I grew up near New Orleans, and I used to go there often. I loved the city never mind the debauchery, high crime rate, and poverty. Obviously, I knew about it, but it just didn’t register with me particularly when I was young. All I remembered was the glorious history, the Mississippi river delta, the French Quarter and its architecture, the music, the food, Café du Monde and its chicory coffee and beignets, Aunt Sally’s pralines, and so on.
Well, a year after my first daughter was born, my husband went to a convention in New Orleans. I was green with envy. I decided to visit his mother in Houston so that she could meet our daughter, and she was to drive us to New Orleans where I would then meet up with my husband. I hadn’t seen my own father in years, and I thought perhaps that this might be a good opportunity to reconcile. He lived a few hours outside of New Orleans. Perhaps this was an opportunity. I was married now. I had a baby. Perhaps he and his wife would see me differently? Well, they oohed and aahed over Doireann. My former Special Forces father insisted on changing all her diapers and carrying her everywhere. It was weird for me to see that, and they insisted on meeting my husband. So, they insisted on driving us to New Orleans instead of my mother-in-law. I felt very uneasy about that decision.
Now, you must know something about my father and his wife. They are extremely conservative people. I don’t mean conservative like your grandparents who go to bed early and enjoy Lawrence Welk. I mean conservative as in neo-conservative bordering on fascist with a hint of violence rooted in fear, ignorance, and racism. They might go to church three times a week, but they say the most hateful things about others that I’ve ever heard. Think Westboro Baptist Church.
The moment we crossed into New Orleans proper, the invective began flying.
“This place is forsaken. It’s a modern-day Sodom.”
“God’s going to judge this place.”
“Look at all these whores and homosexuals. How could such a place be allowed to exist?”
I’ll spare you the worst of it. The weird thing about my going back to New Orleans is that I had no memory of the strip joints lining the streets, porn shops, voodoo shops (that really got them going!), and the clearly inebriated folks staggering around town during the day. I only remembered what was good about the city. I had not encoded the unsavory characteristics to memory. My father and his wife, however, were not even capable of seeing the good. They were too busy foaming at the mouth over the fact that one could see cleavage and thighs–during the day!
I pointed out the good things as they were driving, and they smugly retorted, “It hardly matters. In the face of so much bad, the good means very little.” Well, that’s one way to look at it, I guess. It’s not a view that I will ever share.
Living with mental illness is a lot like taking a trip to New Orleans with my father and his wife. They expected to see and experience something tawdry and bad, and they behaved as if they were being accosted the entire time. Essentially, they acted like very judgmental victims. I expected to go and enjoy myself even though there were going to be elements in the environment that might detract from the overall experience. That’s life. If you haven’t seen a guy urinating in public at some point in your life, then you’ve probably never left your house. Get over it. People pee. Sometimes they do it in public.
Every mental health diagnosis comes along with its intimidating symptoms. Mood disorders have their cycling which can then become the very scary mixed state. Depression has its dark gravity that pulls people down and in. Anxiety has the churning, endless thoughts that plague people resulting in physical symptoms that can cause illness if not treated. Psychotic disorders can even be responsible for loss of gray matter, or is it the loss of gray matter that’s responsible for the psychosis? Who knows? All this is to say that living with mental illness or even spending time with someone who has a mental illness often feels like walking down Bourbon Street at night. It might be as shocking as bumping into someone who’s puking on the corner because they had one too many Hurricanes. It might be tempting to stare at someone who’s manifesting positive symptoms. Sort of like you want to stare at that stripper in the window at the strip club just outside the French Quarter. For those living with mental illness, it might feel a lot like living in poverty because you can’t see any options. Maybe everyone is telling you that there are none. This is it. This is now your life. You’re stuck here for good, and you’re surrounded by people who are as impoverished in their thinking as you are in your circumstances. It feels hopeless.
Like my father and his wife, people tend to judge those who have a mental illness severely. They must have done something to deserve their illness. Surely, they could have done something to prevent this illness. People don’t just get ill for no reason. They made their bed. They need to lie in it now. Or, it’s their parents’ fault. Funnily enough, this is the same thinking that often gets applied to those stuck in the poverty cycle, addiction, or even stripping to earn a living. I heard more than a few people say that New Orleans “had it coming” after Hurricane Katrina. I would wager that my father and his wife said as much.
Me? I think differently. I don’t believe that people deserve to suffer. Poverty, the sex trade, and mental illness don’t tend to prey upon the strong. It’s the weak–children and adolescents–who are often the most affected. Children and teens are often diagnosed too late, and early intervention isn’t provided. Kids are often deeply entrenched in their illnesses by the time they receive treatment, using street drugs to self-medicate, engaging in high-risk behaviors, and even living on the streets, thus, continuing the cycle of poverty, addiction, the sex trade, violence, and mental illness. A lot of the unsavory behaviors that one sees in a city like New Orleans is actually rooted in untreated mental illness. Treat the mental illness, alleviate their negative symptoms, restore people’s dignity, hope, and motivation, and the cycle of poverty can be mitigated, addiction can be treated, the sex trade can begin to be resolved because women will be able to consider other options, and children will be able to receive education because they will finally be able to learn. We don’t have to look upon others with judgment and disdain. We can see others as human beings with value. It isn’t all-or-nothing. It never has been.
So far, our journey with Grace has been like driving the logging trails in Oregon. We were surrounded by a lot of beauty, but the road was not really meant to be traveled. It wasn’t paved, and it wasn’t really a road either. One needed an all-terrain vehicle to successfully make the trip up the mountain, and we had a minivan. I was certain that the car was going to just fall apart from the vibrations. No one is meant to live with mental illness. I believe that. Having said that, it’s pretty clear that many of us are going to have to travel a road that isn’t meant to be traveled. We will have to find our way, blaze a trail, and set forth upon it. We can hit the road with hope looking at our surroundings with a bit of wonder and curiosity. Sort of like how I always experienced New Orleans. I acknowledged that Bourbon Street at midnight was full of drunken lechers, and, if you didn’t want your ass grabbed and boobs fondled against your will, then avoid it. I also knew that there was something wonderful and valuable to experience in that city, and I explored and made every attempt to find it. Just because part of something is unpleasant doesn’t mean that every part is.
What can I say? New Orleans is the Big Easy. What does that mean? Well, when my husband was in New Orleans for that convention a coworker was with him. He had never been south of the Mason-Dixon line in his life. He was a Midwesterner born and married into wealth. He liked to boss around the servers in restaurants and leave paltry tips. He never said ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to anyone. I was very curious about how he would experience New Orleans. Well, my husband snickered with a bit of Schadenfreude when he told me that Blaine had some money stolen. From his hotel room. I asked Blaine about it. He was more than happy to unload:
“This city sucks. It’s too damn hot. It’s freakin’ humid. And, some asshole stole my money! From my hotel room!! I hid it in my suitcase! How did they even find it?”
I just patted him on the arm and said, “I’m sorry about that, but, Blaine, this is New Orleans after all. Keep your cash in the hotel safe.”
That’s the Big Easy. It’s easy to be exploited in New Orleans. It’s easy to be seduced by the attractions. It’s Pleasure Island. Some of the best food you will ever eat is there. It’s easy to think that you’re the victim of something or anything because, if you’re not savvy, then something will probably happen to you while you’re there. Everything is easy there. But, you know, that’s life, too, and the ‘easy’ gets a whole lot bigger when you live with mental illness or love someone who has a mental illness. Suddenly, feeling like a victim is a whole lot easier. It feels so much easier to blame someone else for your circumstances. Hopelessness and despair seem like a better option sometimes. Negative thinking looks good. Wouldn’t it be easier to just give in to your own dark gravity? Why bother trying if nothing is ever going to change anyway? Why not just shut out the world? Why not just die?
That’s the Big Easy of living with mental illness–all-or-nothing thinking combined with victim thinking. It’s a potent cocktail. Once we’re drunk on it, there’s no telling where we’ll go from there, but it won’t be good. I believe, however, that we are more than our diagnoses. New Orleans is more than her crime rate, right? We carry more within us than that which can be tested, measured, or diagnosed.
We all have an imagination and innate gifting that can bring forth beauty in some form. An essence that can love, nurture, develop, and contribute to our world in some way unique to us
No matter who we are or what hinders us, we can still celebrate the world around us.
It might be easier to taste bitterness, but we can choose to find sweetness in our lives because it’s there.
We might not like the journey set before us, but we may find ourselves in surroundings quite extraordinary because of taking the road that should not have to be traveled.
And we might meet a friend or two or three. I don’t think that the bad will ever outweigh the good. I think that we just have to learn to make more room for what is good because there will always be bad in this world. It’s up to us to determine how much good there will be. Oddly enough, we have control over that even if we believe that we don’t.
That’s the Big Easy. Why contribute to creating more bad when you could create more goodness in the world? It’s a big thought, and it’s probably easier than we realize.