Why Uzo Aduba is the best advocate the mental illness community has right now

Warning: this contains spoilers for season five of OITNB

This is not the first time I have written about the Orange is the New Black character Suzanne Warren, nor the first time I have opined about mental illness in media. In the main, I am not a fan of how mental illness is portrayed in films. I really did not like Silver Linings Playbook. I despised The Virgin Suicides, including the novel, and as Black Cindy says about Girl, Interrupted, “just think of the whitest movie ever made.”

In fairness, most of the objections I have to the way mental illness is portrayed on television and film are borne of industry and production restrictions. A psychotic killer on Law and Order may get three or four episodes of character arc, but they are almost always criminally insane. Most of the time they have gone off their meds, and some doctor who has only read their file makes definitive statements about how the person can be apprehended. These are police dramas, procedural shows that are not looking to explore the nuances of mental illness. In films, most often the constraints are owed to screen time for characters and the need to show extremes of behavior in successive scenes. More and more, I simply do not watch shows or films in which mental illness plays a major role, frankly because I am tired of seeing my community portrayed as criminals when we stand a much higher chance of being victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.

But Uzo Aduba has changed that for me. Season one of OITNB seems almost like a distant memory now; a highly sexualized “Crazy Eyes” who pees on the floor as a warning is replaced in season two by a complicated Suzanne Warren, an African-American who was adopted by white parents and at 10 years old was the emotional equivalent of her 6-year-old sister. Suzanne, who is at Litchfield Correctional because she innocently detained a young boy who tragically died when he fell out a window, is sexually inexperienced but deep-feeling; she is highly intelligent, both in terms of cognition and emotions. She free-associates with her words and actions and tries to explain to others things they can’t understand, but I do. As a person with mental illness, I see not Uzo Aduba trying to affect mental illness, I see Suzanne Warren, a character who is channeled by the actress, exhibiting behaviors I know very well.

One of the issues explored in the current season is medication. “Loony” Lorna Morello has taken over the pharmaceutical bay during the riot, which stretches through the entire season. When inmates come seeking their meds, Lorna tells them that they don’t need them, that pills are used to control them, or as she says, “sand down your edges.” Suzanne says several times that she does need her meds, but finally agrees that she’ll go off of them. As the hours pass, Suzanne becomes increasingly agitated by the extreme circumstances around her and the loss of routine. Again and again, Suzanne tries to communicate with others until she enters crisis. Black Cindy secures medications, but they are the wrong ones. As it just so happens, she grabs lithium, which is a medication I take. On first viewing I did not think the writers handled the introduction of medication carefully enough; Suzanne goes nearly comatose after the drug is administered, which is not what would happen if someone who wasn’t on lithium took a single dose. However, on a second viewing, I see that Suzane simply crashes when she is made to feel safe. I have gone catatonic for hours at a time, unable to respond to even my wife’s voice, after a mania or mixed episode.

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Chances are you have seen this meme or some form of it. It is utter bullshit, hopefully for obvious reasons. If not, ask yourself: would you say that to a diabetic requiring insulin or a cancer patient taking chemotherapy? Of course not.

OITNB presents this meme for a sustained critique, in many ways, by playing the storyline out for several episodes. Suzanne, like many of us, requires medication. To be sure, medications, especially in prisons or mental hospitals, can be over-prescribed or administered at artificially high dosages. But Suzanne is only able to begin the process of regaining herself when she has both medication and a safe environment. I know from experience that being surrounded by loving, supportive, informed, and compassionate people helps me to dedicate my energy to being well. When either is taken away, I self-destruct.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell Uzo Aduba how much I appreciate her, how much I relate to and love Suzanne Warren. I am aware of how lucky I am, much of it through nothing other than a genetic lottery, to be where I am. I write about my mental illness because I want, in some small way, to make a difference for the community I am in through no choice of my own. But Ms. Aduba is doing more through her art than perhaps anyone else in the world because the show reaches such a diverse audience. I don’t know of a single person who watches OITNB who doesn’t love Suzanne Warren, and for many people, it is the first time they have ever seen the humanity of someone called crazy.

 

On the Bench in Lament: A Sermon on Psalm 150

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I saw a sad sight the other day, just over at Mills Lawn. It was a beautiful morning, with lots of local families on the playground; one of those days in which it feels like the village belongs to us for a moment before the usual bustle of the summer resumes. And there sat a little girl on a bench with her leg in a cast, looking wistfully at those playing around her. I imagine that she remembered what playing feels like and that her friends felt awful that her leg is broken—but there are swings and slides and sorry, we gotta go—and they were all making memories and devising new games as the little girl remained marooned on the bench. There, but not seen. Present, but not accounted for. A part only by being apart.

The Psalter closes with the ultimate praise hymn, only one note but it is high and strong. It is all praise all the time here on Psalter Radio, we are 150 on your FM dial. On one level, this makes sense. Here we have a collection of laments psalms and praise psalms; songs that serve us in the various states of our experiences. Of course, it will end with a full-throated praise. That’s just good planning is what that is; you always want to go out with an upbeat number in a major key.

But there’s more nuance to it than that; the Psalter reminds us that psalms are to be sung more Monday through Saturday than they are on Sunday. These are the words of God to get us through the complexities of life; words that once were sung and matched with music lost to time. These are songs put to numerous melodies over the course of millennia, but God calls us to sing them in our hearts to our own tunes each and every day. This last praise song is to remind us to keep coming back; the more we experience lament and can turn it to praise, the more we are able to use distance to look critically and with appreciation for what God has done in our lives, the more we are able to praise authentically in both the fantastic and the mundane.

Sometimes we are the little girl on the bench. We remember what it is like to play with our friends and be laughing, so we wonder what we have done to deserve this cruel fate of a broken leg at the onset of summer? Our friends, once so loyal, have abandoned us for the fruitful promises of being pushed on the swing or racing to the teeter-totters. We are in lament; abandoned and bereft of hope, sitting alone on a park bench.

But as time passes, our leg slowly will heal and we will understand our limits. We can’t swing but we can play tetherball. When the walking cast comes, bikes are back in business. We remember what it is like to be stuck on the bench and we feel so joyous that we are no longer there. The bench was our Pit. And now we are out.

Finally, with a couple weeks of break still left, the cast is off and while we’re no longer hurt, we’re not the same as the person who broke the leg. With the bone resetting and knitting itself together, we also learned some things about ourselves. About others. About our reasonable and unreasonable expectations of others. Or ourselves. Maybe we learned some things about ourselves we don’t like along with discovering strengths and fortitudes?

The Psalmist tells us to turn our lives into hymns of praise. Had I tried to say this to the little girl, I don’t think she would’ve have understood. But only because some discoveries must be experienced on our own. I’ve been on the bench in lament. Full, Psalm 88, God you stink and I might just walk away, kind of lament. You been there? The last thing on your mind is giving God a kind word, and like Lucy, he has some ‘splaining to do? On the bench in lament. But have you been on the bench in praise? Yes, one leg is broken but the other is not. Yes, those around you are able to do things you cannot, for the moment—perhaps longer—but you can watch them. You can appreciate their joy, recall when you felt that same joy, and in cultivating those together you will feel genuine joy. A new joy. One you can only get when you are on the bench. Or in the Pit.

There is an overwhelming amount of suffering in the world right now. Everyone I know is feeling it, experiencing it, reacting to it. Have you noticed that the most common answer to “how are you” is something like, “Tired, but okay”? It is not just the pace of our lives, which I think we all can agree is frenetic, it is the nearly constant state of crisis that exists. From illness in the home to violence in the streets, from overwhelming numbers of opioid deaths to ever-concerning developments internationally, there are few of us who don’t feel exhausted by the ceaseless demands on our energy and attention.

In the face of these, the Psalmist tells us to sing. To live with the psalms each and every day; honestly, that’s quite difficult. But I have found that if I am in the Pit with lament for one thing, it makes it a whole lot better if I am in the Pit with praise on two or three other things. I really dislike the line, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I used to like it, but then I realized that it is not very good theology. I embraced Mother Teresa’s response, “I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.” Even that I have abandoned in the past few years watching people I love be hit again and again and again with blows that, taken individually, could devastate a person for years. I’ve seen people be kicked into near submission by the tragedies of life. No one is that strong to be able to handle all of that and I don’t like a God who would do it.

This is what I think the Psalmist might be saying to us: Most of life is in the Pit. When we understand that much of that Pit-dwelling is owed to our own attitudes, we can authentically be in the Pit and miserable because of one thing, while still climbing out in regards to other things. And when we are in the Pit and look over to see others struggling with something we’ve worked through previously, we can choose to have some energy to extend a hand or an ear. The Psalmist is not saying, “Just sing praises to God and then God will reward you and you’ll never suffer.” Rather it is, “when we realize that the sorrow we feel over what we can’t control can be processed more authentically when we’re mindfully and gratefully responding with that which we can control, the quicker we’ll experience God pulling us out of the Pit.”

At least, that’s what I’ve taken away from our five-week journey through the Psalms. I almost didn’t preach this series; in fact, the only thing that made me decide to do it was that I didn’t want to, largely because preaching on the psalms can be difficult. But I submitted, and there were some magical moments, such as having Psalm 23 to comfort us the morning of Lloyd’s passing. For me, living with Psalm 30 after finding out about my hearing situation was a true blessing. My hope is that through this journey, you might have found an entry point into incorporating Scripture into your everyday lives. The Psalms are there for the foxholes in our lives as well as the mountaintops. Hopefully, we will each day have at least one legitimate reason to sing a song of praise, even if we’re very much in the Pit. Amen.

Walking Contradiction: When My Moral Stances Impact Family

 

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The Pontiac Silverdome, a perfect metaphor for Detroit Lions fandom. 

The best word I can use to describe my father’s family is diffuse. I know as a child that I was “Finnish,” except I thought it was “finish” and meant that what didn’t come from my Mom was just finished off by God. Like a piece of furniture that is more lacquer than wood. I knew that my Grandma Hilda was 4’10”, 100 lbs soaking wet, and a woman you did not want to cross. She was loving and the best cook; she taught me to garden and how to pick out produce at the farmer’s market. I climbed apple trees and swam in the pool, and played with a cairn terrier named “Poco” who bit me a lot but I deserved it. Hilda was a proud Finn.

My Grandpa Saari was too, but he had remarried, a lovely woman named Lorraine, who I last saw being wheeled out of their house moments after she had an aneurysm. She died two weeks later. The night of the incident was the first time in my entire life that my father, my aunt Nancy, and my grandfather were ever together in the same room. Nancy and grandpa had a falling out owed to the suicide of my uncle in 1978. The didn’t speak for most of my life. Grandma Hilda also remarried, but I won’t write about him.

I spent 2 weeks a summer with Grandma Hilda, and then a week with Grandpa Saari. They both lived in the suburbs of Detroit; grandma in Southfield, grandpa in Klassen and then in Rochester. We went to Detroit Tigers games. At least two a summer, sometimes more. We’d drink fresh A&W floats and listen to away games on the radio. I stopped going to visit Detroit when I was 13, mainly because of the person I won’t write about, but it impacted everyone. Visits became more infrequent, but there is one that sticks out in my memory.

In 2001, my father had managed to come out the other side of two brain surgeries, going blind, and two rounds of radiation. Stephen was a year away from his successful suicide, but at the time was doing well. The Detroit Lions were playing their last game at the Pontiac Silverdome, and Dad wanted to go. I knew that he was not only making up for lost time, he was trying to do certain things in case something else happened with his health. Lorraine was still alive and grandpa had just had his second knee replaced, along with a hip replacement a decade before, but he was feeling good and wanted to go. After all, he and my Dad had seen the last game the Lions played at Tiger Stadium before going to the Silverdome. We had to go.

I remember that it was cold and raining, and the parking was so bad that we had to walk over a mile. My grandfather, a bear of a man and a shameless flirt, toddled back and forth, never complaining. Our seats were nosebleeds, but the place was sold out. There we sat, drinking beer (except Dad) and watching the Lions actually win a game. It was the last game grandpa saw before he died. Stephen, too. But for that moment, we were three generations of Lions fans bonding with a stadium full of people rooting for a consistently shitty team.

Dad and I have ordered the NFL Sunday Ticket every year since 2002. Dad has been the better trooper than I; in the 0-16 season, I stopped watching at 0-12. Not Dad. He watched each game and then insisted on giving me a synopsis. Even if I refused, he would forge ahead, doling out a penance I surely deserved.

Today I told my father that I am not going to watch the 2017 season because I can no longer support the NFL. There are myriad reasons: poor treatment of current and former players; the ramifications of concussions and a lack of serious action; perpetuating a situation in which athletes often are ushered through educational institutions that don’t address their fundamental lack of skills in the classroom because of their skills on the field; a system that relies on collegiate athletics as job training, thereby paying exorbitant salaries to mainly white coaches  while paying nothing to the athletes, who receive scholarships that don’t cover their total tuition, but often prevent them from working or having adequate time for studies; their treatment of Colin Kaepernick; the repeated acceptance of domestic violence as part-and-parcel of footballers’ lives; I could go on. And on. And on.

My father absolutely understands, but he was sad. Really sad. He said, “I hear you, but it is the only connection I have left with my Dad.” That hit me in the feels, like big time.

So I’m at this crossroads. I want to be as consistent a person as possible, and I blog so openly as a part of my therapy. I try to keep myself accountable because I know within me is a great capacity for mendacity. I’ve seen it. I’ve used it. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to run as far away from those tendencies as possible. I made a declaration that I was not going to watch the NFL, and now I am going back on it.

My father and I have had a difficult relationship at times, but I love him very much. The older we get the closer we become because his whole family is dead. Except for cousins in Minnesota and Finland, Dad’s only biological family is me. All the problems with the NFL remain, and I know that it is a level of privilege to say that I can ignore them because they don’t impact me directly. I don’t know how many more years my father will live. None of us know that about one another, at least for long. The disappointment in his voice hurt my heart, and I can do something about it: I’m going to watch the games.

It is a little grandiose to be writing about something like this; I get it. It really doesn’t matter to anyone but me and my father, but as someone who tries to be moral and consistent, I am struggling. It is a case of competing goods and potential impact. My not watching the Lions would not in and of itself move the NFL to address any of the above concerns. It is equally valid to say that it takes millions of individual actions to have an impact on such a large corporation, so drawing an exact equivalency between the single act and direct impact is facetious. It is an ethical escape hatch. However, the single act of not watching the Lions will have a direct and significant impact upon my father, in ways that overshadow the good I could potentially do with a collective boycotting.

For me, being a socially-conscious person means never minimizing the impact that seemingly small decisions have on yourself, on your family, friends, neighbors, the world. It means not internalizing too much when people say, “you’re a good person,” so that you begin to feel that you no longer have to do the internal work required to cultivate compassion, love, mercy, grace, and patience. It also means accepting that life is complicated, that none of us can do all that we’d like to do or needs to be done, so we must make decisions. We are all walking contradictions. My solution is just to be honest about it.

 

On Turning Forty: Toxic Masculinity, Burst Eardrums, and Hugging Marie

Today is my 41st birthday.

Last birthday I launched a blog project, “On Turning Forty.” I did a number of posts and then it sputtered like a 1987 Le Car trying to drag race an ’86 Yugo. Dissertation, teaching, pneumonia, and ongoing struggles attenuating lifing while bipolar. Yes, you read that correctly. Living is one thing; lifing is something else. Similar to adulting, but that kid inside is still working a few levers. Lifing while bipolar is much harder than living with it.

This week I found out that I am going deaf. As you can read from previous entries, I’m honestly good with it. And it is not imminent. However, I went to cover a YSHS alumni event I really wanted to attend and at which I was going to gather interviews for a series I am writing for the News. As I was chatting with our superintendent of schools about teaching students the Five Pillars of Islam and taking them to a local mosque, the volume in the room increased significantly and quickly. It was filled with people who have not seen each other in decades, in some cases, honoring two undefeated football teams at a school that has not consistently had football since I was a student. Our soccer team got to play homecoming, which was cool for me because our soccer team was awesome. I was not, at all. I played JV my whole career, but my senior year I got to start the homecoming game/Senior Night. I was pulled quickly, but that was totally fine. Anyway, the undefeated football teams being honored was bringing together a lot of loud people together. We all got loud mouths in YS.

Talking with the superintendent, my left eardrum burst. I managed to hold my face together, calmly pack up, and then go tell my friend Dawn who was organizing it that I had to leave. I’m now at home with a very loud head and sensitive ears.

But that’s not what this blog is about, really. If this were a psalm, it would not be one of lament. It would be a praise psalm in which I am looking back at a period of my life and appreciating how God was working and leading.

From the ages of 13-14, I lived next door to my best friend, Marie. We were virtually inseparable. It was very Kevin and Winny. But we were actually two complex kids going through really complicated life circumstances. The details don’t matter; what does matter is that I think Marie was my first “unrequited” love. We listened to music together; we talked about books; we would take long bike rides together; we would sleep out on the screened-in porch at my house. She was my best friend in every sense of the word.

Marie was beautiful. Long, blonde hair. Very pretty. And she developed physically quite quickly and noticably. Seniors in high school were hitting on her as an 8th grader. So, I won’t lie and say that I was not gaga over her because she was hot. That was part of it. But not the bulk. It was the first time that I talked about my dreadful insecurity with my body. Marie and I were both showing signs of later exercise addictions; for the first time I felt like someone outside my family got me, and I didn’t necessarily think my family got me. I did not drool over her. I did not try to make inappropriate passes. But I did feel special because all these guys wanted to date her and she spent time with me. A lot of time with me. I absolutely fell in love with her. Hard. I remember once thinking about kissing her when we were sitting under a bush in a park; she was moving out of town the next morning, and I so wanted to do it. But I couldn’t muster the gumption (Muster the Gumption is the name of my Mot the Hopple tribute band) to do it.

Oh, if only the story ended there. But it doesn’t. Ever a writer, I wrote her a love manifesto, confessing my sincere desire to be her fella. She told me no, only because she was 20 minutes away and we were 14 and 15 years old. I didn’t believe that and then essentially withdrew my friendship. She wrote me letter after letter–I still have them–to no response. Finally, she wrote me a letter saying that our friendship had come to a close because I was not being a good friend, and was punishing her for not being my girlfriend. I started to burn it but then blew it out. I still have that letter, too, charred edges and all.

By the time I graduated from high school, over half of my good friends were girls/women. I’ve written before about not having many male friends. The ones I do are great, great people, largely because they do not have a drop of toxic masculinity in them. At the age of 18, I realized that I never wanted to be one of those guys who would tell a girl how beautiful she is, only to call her a fat cow when she simply said, “I’m not interested.” I realized that Marie had all these guys sniffing around her, and I was her best friend. I know we were just kids, so I have forgiven myself for what I did, but only because I made it a strict policy to never hit on my female friends again. I am a serial monogamist, and I was in a committed relationship for my entire 20s. My longest, sustained, meaningful friendships are almost 8:1, female to male. So at my 35th birthday party, almost everyone present was female. My life is rich and full because of badass women, and Marie was one of the first.

I saw her today for the first time in 25 years. We’d gotten in touch when her mother attended a Beloved Community Project liturgia. My contact info got to Marie, we started emailing, and today, on my 41st birthday, I got to hug my dear friend and meet her wonderful husband. We talked for about 90 minutes, and it was like nothing had changed. Her eyes and smile are the same; my heart is filled with the same love and appreciation for her, and I got to tell her in person about the influence she has had on me.

Yeah, I blew out an eardrum. Whatevs. I’m alive and loved and in love with so many people; but mainly, I am grateful that there are so many incredible women who have helped me be accepting of myself, even in my maddening contradictions and idiosyncrasies. I’ve carried a bit of Marie in my heart, and she me, to get us through until our paths alighted upon a common ground. Now that we are here, I say thanks be to God. IMG_2900.JPG