Bill, sweet man, I just met him. Honest, open, friendly, kind. Shares a bit about himself and his family. Got three kids, “all medical,” he says. “The oldest used to be a doctor, but he quit.” “Says quitting is the best thing he ever did.” “Says, now he gets along with his wife…” Bill shakes his head, “Our health care system, it’s so broken.”
Bill may have said other things after that but I didn’t hear them. Broken: how do we know when something’s broken? It spills out into the rest of our lives. It pours out all over what we love and what we care about.
If the flow is unhealthy, it can extinguish what was once wonderful and pure and beautiful. Like the insidious oil of a punctured tanker, the evidence of the puncture doesn’t come first as a drop in volume, it shows itself in sheen and then surface-floating fish, disabled otters, and struggling seabirds, their feathers coated and useless.
We know brokenness by its damage. The spill. The despoiling. The carnage. The ugliness.
Now, call that ship on its misdeed and it will deny it all day long. It will gird up its loins, even as it goes below deck to patch the leaky spots. Not me. I am strong as they come. I am not responsible for this nastiness. Unavoidable. Not my fault.
Yet, when the ship is righted, the system mended, and the cargo tended to, that tanker sails on its merry way, delivering what it was supposed to, where it was supposed to, to whom it was supposed to. All systems go. Ecosystem maintained.
So many broken systems. So many people plugging holes with all their might. But the spill, it keeps coming. Because we humans are leaky. And feeble. No match for the tanker’s tons. But call us broken and we rail against it, blind to the drippings that puddle at our feet, coat our hands, and threaten to overcome our hearts and our lives.
In our humanity, we are broken, but also fixable. We’re clay, putty in the hands of our Maker. Pulling ourselves from the plug we once were, the spill may keep on, even gush a bit at first, but the evidence of brokenness begins to mend. We get along with the wife, the kids, the neighbors. We are whole again, and filling back up, we may even spill over in generous overflow.
Yes, there are many systems broken in our world today, but I refuse to be an unwitting funnel. It is amazing, just by taking one step out and two steps back, how one can welcome a new solution and a different approach.
Clear-minded and self-controlled, our adjustment does more than mend; it makes.
What a national conversation we’re now having. Around an issue very close to home. Illness of the mental variety. We’re afraid of it, because we can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t manipulate it to see where it hurts – like the other illnesses we’re used to.
We are a nation of fixers. If something is broken, fix it. Patch it up, immobilize it and let it heal. But what if we can’t see what’s broken? What if we can only tell by the way someone acts or how they respond? What if there is no way to pinpoint the injury or measure the severity? What if the injury is not structural, but functional? Is there really injury…or are they just making this up?
What I am describing, actually, is brain injury. Something I am up to my elbows in working with youth athletes, and the NFL is up to its pockets in with inquiries and law suits. We are being forced to see that the brain can be injured, its function impaired, and we can only tell this by spending time with the injured person. Currently, science does not have good tests to determine the extent of the injury, but thankfully the national conversation is attending to it. We’ve stopped looking the other way and pretending it doesn’t exist.
Like we still do with mental illness. We fear mental illness because we don’t know what to do about it. We have been pretending it’s “all in their minds.” In our minds, if they were just better, stronger people they could just get this inconvenient maladaptive thinking under control and forge on. But mental illness is not just “wrong-thinking.” It is dis-health. A disease of the functioning of the brain.
The first step toward addressing it is learning a bit about how the brain functions. This is foreign to the average American, I’ve observed. We know there is “gray matter” and perhaps “white matter.” We know the brain’s approximate size and shape and folding characteristics. We know layman’s anatomy – from tv shows or books or perhaps a high school class. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of the huge connection of nerve cells sending electrical signals hither and yon at amazing speed, with amazing accuracy, and amazing consistency. Until they aren’t.
This is what happens in concussion. And this is what happens in mental illness. The circuitry and chemistry is malfunctioning, or perhaps better put, functioning in a way that results in disruptions in behavior, sensation and thinking. This is, after all, what our brains are designed to do.
Once we can think of brain function as a biological, chemical, and cellular issue, we can address it. People would not choose concussion or illness of any type, but it chooses them. And the first step toward helping them is to understand what it feels like to them, how it orients or dis-orients, what hurts. Not at first to “fix” but to help. Then the healing can begin.
As for me, today I admit: mental illness scares me. But the more I understand it and the better acquainted with it I become, the less I fear it and the more I see I can do. Concussion is a disruption of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated. Mental illness is a pattern of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated.
We’re all in this together. It’s a national conversation. Let us heal.