Monday, March 2, 2009

Psych patients

I've spent this semester with some of the most interesting people I've ever met.

I've talked about Tupac and Biggie with a young man whose schizophrenic delusions were so intense that they caused him to attack his father and his therapist. When he grows up, he wants to work at Petco. Or design basketball shoes.

I've gushed about France with a young woman who was a stripper and a meth addict up until a month ago. We discussed Pavlovian conditioning and tattoos. Her smile lit up the room and when the women's shelter that she moved to came to my play, she ran up to the stage afterwards and told me that I was hilarious.

I've seen a pharmacist lament the fact that his drinking is destroying his family. "I've been through this before," he told me. "I was sober for seven years before this. I thought I could just have one drink and I'd be okay."

I've had casual conversations about the weather and American Idol with men who have killed entire families.

I'm not so different from all of these people. If my circumstances had changed ever so slightly, my decisions could have brought me to the same place. If the neurotransmitters in my brain had malfunctioned along the way, I could be the patient instead of the nurse. If my situation was so desperate that I had to kill in order to feed and protect my family, would I do it? If I had lost control of myself, my heart, and my choices, I could be any of these people.

I have worked with victims and criminals and sometimes the criminals look more like victims than the victims themselves.

I worked with a seventeen-year-old boy who was a sex offender. He had been molesting other children since he was nine years old. He himself had been a victim from the age of four. He had big hair and a gap-toothed smile and looked much younger than he was. I saw him lose control of himself once and it was absolutely terrifying. There was no light in his eyes. My physiological response was to flee; my body did not want to be anywhere near this source of danger. Two days later, when he was a little boy once again, we played Wii baseball and he told me about his two-month-old niece.

I wish I could believe that people like him are soulless monsters. I wish I could believe that something deep inside of him was pure evil. But when I look at him and see that someone else had ruined him before his life had a chance to truly begin, all I can do is let my heart break for him.

When I was in Namibia, it was sometimes difficult to breathe because I felt as if all the pain from the women with whom I was working was pressing in on me. I was incredibly angry toward the men who had abused these women. These women were stunningly beautiful and physically powerful. How could someone break them?

Looking back now, I realize that those men didn't know anything else. They have seen their fathers abuse their mothers in the same way. It is something that they have seen daily, as far back as their memories reach. In "Fistula", a poem by Eve Ensler dealing with the subject of rape as a tactic of war, she asks, "Was it because they were men? Was it because they had never learned to be men?"

People are just people. I wish I could believe that some are pure evil and some are fully good. I wish I could believe in monsters. I wish I could blame people for their mental illnesses. I wish I could hate them for their actions. Life was much easier when I could, but I just don't have it in me anymore.