Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A great analogy about mental illness

I follow @psychcentral on twitter. They have tweeted several great articles over the past week. Here is another of their articles

Have you read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston? This is about as beautiful, wise, sad and tragic as stories get. Be prepared, I’m about to spoil the ending!

It’s the tale of a woman’s development of self. Janie is married three times, and the first two marriages are abusive. However, each of these experiences makes Janie stronger, more confident, more sure of herself, more joyous. I wonder a lot why this is so, how Janie could emerge from these ordeals with a heightened sense of identity, instead of being devastated. And of course I realize this is fiction, but what a hopeful image! Is this possible in real life?

I wonder if the answer lies at the end of the book. Janie’s third husband is an open, loving, nurturing man with the nickname Tea Cake. They have a vibrant and sensual relationship. Then, Tea Cake and Janie are attacked by a rabid dog; Tea Cake shields Janie and is bitten, and several weeks later he develops rabies himself.

The illness infects and takes over Tea Cake’s brain, and he turns on Janie, this woman he loves and cherishes with all his heart. He tries to kill her. Janie, being strangled to death by her rabies-possessed lover, shoots and kills him in self-defense.

I choose to read this as a story of love and mental illness. Tea Cake is a devoted man, who nurtures and cherishes Janie and supports her personal growth. When he is bitten by the rabid dog (of mental illness?), Tea Cake’s brain is taken over and his behavior changes. The illness possesses him and causes him to do things that the healthy Tea Cake would never dream of doing.

It is heart-wrenching but right that Janie shoots Tea Cake. She is strong enough to protect herself, at that final instant when she knows that he cannot be saved. Surely Tea Cake would have wanted it this way.

Rabies is an incurable disease, but mental illness doesn’t have to be.

It’s so agonizing to be attacked (in any form) by someone who loves you. I hold that image of the rabid dog: Once loving, faithful and trusted, and now possessed, unreachable, lost to reason and affection, insanely dangerous.

Of course we must step away, protect ourselves, not get bitten…try to get help somehow, somewhere.

But I also believe this: It’s the disease causing the madness. The rabies is not the dog. Step back, stay safe, but still love the dog the best you can.

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