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On Mental Illness

Here’s a little thought exercise. Imagine yourself caged in a large open facility with many other residents. But whereas you, in your private central cell, are given plenty to eat, a comfortable bed beneath the ceiling’s sole skylight, exercise equipment, reading and writing materials and even a TV, everyone else is tortured and humiliated horribly and continuously. When they die or otherwise surpass their capacity for agony, others are brought in to replace them. You even recognize a few: one of your undergrads; a colleague with whom you exchange scholarly critiques; the guy you play racquet ball with Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and sometimes golf with on the weekends; his wife Clara; the kid who delivers your paper, the little neighbor girl who baby-sits your twins Susie and Timothy when you and your wife go out for a romantic evening alone or with another couple; the Subway counter girl who sometimes pretends to flirt with you; your dental hygienist; your wife; little Susie; sweet Clara. Day after day, meticulously mangled and disfigured corpses are hauled out, and fresh replacements brought in. Newcomers appear to have been snatched randomly in the course of their normal day, some dressed for work or recreation, some in housecoats or pajamas. At first they’re civil, uncomprehending. Even as they’re stripped, they ask to use a phone, a bathroom. “There’s been some mistake.” “Please get your hands off me.” They grow impatient, indignant, insistent, threatening. “Expect to hear from my lawyer!” “When my father finds out, you’ll be in trouble!” They’re punched and mocked. “I’m telling my shyster.” “I’m telling my daddy.” They look confused, anxious. “Who will take care of my dogs?” “My grandmother?” “My baby!?” Terrified, they cast about for an advocate, a friendly face, an ombudsman. They cry out to you. “Excuse me!” “Friend!” “Good sir!” They reach through your bars for you. “Over here Chris?” “Hey Mister!” “Hi Professor Miller.” “Honey?!” “Dad?!” But, powerless to intervene, able only to commiserate with them and plead with their tormentors and to pray and philosophize on suffering and free will in God’s almighty plan, you find it hard to touch them, to talk to them, to meet their beseeching eyes, their bulging eyes, eventually even their empty sockets. Day after day. You try to read, but can’t. You try to write, but can only cry. You try to escape into solipsism, where only you are to blame and only you suffer. Even though your area is well ventilated and all your favorite foods are provided, you’re unable to eat. And even though the tortured are gagged and worked on silently when you want to sleep, you cannot sleep. You experience soaking panic attacks after which you feel sick, dead. You try to drown yourself in your toilet. A physician is called in. Her diagnosis is easy. You have all the symptoms. You need help to get on with your life, to find meaning and fulfillment. She knows how remote this possibility must seem to you. But, not to worry. She sees this kind of despair and despondency all the time, the kind that eats you from within and twists you inside out. Happily, there are treatments. Proven cures like EST, amitriptyline and lithium, well established anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medications, also a host of new SSRIs and even some remarkable advances in


Christopher Miller’s fiction has appeared in COSMOS, The Barcelona Review, Hopewell Publishing’s “Best New Writing 2010″ anthology, Redstone Science Fiction and other print and web based magazines and anthologies. He works as a systems analyst. He writes for fun.

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