Caring for someone with a mental illness forces you beyond all conventional measures of worth or meaning.
B was born in a caul, so fate paid him special attention from the start. He was descended from pharaohs and brought up in darkness inside a pyramid, but escaped and was adopted by my family, who pretended to be his family. For years, an army of spies dressed in white followed him around everywhere. Doppelgängers impersonated his ex-girlfriend, and friends conspired to kill him. Here are the careful phrases with which I learned to respond to this extraordinary life story: That’s not my understanding of what happened, or, That’s not how I remember it.
The phrase “mentally ill” feels euphemistic. It was not an illness; it had no etiology, no prognosis, probably no cure, and apparently no end. It had few external signs: Well into the depths of B’s decline, or, put another way, the heights of his ascent, people would grab my arm and whisper, “He’s so handsome!” I told them, “Yes, but he’s crazy.” What is crazy? people would ask, or, Aren’t we all crazy?, trying to be kind, and I would say, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
As soon as a doctor even mentioned the word schizophrenia, I used it like a talisman to ward off well-meaning dismissals. I allowed that frightening word to stand in for the uncanny sensation of death-in-life I experienced as it dawned on me that B could no longer fully recognize me or our shared life except through the most labyrinthine thought procedures, complex constellations of metaphor and association that I could only sometimes follow. No one dared to insist but what is crazy once I had invoked that magic word. Meanwhile, others who cared about B prayed against it, as if a less terrifying name would bring back whoever we imagined B had once been, in the capacious space for optimal, fantasy Bs left by his disappearance.
What is crazy? In practice, madness is defined functionally rather than with reference to some absolute cognitive distinction. You can be as unhappy as you like if you can still make rent. You can be convinced that every streetlight is an angel as long as you walk past them and to your own door. If you have a lot of money, you can go on being crazy without consequence for longer than if you have only a little. Despite all these gradations, it is not as if there are two kinds of things, really real things and merely socially constructed things: The conditions of reality are socially determined, and crazy is one of the names for a life that falls outside value.
The schizophrenic person is a special figure, wilder than the hysteric or the depressive, more remote, certainly easier to make a metaphor of. The word implies something split or broken and lends itself to fantasies of schizophrenia sufferers as multiple, or in flight from themselves. But medically, it’s a baroque accumulation of symptoms hinging around language and relationship: hallucinations, delusions, failures of meaning. In Deleuze and Guattari, it stands for both a reaction to present brokenness and some possible future orientation to the world, where different forms of meaning will be allowed to disperse freely. The term schizo-culture is not meant to refer to the actual disease, which renders people unglamorously confused and incapable of basic self-care, but to the alluring possibility of remixing and transforming the ways we relate to each other.
Because of the many years I lived by proxy with schizophrenia, I—stubbornly, untheoretically—dislike its use as an image, even when well meaning. The idea of schizophrenia as an extreme materialization of the pain of our present social form, and therefore as perhaps its overcoming, is hard to accept because it’s also the name for a certain kind of real experience. And yet of course I also read my long encounter with it, via the person I am here calling B, as a judgment on the world, and on me.
Paranoid thinking is apparently incapable of self-critique, can never fault itself. It’s as if the psyche is externalized, so that reality mirrors its vicissitudes. Meanwhile, the inner life is full of worldly intrusions: Thoughts are implanted, dreams are monitored. The structural antecedents of B’s psychosis, I thought, were in the melancholic/paranoid histories that both he and I were bathed in as children: black nationalist readings of a world antithetical to blackness, on one side, and the post-apocalyptic (rather than Zionist-reparative) strand of European Jewish mourning, on the other. I did different things with the same material, preferring to locate the world’s brokenness in my own brokenness, to find fault with myself. B was completely the opposite. At the height of his illness, it was as if everything that might be subjective and inside the self had been projected out into the world, where objects and events formed complex chains of meaning, all conveniently proving whatever was going on inside B’s head. Romantic talk of madness often skips over how annoying its stubborn logic can be.
B was not my first encounter with paranoid thought. In my father’s house, intense young men pontificated at length about white devils and black ancestors. The symbolism and codes of this strand of black radicalism make up an elaborate structure of thought that is partly a mocking parody of academic “paranoid readings,” and partly a serious effort to interpret a world, this world, that appears from the perspective of blackness as formally insane. The everyday beliefs and activities of what we could call white supremacist capitalism, or perhaps less precisely life as we know it, are all, from this perspective, more deeply disturbing than the craziest fantasy you’ll find on a high-security ward. But how is a person supposed to live this knowledge? Unlike me, B was quiet, absorbing everything. Could a white-passing boy even picture the black world that animated his father’s dreams? By the time they all settled down to a quieter middle age, we had spent years steeped in this atmosphere of pain and conspiracy.
In psychosis, no event or thing is small enough to escape the tightly woven net of personal significance. A clock means a bomb, a sunset is a message, and so on. But how do you live in a world in which everything signifies? How do others who live in this shimmering, terrifying world treat you? One time B was found cowering in the restroom at a café, too afraid to leave, and was arrested. Just as much as they are implacably hostile to blackness, for reasons both mysterious and self-evident, the police are also structurally fated to hate the mad. Arrests, harassment, and lucky escapes punctuated the acute phases of B’s illness. Now, every so often, another story of police hurting or killing a mentally ill person surfaces, and I am momentarily gripped by the kind of intense, helpless pain that must be what people mean when they talk about being triggered. Still, it’s important to not overindulge in other people’s trouble, even where it affirms your own. The duty of a crazy person’s friends and family is far more practical: Our duty is to appear, as much as possible, not crazy, so that our loved one will be allowed to live.
We had to act a certain way in the hospitals, to show the doctors that B was not trash. I would put on the smooth neutral suit of sanity, which is smiling politely, listening carefully, and in all ways acting as bourgeois as possible. Those times when my mother forgot her armor, when she begged and cried, I saw how the doctors looked at her, as if she were the really crazy one. But B too knew how to put on the smooth and neutral suit; he knew how to answer the doctors’ questions with enough of an appearance of sanity to escape imprisonment, even when he was in desperate need of help. In an emergency ward, my mother cries and B shouts. We would be a spectacle if anyone cared. I adjust my dress and smooth down my hair, momentarily wishing myself whiter so as to be better able to resist the implications of the doctor’s sneer, which is on the verge of becoming impossible to ignore. I see we are all in danger of falling out of the hole in the skin of the world. Come on let’s go, let’s just leave. I remember my mother crying in the car but I don’t remember what we did next.
At the end of the worst time, in a high-security ward, B’s brown eyes shone with enormous impossible truths. He had unraveled completely over the course of a year during which he refused to see us. To save him, we had inflicted a terrible betrayal on him, allowing social services to send cops into his home to forcibly hospitalize him. For a while, he would repeat stories of how the police had insulted and abused him, and I couldn’t say much in response, because at that moment, between B’s freedom and death and his unfreedom and continued life, we had colluded with the enemy; we chose life for him, with all its attendant conditions of abuse and domination. In the hospital I was so happy to see him again that the work I thought I’d done to kill my hope of his return revealed itself as a convenient lie. Love is one name for a certain kind of susceptibility to sorrow, but I’m pretty sure I already knew that before B went crazy. Leaving the ward after our reunion with B, we met an older woman in tears. She had a bandage around her wrist. “They told me today that my son will never get better,” she said. Her son was the one we heard yelling NO over and over again from behind a locked door. The building next door was a special psychiatric mother-and-baby unit. This was a secret place, a backstage place, the hidden, true home of the family.
It would be better if that man yelling NO or that woman’s cut wrist or B himself could describe psychosis, from inside psychosis’s own perspective. Like the kind of dog that can be beaten into a killer exactly because they have been bred to love humans, the insane person’s hypersensitivity to experience makes them the most vivid register of its real character. Not only can they not participate in society, often unable to work for long periods, or to be charming, or to smell nice, and so on, but they are an implicit critique of the infrastructure of working, the charms and nice smells with which people survive the painful world. So loving a crazy person forces you beyond all conventional measurements of worth or meaning. That is why it often falls to women, who live partly outside measure, and often drives them crazy too. As for me, I could not deal with the day-to-day maintenance of B; I found ways to avoid him, told myself lies about tough love and so on. But my love for him followed me around everywhere.
It could be that, when I insisted on a clear distinction between (my) sanity and (B’s) insanity, I was doing exactly what others implicitly accused me of: lying about the world to protect myself or make myself exempt from it. It’s true that I was sometimes troubled by the curious links between my worldview and B’s; we had shared so much. There was the time when I had a meeting right after visiting B in hospital, to discuss a video I was making. At the hospital B spent hours describing a world in which everyone had been replaced with an imperfect copy, an imposter. Then at the meeting I laid out my confused research, and my colleague said, “You seem to be interested in substitution…” I was always so tired after seeing B when he was really sick; my body ached, it was hard to breathe. Every time, right after I saw him, my faith in the distinction between us was at its lowest ebb; it felt possible that I belonged with him in the hospital or whichever tiny filthy apartment he was living in. The difference between us was that I knew what I could and couldn’t get away with, and I cared what people thought of me, or I cared to share my structure of thought with others, to live in a shared world. I could not bring B there with me. Every time I had to leave him behind.
As B became increasingly socially unacceptable, as people began to cross the street to avoid him or call the cops on sight of him, the place of my tenderness for B was like a gateway I had to keep open even as other forms of pain streamed through it. Unable to fully turn away from B, I could also not defend myself against the sadness of the many other evidently crazy people who I saw every day wandering in the street or riding the train, who had also probably once been cute and inventive children. My desire that B be treated kindly, against all reason, committed me to a hopeless and helpless kindness against reason. Unable to do anything for B or myself, I trembled with useless love for whoever shuffled with the distinctive gait of the medicated mad, whoever spoke to themselves under their breath, whoever was desperately trying to appear normal.
I was not sure if I had chosen citizenship in this wounded world, or if B’s madness was the sign that I belonged there all along. Even as B’s daydreams morphed into delusions, I could fill in the missing links between one thought and another apparently unrelated thought with the detritus of our shared life: a movie we watched over and over as kids, an ancient Egyptian symbol, a recycled anxiety, all stitched together in his thoughts and universally applicable. After listening to one of my breathless explanations of how B’s thought processes were unusual but fundamentally comprehensible and therefore not mad, a social worker said, not unkindly: Okay, but the main diagnostic we use for mental illness is suffering. Yet B’s madness was also a protection from suffering. He withdrew into a private realm of significations and left me to try to explain. It was like it had been when we were small; I was the ambassador to the world, and he was the planet I came from. But I liked the job, how could I not? We were made partly of each other.
There’s a Jewish fairy tale where a couple lose their son and pray for him to come back, only for him to return as a walking corpse: They forgot to say they wanted him to come back alive! Maybe I forgot something in my disavowed prayers for B’s full recovery; I forgot to say that the B who I wanted to return to me was not the inevitably scarred former madman but the hypothetical healthy adult who would otherwise have grown out of the funny, charming kid he was right before he got sick. But over the progression of a long madness, the material of a life coarsens, sinks to the level of survival. My father said once that B was like someone submerged in water, who now and then came up to the surface, only to sink back down again. Now his medicine allows him to spend more time above air. He is sweet, kind, funny, vague, strange, frustrating. As for the years that his delusions tore a hole in the skin of the world, those are not his problem; he wasn’t really there for them. Here he is now, smiling, childlike, impatient with our anxieties, as if none of it ever happened. But, for all my loving intentions, my desire to write this disposable past overwhelms my solidarity with his silence.
What is crazy? The world is a bag and the water inside the bag is all the sense of power, joy, and possibility in the world, but there are holes in the bag: each wounding experience or painful loss is its own hole. Everyone carries their own world-bag and sometimes the bag gets so ragged with holes that all the water of possible joy runs out of you and you are left with a collapsed and empty bag that once held everything. That is crazy!
Now that the worst time seems to be over, telling the story of it is like trying to tell a dream, full of implausible jumps from one scenario to the next, invented fake continuities, people masquerading as others: that kind of boring dream. At times I bent the story of B’s madness to my own ends, using it to justify what I wanted to do anyway, which was to hurt myself. B couldn’t be happy, therefore I wasn’t allowed any happiness either. For years I minimized the impact of B’s illness: It’s not sad, it’s just how it is! With this phrase I dismissed the leaden feeling in my chest, the grief of his quasi-disappearance. I have yet to unlearn this defensive position. Even if the couple in the fairy tale had gotten their son back fully alive, how long would it have taken them to relax into loving him again, now that they knew what it was like for him to die?
It’s not sad, it’s just how it is. In real life madness is not romantic or even especially interesting, which is why this writing is another kind of crazy. In a café back when it was all just beginning to be over, my beautiful B, still edging into his recovery, waddles across the room. He’s heavy with medicine, bumping into tables, apologizing sweetly, apparently or deliberately indifferent to the assessing glances of strangers, the assessing and then discarding glances of strangers. Fuck you, is what I’m thinking of the café customers, but despite myself I’m embarrassed in front of them, I’m cringing inside as he sits back down and shows me a website he likes, shows me his threadbare inbox. Rattled by love, rancid with love, I stroke his beloved arm. There is nothing with which I can justify our lives. But as long as crazy is nothing and means nothing—I mean until we begin the abolition of intolerable conditions—then the crazy will go on bearing the burden of meaning.