It’s All Relative



I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.





Making Mental Illness Cool



I have noticed a tendency in our current culture to casually ascribe various forms of mental illness to ourselves and others.

“Sorry, it’s my ADD. What were you saying?”

“My OCD is out of control.”

“Whoa! Have you taken your meds today?”

“She can be so bipolar sometimes!”

And I find myself wondering whether this phenomenon is a good thing or a bad thing.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear people openly discussing mental illness – taking it out of the shadows, so to speak. With health insurance increasingly providing coverage for mental health, well-known public figures revealing their own struggles with mental illness, and a (slowly) growing acceptance that such afflictions as depression and bipolar disorder are diseases and not character flaws, we have made great strides in de-stigmatizing people who suffer from mental illness.

On the other hand, throwing around terms like “OCD” and “bipolar” flippantly seems to trivialize the very real and often devastating effects of mental illness. Just because I’m a bit moody, that doesn’t mean I have bipolar disorder. A person who is an extreme neatnik does not necessarily have obsessive compulsive disorder.

One problem I can foresee is that by ascribing our behavior so readily to some form of mental illness, we make it harder for people who truly suffer from the disease to be taken seriously. This has already started to happen with Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD). There has been a strong backlash against what people see as the over-diagnosis of children with ADHD.

Another problem with trivializing mental illness is that people who don’t really suffer from mental illness will see themselves as victims of ADHD, autism, or OCD. We can develop a victim mentality and make excuses for our behavior based upon our own self-diagnoses.

I am glad that mental illness has been hauled out of the dark attic where it used to be hidden, shrouded in whispers and shame. I am glad there are organizations such as NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to promote understanding, research, and help for those who genuinely do suffer from mental illness. I am even glad that we can laugh about it a bit, thus removing some of the angst surrounding these diseases.

I just think we should proceed with caution when we talk about such illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and autism, for example. And I know that we should take seriously the struggles of those who suffer from any form of mental illness.