By Eric Le Roy
Content 18+ I have a new Russian student, a freelance workaholic living now in a foreign country, who is still on the right side of 40 and full of ideas seasoned with a tasty pinch of wisdom. We discuss many things during our lessons (it's not a grammar arrangement),) and I spend most of the time listening and absorbing what he has to say.
The other night we got to talking about mental illness, psychology in general, and the administration of therapy for things like depression, anxiety, etc.-- the basic modern mental health issues. In Russia, the number of such therapists is increasing. That's remarkable for a number of reasons. For one thing – and it was still true when I arrived in Moscow in 2007 – the majority of Russians don't ever trust basic doctors, for example, the kind of stone-faced Soviet old-timers who sit in dark rooms in polyclinics while the afflicted occupy benches in the hall outside the door. Time stops in those polyclinics.
. Now, for sure there are highly skilled doctors in Russia, but they can be hard to track down (just a disclaimer). But when I first got there, all the Russians I spoke to laughed at the idea of going to a psychologist. (It was always a sure fire way of getting Russian people to smile.) The cure was vodka and Toughness. You could simply drive mental illness away by scorning and mocking it. Only weak people in the West sought out the shrinks. But now the Russians do as well.
We could go on and on about why that is, but it's not the purpose of this essay. Here, I want to discuss an idea – an idea profound in its simplicity – that impressed me then and is thriving in my mind at this moment, which is why I'm writing about it. My student-friend said, and I paraphrase, that every person is like a small house with two rooms. He might have spoken about hemispheres in the human brain, and so forth, because he is an educated man, so this was more than crude folk wisdom. He just preferred metaphor. Anyway, one room in the house is where the rational side of the owner's mind is kept, and the other room is where the irrational part lives. The kind of life you have, according to my friend, depends on which room you spend most of your time in.
Of course, this idea is not entirely novel. Once I heard what was described as an old Native American saying: Every person has two dogs inside him: a good dog and a bad dog. Which dog comes to rule you depends on which dog you choose to feed.
There used to be a diagnosis called ‘manic depression'. Pretty descriptive, I'd say, but like a lot of stuff the politically correct get their hands on, now it's called ‘bipolar disorder'. Either way it means the same thing: the manically depressed bipolar-disordered individual can set the world on fire with his/her creativity, energy, and work-rate ... .for a while. Then something happens;
the worm turns, the fire burns down to cinders and ash, the car runs out of gas. Lickety-split, the budding Michelangelo transforms into either a catatonic zombie or more colorfully, an acrobatic exemplar of Off the Chain, an Olympian derelict, a Slum God in his own home. Or heads somewhere down an unknown street… somewhere… where he searches for companions with the same things on their dislocated minds.
That was me. There was good Eric and non-so-good Eric. Good Eric was a fitness fanatic, dedicated poet, and deft, swift scrambler who could hold down three jobs at one time. (Which, as an English instructor at the local colleges, I did). Decent people, including attractive women, would size me up with eyes that said, one way or the other “Come interview with me.” I was like one of Santa's reindeers, bridled up, blowing snowy steam from my nostrils, and ready to go across the rooftops and down the chimneys to deliver the presents.
I'd be driving the car home (O how well I remember), and there, in St. Augustine florida – only one of many of my scenic destinations – when I came to the Bridge of Lions, which separated the town from the ‘island' where I lived – all I had to do was turn left onto the bridge and head home to a warm dinner and sports on ESPN.
Strangely, unaccountably, the car would turn right. And despite all my desperate efforts to get it back on track, it would just keep going and it wouldn't stop until it got to Crack Town. Of course, I would methodically stop at the bank teller machine and head next to the liquor store. Then I would go looking for ‘friends'. And they were out there, waiting like Hell's welcoming committee. I'd stay in their luxury apartments for days. No running water, no flushing toilet, No Big Deal. Same with their swank houses full of the friendliest bugs you could ever hope to meet and charming mattresses without sheets or blankets. Like most vacationers, I'd spend all the collateral I had in my pocket. The Bridge of Lions was three days away, in a dreamworld.
I'd return home in the end, of course, haggard and wan, my nerves an electric trampoline of despair. Several days of being aghast at where I'd been and what I'd done…then, like the Phoenix of mythology, I would soar back to normalcy and once again the world would see the jubilant radiance of a man whose face the fled angels had flown back to.
This scenario often repeated itself over the years until finally, the angels started to stay away, even during recovery. Slowly, adagio, pian-piano…the once blue-eyed boy was becoming a blear-orbed leper. When I walked by the houses in my middle-class neighborhood, I could almost hear the walls and doors shiver for fear I'd come knocking. (I used to borrow money from the neighbors when my credit was still good, but that had dried up like mourners after a funeral.
My family decided that psychiatric help was the only solution. I went. Now it must be said that, accurately or not, ‘bipolar disorder' is the mental ‘challenge' of the Western Hemisphere, la maladie du jour. Everybody has it. So, given my history, I guess it was easy money for the nutcase specialist.
I should say here that I have conflicting opinions about the Field of Psychology. On the one hand, I believe that the human brain (mind) is a passion ward where mental epics take place with the regularity of insects reproducing in a standard meadow or swamp. And the more heightened the sensibility, the more blood and lust are slopping around in these violent tropics. But while many professionals now dismiss as an old canard any suggestion of a link between genius and insanity, it seems to me that there may well be one.
I think this way for a number of reasons, which I shall put aside for later discussion. Suffice it to say that, in my view, psychologists (in the West) over-diagnose and over-prescribe. And the reason is that they insist on trying to turn Impressionism into Physics. They think by labeling something, they are halfway home. All that is needed is to say, “This lad suffers from attention deficit disorder” and they prescribe the nearest thing to a frontal lobotomy they can come up with: ritalin. So a kid who, being bored shitless with the ‘lesson', decides to imitate an eagle and fly around the classroom, and, all of a sudden, it's “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.”
And all along, the psychologist was only guessing. Like Columbus looking for India and finding Puerto Rico.. So what to do to save face? Call it the ‘West Indies”. Moreover, a lot of these psychologists are failed actors, lovers, and stamp collectors. A lot of them are crazier than their clients. Sane only when it comes to money.
Moreover, mental illness frees everyone from responsibility. Rich dad takes fuck up son to shrink. Shrink, seeing an opportunity, says the boy needs the help only I can give him. How much? $xxxxxxxxx. How long? It depends on young Leopold. No telling how long. OK, credit card? Of course.
So everyone is off the hook. The father is blameless because the boy is mentally sick. The boy is happy because now he knows he can cop the plea of not being responsible. The psychologist is happy because he now has a long term contract.
They are not all like that, at least I hope not. But you see where this could go in the hands of shucksters and victims who want freedom from any possibility of guilt. THAT'S why psychology and their professionals get a bad rap.
But let's leave the ‘'professionals' for now. Per favore.
And the reason goes back to my student's House with Two Rooms. The one with the rational room and the Irrational Room. Let's accept this idea just for the sake of argument. I am of the conviction that most people have tables, chairs and beds in both rooms. Throughout their lives they wander back and forth. Most of them live 75% of their lives in the Rational Room. That leaves 25%, and I believe – based on the uncertainty, incongruity, and often self-defeating strategies expressed in human behavior – it may even be a conservative estimate.
Of course, there are many Iceberg Agents who never leave the Rational Room if they can help it. The Big Data boys and girls. The Big Algorithm jocks and jockesses. The Artificial Intelligence Army. . But most people resist, whether they would prefer to not, a completely mechanical life of nullified emotion. And, no matter if ‘love' is really love or just a bunch of chemicals pissing about inside us like a video game of hormonal darts, the vast majority of us set aside at least a few of life's evenings for the “Orgasm Beyond Control.” The subliminal figuring is that too much logic really will drive us insane.
So we take a walk on the wild side, and for most, that's all it is: a hedonistic stroll in a May downpour. But other people log most of their days and evenings, and especially nights, in the Irrational Room. In their minds, the rain falls often and spectacularly, like furious biblical chastisement. Some exit only under the same duress that the 2 + 2 = 4 crowd prefers on the other side. According to my student-friend, Religion, Art, and Insanity – at least in pure, undiluted and unabridged form – live in the Irrational Room. CEOs, Central Directors, and Common Psychopaths hang their hats permanently in the Rational Room. The rest of us, like tireless Marco Polo's shooting back and forth between the exotic spices of the Orient and hammers and nails of Europe, spend our lives passing from room to room, invariably finding our comfort zone in one or the other.
In the end, the Rational Room is a lot more crowded because conventionally sane people find that life is a lot less troublesome there.
But this is making it sound like we all have complete freedom of choice, and that is simply not so. Compulsion, obsession, fatigue, and loneliness drive people from one room to the other and back again in desperate attempts to balance public acceptance with inner authenticity. At some point, everyone…Everyone…needs to come out of the closet – whatever the closet. For, as T.S. Eliot said, “Humankind can not bear very much reality.”
I also believe that some of us cannot really tell one room from the other. In my own case, I don't think I was sick at all. I think I was merely selfish. Greedy. I loved both rooms. Sometimes I wanted to wear the Gold Medal of Municipal Achievement. Other times I just wanted to get wasted and slobber all over the whore's body. Now, as I age I have conquered the desire to visit the Irrational Room, except in my mind.
I still go there in my thoughts. I leave the car parked outside.
I stopped being ‘bipolar' when my family and all my enablers either died or turned their backs. Faced with suicide or survival, I chose to keep on plugging away. It's a long story, but, in a nutshell, the bipolar shit disappeared as soon as I made that choice. It doesn't mean that the sickness is fake and that many don't suffer from it. I'm not saying that.
I just loved the squalor, the easy letting go when the malt liquor settled in like a squatter in a tenement of the brain, the tension of waiting for the drugs to come, the unshackled ecstasy when it hit the bloodstream and the sheer decadent freedom of wildly loving some strange lady with a twinkle of madness in her eye and a tireless body. All of that in rooms where even most of Dostoevski's characters wouldn't go.
Now, at age 74 and with everything under control, I, Eric the English tutor, have distinguished myself as a person who can be trusted. I have, as they say, ‘made something of myself.' I live and work in a Rational Room. I get up early, and – if I think it necessary – set the alarm clock. But the dogs always wake me on time by themselves. They are as rational as clocks. They are saner than I am.
And sometimes when I am alone, the coyotes appear to me. “Join us !!” – they howl. And sleazy girls from streets without morals come into my mind. I hear them on the back stairs and I am ready for them. From somewhere around the windy corner, someone is playing a saxophone, and I hear laughter coming from another place I can't quite identify, maybe a passing train full of night people throwing dice. The woman, whose looks always fit the mood I'm in, drinks from my bottle, removes her shoes, and rubs the soles of her feet in my face while I lick the rough wrinkles.