Would You Bring a Casserole to a Mental Patient?

(Content note: don’t read this if you like content notes because the list is longer than the post.)

What helps you keep thoughts in perspective so they don’t overwhelm you?

Sometimes I’ll come across a story about a random act of kindness that changed the world or at least changed one person’s world. A simple gesture that offsets their previously hopeless/angry/desperate attitude.Think Jean Valjean and Bishop Myriel – the musical version, not the novel where it take a bit more for the lesson to sink in for Monsieur Valjean – a moment’s kindness, a glimpse into true compassion that forever changed the heart of a wounded man. Or think of people who pay it forward and start foundations to honor their loved ones lost to terrible illness. These seem to be good people who absorb kindness and find that it shifts their entire worldview, enough that they go on to change the world.

I am not one of these people.

Casserole that I made.
Casserole that I made.

I have found that most acts of kindness come with strings attached and most acts of courage are born out of desperation, not compassion. That doesn’t negate their good influence, but it does prevent me from – ever- keeping things in perspective. I revel in the moment of joy or happiness or simple love and friendship, but I know that the dark will descend again.

I have a bad attitude because I believe most of us struggle for redemption or find refuge in denial. I simply don’t believe in random acts of kindness because the moment they are reflected back to us – via YouTube or Twitter or the newspaper column – they become acts of intent, acts intended to spur other action either as a moral lesson or an overly simplistic reduction of the human experience. Their impact is somehow – to me – lessened by their broadcast. And, yes, I have broadcast them.

The problem with a random act of kindness is the expectation that handing someone a free sandwich or paying for their extra groceries will generate enough of an attitude shift that they will take control of their lives and overcome all other obstacles. They will triumph because of one gesture.

Well, that’s simply not true. An act of kindness has merit and value, for the recipient and the giver. But it doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t start a change in the world. It simply is, it exists within the world and it does matter.

Cynical much, Sue? Yes, in fact, I am cynical because I have been too often the casualty of denial. People like when I write screeds against injustice and share happy tales about my pets, but when I question the motives of allies  – for example – the wall of denial is firmly put in place.

That’s the string attached to having an ally – you must not ask questions. And if you do, you are silenced. And if you still do, the Universe whacks you because it is difficult for a middle-aged disabled queer woman to make her way in this world without allies. They are like the 4th element and like the 4th wall which must not be broken.

Resistance, righteous anger, and resentment help me keep things in perspective. I never expect kindness because I am a difficult queer mental patient with a chip on my shoulder, not a good and kind person. I can make good and kind things happen, but I gain no perspective – just a sense of a temporary reprieve.

Being angry helps me focus and find direction. Resisting the consequences of being queer, a mental patient and disabled as well as poor helps me stay on task. Resentment keeps me free from trying to fit in where I am not wanted except when the revolution comes.

I remember when families in our neighborhood had crisis, people would bring them casseroles. That became synonymous with expressing concern or care for a neighbor, a friend, even a stranger. But my mother’s crisis were unpalatable because of her diagnosis (and our poverty) so no casseroles came our way. Once someone brought me baked goods when I had a stomach virus which was sweet even if I had to throw them away. And when I had my wisdom teeth pulled, a Baptists preachers wife brought me banana pudding. In 1995. Someone else brought me a casserole in 2011.

See – I remember the gestures. Three specific gestures that I could describe in great detail. It makes me smile to think about them now. But I also remember when someone threw a gesture of kindness – a pay it forward – in my face. That I remember. That’s something that shifts your perspective.

But you know that life is mostly about attempted acts of kindness that go awry because of snow days and parking challenges and health challenges and previous commitments. Life is about “let’s have coffee” wishes and other good intentions that provide cover for our denial. We mean well so that must count for something. That’s hope. I have a lot of “hope” chits in a pile. I tried to use them to get access to good healthcare, equal rights, and so forth. No dice. They just collect dust.

Somewhere in your life there is a kid whose parent is a mental patient – so defined by society and affirmed by the mental health system – as well as a child with cancer and another who lost a parent and yet another who is being bullied. Perspective is realizing that they all need you. And your casseroles.

So, yes, medication helps me keep my thoughts in perspective. Can you imagine what I’d write if I was actually overwhelmed by my thoughts?

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