and is nutritious, the other tastes awful and offers little but carbon.

This is a skill, something learned - when cooking steak it is necessary to know how much heat for how long, whether to move the meat (which disrupts charring), the importance of resting the meat so that fluids present are able to re-enter cells and maintain the 'juiciness' of the meat but not resting it so long that it goes cold, etc. We usually learn these techniques in a couple of ways: first, we follow recipes, utilizing the guidelines by which others have produced the food we are trying to produce. Secondly, because no circumstances are ever exactly the same, we discover our own methods through having to make necessary adjustments to differing conditions. Some ovens are hotter than others (no matter what the temperature gauge may say); stovetops can be gas or electric; climatological conditions, including ambient air humidity, can be different in different parts of the world at different altitudes on different days.

Like all skills, we begin making conscious changes based upon conscious observations, but over time we learn to make changes based upon gut-instinct. We flip a steak based upon countless observations of time passed, sounds made, colors apparent in countless like-situations, all of which lead us to act in a certain way at the correct moment now. Craft, skill, becomes ingrained; we are well on our way to becoming a real cook.

Similarly, the absolute vast majority of spiritual life is this sort of training. Usually at first we follow ritual forms, acts and behaviors of which we are highly conscious. Over time, the consciousness of the action begins to slip away; the skill becomes ingrained; we begin to act upon some form of instinct and intuition.

Prayer and meditation are both premier examples of this process; because I have more experience with the latter, allow me to use it to demonstrate.

At first during meditation, we are highly conscious of our actions. We scatter our minds, trying to monitor a number of different variables: am I sitting straight? How is my breathing? Where are my eyes? Am I using a soft-focus? My mind won't shut up! The largest mistake I, and every other meditator I know, makes in the beginning is believing that they must stop their thoughts to 'achieve' meditation. It's only constant practice that begins to teach one that the point isn't to 'stop thought', but simply to observe it without engaging in it.

Over time, with practice, the act of sinking into meditation becomes more automatic, requires less conscious effort. It becomes something closer to second nature, and at this point we begin to learn how to carry that method for experiencing the world into other areas of our lives, which is the point at which, I would say, meditation really begins. This all comes, of course, through repetitive practice. The goal of practice is to practice.

(Very Zen that, isn't it?)

In my experience, all of spiritual life is just that: practice. We practice carrying prayer with us at all times; we practice meditating through dinner; we practice kindness, patience, tolerance and love. The point isn't to get these things right all the time, every time; it's to practice, to develop the skill to be able to carry these around with us more often. There is no 'end' to the spiritual path, only continual practice.

At a certain point, though, we've practiced enough to be able to do new and different things with our skills. This is art. This is also the point to which everybody - and I mean everybody - wants to get. For cooks, it's when you get to be a chef, when you are creating meals entirely on your own, off the top of your head. You're able to combine different foods and techniques in different ways in order to create unique recipes, unique meals, on your own, without anybody else's aid. It's having the ability to go to a market, look at what's there, and begin picking out the ingredients to make a meal that exists nowhere but in the imagination. It's where we become fonts of creativity and beauty; it's where people admire us for the things we can do.

The spiritual life isn't a whole lot different: we want to be able to take the skills we have practiced and apply them in new and creative ways to the dilemmas around us. It is being able to see the unity behind Reality (with the capital 'R'), have boundless compassion, unassailable optimism, a pure sense of humor; to tread lightly, speak with wisdom, become a source of beneficence to all those around us. It is the supreme art of living well.

The trap - for me at least - is thinking that art is the goal, both in cooking and in spirituality. It is not. Every time I make conscious efforts to produce 'artful' cooking I fail miserably; similarly, every time I try to be a 'spiritual artist' (or even artiste, with the fanciful final French 'e'), I end up a right jack-ass trying to be somebody, something, I am not.

Art, in this sense here, is simply a byproduct of the practice of craft. It happens to us maybe 2% of the time, while the other 98% is simply practicing craft. Now and then, purely on a whim, I'll concoct something new in my kitchen - a tomato sauce, a chicken stew, a mushroom soup. I'll come up with the idea in my head, try it out, and I'll have some success in making something new, something tasty, something flavorful and yummy. Almost inevitably, in these circumstances, I won't be able to repeat it. I won't be able to remember quantities, timing, the amount of heat, the proper order. I'll have vague memories of what I did, but... nothing definite, nothing concrete. The next time, it'll be different and, maybe, not as good. Though sometimes, the next attempt to re-create the original will end up better: it's truly hit-and-miss.

Most of the time, though, my efforts are more along the lines of a craft. I'll find a recipe for something I want to try and incorporate a little creativity of my own: a tequila-lime chicken cous cous, a black bean chili, a soy-sauce steak. I'll take a basic recipe as a rough draft and change things here and there to suit my needs; but ultimately, it's not my idea. I'm doing little more than paraphrased plagiarism. I'm OK with that; these sorts of cooking attempts almost invariably end up far better than my attempts at artistry, and I wouldn't call them my own, not really.

Similarly my spirituality. Every now and then I'll do or say something truly loving, truly wise. These seem to happen a great deal less than my 2% of actually-creative cookery, some minuscule little percentage of the time. Those moments occur and I'm blown away by them, amazed, wonder how the hell they happened and how to recreate that more of the time, all of the time; and then I'll try to do such a thing, and fail. Never the less, I don't want to give up trying, because those moments are so incredible to watch unfold.

I don't think that they necessarily happen to anybody all of the time, no matter how 'spiritual'. I prefer to think of those as moments when God picks us as an instrument for His action, and when He has completed acting through us, He no longer uses us. So it's not really a matter of developing our skills to the point where such a thing can happen all the time; it's more that we develop the skills so that when it does happen, it's subtler, more powerful, more effective - like cooking, our dishes become understated, we pile on fewer herbs and spices and restrict ourselves to those that highlight and complement the ones that exist in the meats or vegetables or oils already. Perhaps, as well, we learn something from them, and if we are lucky, can repeat such acts again.

Maybe equating theology to cookery isn't the best analogy. Maybe another, different analogy will make more sense to more people; certainly, people treasure cooking less than I do. Good groceries give me a thrill I don't think others necessarily share. Trying new flavors also gets me excited: certainly I seemed to be the only person thrilled to try artificial bird's nest soft-drink with added white fungus flavor (it was disgusting, by the way, but I'm glad to have tried it).

So make your own analogy. Maybe, for you, spirituality is like painting; music; theatre; sports; chess; skydiving; whatever.

I'm willing to bet, though, that at its core you'll find it's all the same: grounded in reality, a long-term practice with sometimes, though not always, spectacular results.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The View From Halfway Up the Mountain

A little while ago now, I had a mystical experience. I 'saw' God.

Before I get going, I want to say this: yes, the experience happened on a psychedelic drug. No, I don't really care if that means it wasn't 'real'. I'm not interested in the ontology of the experience, whether it was real or not. I don't know if it was real. Hell, I don't know if the love I feel towards my girlfriend is 'real', but to my mind it's pretty damned useful to talk about it as if it does. It explains things for which I could not otherwise account, so even if it isn't real, I'd go on pretending that it was. That's just the product of chemicals in the brain too, anyway.

So even if you don't think my experience is real, pretend with me for a second.

For me, the more important question is whether it was useful. Just like what I, at least, think is love, the important thing isn't whether it's real, but whether it's useful.

I can say that it meant a hell of a lot to me. I felt an infinite ocean of light and bliss; it seemed like several mysteries of the universe were revealed; it removed a bit of the fear of death so that when I experienced a life-threatening situation a little while later, the memory of the unitive experience was able to calm me down out of hysterics. I feel like I can really understand when people talk about their unitive experiences, about God or the Tao or whatever; it makes sense, because I think I've had an experience of the non-duality they're talking about. I feel like the experience has carried me further in my spiritual journey.

Lately, though, I've been questioning that outlook. It's not just that, after the experience, my spiritual life became a disaster. It did. I began to take drugs more compulsively, looking to recapture the experience. I kind of re-captured it when I did so. The bliss was nowhere near as intense, and the unitive insight definitely wasn't as clear, but the basic themes were the same: we are all One, that One is God, there is meaning and purpose behind life etc, etc. In fact, I became bored with drugs as a result of the fact that I was never really able to repeat the experience. Didn't stop taking them, for quite a while, but definitely got bored with the repetition.

More insidious and dangerous, though, was the pride with which I began to bloat. The experience gave me some insights, sure, but I took those insights to be the end-all and be-all of the spiritual path. I started to think I had the answers – all of them – so that when other people around me raised legitimate spiritual questions, I figured that I already had them answered.

(I just realized I'm saying all this in the past tense, but that's not accurate – I still do most, if not all, of these things)

I also started to think that the insights I had entitled me to something. For example, a few months after having the experience, I was lucky enough to meet the Dalai Lama. Before meeting him, I had visions in my head of him seeing me, of the two of us exchanging laughing, knowing glances, of sharing some sort of 'special connection' with the man. Didn't happen. I spent all of two seconds shaking hands the (I swear) 4'8” fella before I was shunted off with a red cord and he moved down the line of Westerners. Some of the folks around me said that they saw this incredible aura around the guy, that they felt something huge and powerful move through them when he touched them, and I wondered what was wrong with me, why I felt nothing, why I got left out.

So I decided that the folks around me were spiritual bobble-heads who saw auras around anybody. They didn't really understand.

Time passed, and the situation didn't get any better, really. I went to a college that sees regular visits from all sorts of spiritual gurus, masters, lamas, rimpoches, yogis, what-not, and I worked as a sound engineer for these people, running their events from 'back-stage'. Some part of me, I bet, was thinking that they would notice me, and although I have no memory of it I'm sure that I had fantasies of being trotted out by them as their successor, their equal, in terms of my spiritual development.

That experience wasn't all bad, really, because I did notice something about all the gurus, which was the fact that most of them were really pretty simple, ordinary, down-to-earth people. The only noticeable difference between them and 'normal' people was that they seemed more relaxed, like they were enjoying life a bit more than average. They seemed a little happier. But that was about it. Some of them were even a little neurotic, a little bit crazy, a little bit un-guru-like. One – I'll refrain from naming names unless you ask me personally – made a pretty wild demand on me and was unhappy when I wasn't able to fulfill it, which seemed kinda mean-spirited.

I noticed the gurus' followers more so. They seemed patently crazy. They were more likely to make wild demands, and would throw temper-tantrums when I either couldn't or wouldn't fulfill them (I'm not about to allow fire in my space, especially when I have only two staff for 500 people in a 350-capacity building). I remember – distinctly – not wanting to be like those nut-jobs. I felt more in common with the gurus than I did with their disciples. By far.

Of course, I chalked that up to my mystical experience, my magic jewel that changed everything.

As time passed, I began a slow descent spiritually, socially, emotionally, morally. More and more – and more and more and more – I began to see myself as separate from, and better than, the people around me. As I did, I also felt increasingly lonely, because of course I had no equals. I got bored more easily, much more easily, because of course I already knew everything that was important to know in the first place. I got more and more frustrated with other people, especially when they wouldn't pay attention to my (entirely reasonable and perfectly sensible) advice. Didn't they understand how right I was? If only these people would do what I told them to do, everything would be fine!

Whatever joy, delight, wonder and compassion I had within began to flicker out. I started to go to bed at night with an unstated prayer that I wouldn't wake up, and a curse when I did. I snapped at people, I flew into uncontrolled and unprovoked rages and would come out of them wondering what the hell had just happened, only to bury the entire thing in a cloud of denial and misunderstanding.

All of this ended eventually. My life fell apart completely, and when one final piece gave way it was like the veil had been lifted and I saw what an absolute mess everything was, how horrendously I had destroyed my own life and, to some degree or another, bits and pieces of the lives of those around me.

I've been rebuilding, on a firmer foundation, ever since.

Well, I don't like the re-building metaphor; it's more like I'm squatting where there used to be some money-pit mansion I tried to build myself that collapsed, and instead now I'm sort of stewarding the land, letting whatever nature was there before reclaim it and helping it along by picking up the detritus of what's left and disposing of it properly. I'm trying to leave a smaller footprint now.

One of the pieces of that old life that I've left is the mystical experience. I've been loathe to pull it up because it meant so much to me, and it reminds me of God, the God that has made this entire new life possible. But I'm beginning to think it's time to uproot that experience once and for all.

The reason I value that experience – really the reason why – is that it felt good. I dare anyone to have the same feeling of infinite bliss that I did and not value it immensely, not think and try with all their might to recreate it, not to think “This is it! This is how I want – no, should – feel all the time.” But just because something feels good doesn't make it meaningful and valuable. Crack cocaine, heroin: by all accounts they feel really damned good, but that doesn't mean they are positive, beneficial experiences, it doesn't mean that we should feel that way all the time (or even any of the time). Trying to recreate the experience of crack cocaine or heroin, also, is seriously detrimental one's wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of those around us, so why should a mystical experience be any different? Just because it is mystical? Just because in that moment we feel closer to God than we might at some other moment?

More-over, I've since found that some of my more valuable life experiences to be ones of pain. One of the things I lost in my downward spiral was a woman that I loved, truly and deeply loved. Losing that love – undoubtedly one of, if not the most, painful experiences I've had – has been vastly more useful because it broke me out of the spiral and started me on a newer, slower ascent. Not being able to rebuild my life afterwards has been horribly painful, but has forced me to relate to living differently, to value different things. I try to concentrate on process now, instead of results: live well, rather than have [possess] a good life.

I don't mean to imply, and hope you don't take me to mean, that pain is good. It isn't. I've had people tell me this, and all I can think in response is “... then you haven't really hurt before, have you?” I know why people say these things: they're scared of hurt, they want it to have some inherent meaning behind it because they can't stand the absurdity of suffering so they need to give it some sort of 'positive' spin. Believe me, I've done it myself, and still do it, though I'm trying my damnedest to outgrow the habit. I'm just saying that, looking back, I've gotten a lot more out of my painful experiences than I have out of the blissful ones.

Moreover, the mystical experience has created spiritual pride in me, which horrible: from what I understand, spiritual pride is one of the more difficult things of which to rid oneself. Like I mentioned, because of this mystical experience I've thought I was on par with a lot of spiritual masters. I've thought that I deserved other people listening to what I have to say on spiritual matters. I've thought I'm better than other people. Since my life is such a mess, though, and since I still lie and still cheat people of things I don't need but which they do, amongst many manifold other sins, I'm obviously no great master.

But then, neither are the masters. I'm inclined to trust my experience of them, the fact that they seemed so normal and average and not-at-all special. I'm especially inclined to trust one of the experiences where I felt that one of them was rude to me. I don't buy that 'gurus' are on some plane above us, necessarily more in tune with God or whatever. I don't believe for a second that they have gotten rid of their egos; at best, I think they've learned to live with their egos. I think they still make plenty of mistakes and do plenty of things wrongly; but maybe they've gotten past some of the grosser errors, maybe they're a little more familiar with their sinful natures, maybe they've even befriended some of their demons. Maybe, like Ram Dass said, they've become 'connoisseurs of [their] neuroses'.

So why follow them? Well, I dunno about you, but I'm no connoisseur of my neuroses. Yeah, I've gotten to know some of them pretty well, and I've learned to laugh at my own depravity a bit more and therefore take more compassion on this delicate little sinner I am, but I certainly wouldn't pretend to be familiar with my grosser defects of character, or – dare I say it – love them in spite of the pain they cause. I'm deathly afraid of my anger, my pride hurts my self-esteem, and I still bang on the prison-bars of neurotic fear, whining about when I'm going to be free even when the door is wide open. So I've still got something to learn from my elders.

What eats me up most about my spiritual pride, though, is that it has cut me off and still cuts me off from other people. My girlfriend, for instance: she's not a believer. Or maybe she is; I can't tell. The entire enterprise, I know, turns her off a lot of the time. My gut instinct with such people is to write them off as 'just not getting it', but I love her and that means I'm stuck with her. Which is a good thing, because she calls me on the bullshit I don't catch, which is to say, all of it. I'm sure she's fuming about something I've said here already, in fact.

Anyway, my spiritual pride definitely cuts me off from her now and then. I'll talk to her like one of the guys I teach, and she'll have to remind me that I'm not a teacher to her (and neither should I be acting like one to my guys). Or, more simply, she thinks that I feel better than her for having the spiritual life that I do, which my gut instinct is to deny but is probably true, and never fails to send me searching for ways that I'm acting out of pride on this level. I figure a really real spiritual person isn't likely to cause that sort of reaction in another. I could be entirely wrong, but I don't doubt I have at least some spiritual pride going on in me, and it can't hurt to hunt around for that to work with it.

The last thing I want is to be cut off from people – a real life, a good life, spiritual or not, should be one of real, deep and loving relationships with others, I would hope. If I'm setting myself apart from a whole lot of other people because I've had some experience that I think sets me apart from them, what's the point in that? It's lonely at the top, being all alone, being 'God'. You have no equals, no one with whom to share yourself.

Looking back, all in all, the experience hasn't been nearly as valuable as I want to believe it has been. So... time to hopefully finally let the damned thing go. I mean, I now want to let it go on some conscious level; whether other parts of my brain are going to let that happen, though, that's another story. I'm pretty sure that's why I was crying in Meeting on Sunday – I knew this moment was coming.

And of course, I'm doing all this because part of me thinks that doing is will earn me some 'spiritual maturity', which sounds rather nice and good to have. Really, I'm just trading one misconception about spirituality for another.

Which shows you just how little I really understand anything.