I read, Suspicious Minds in two sittings. Though I had been genuinely interested since the introduction, around page one-fifty, I got more emotionally involved. It began with the explanation of the link between of seeming different to others and being attractive to bullies: “It’s possible of course that being bullied is the result of having psychotic experiences rather than the other way around. Kids who are different are targets for bullies, and having psychotic symptoms is certainly likely to make you different” (124). While it’s true that this point isn’t presented as absolute fact, it was a new enough idea to get me surprised. It was like when reading Charles Fort, when he’d said that there is no actual proof that humans evolved from apes any more that there is proof that apes descended from humans. These are nuggets I’ve found in books that spark wonder, because I’d never considered them before. Though to be fair, I had been getting more and more immersed in my uninterrupted reading session. Eventually I had to put the book down for a jazz break; it was getting slightly more disturbing for the next forty pages. Here’s what happened between me and the book in that short segment of time.
The chapter “The Madding Crowd” talks about how one’s social life affects one’s mental health (as previously mentioned in the book at this point, mental health is already a very fragile thing). The above quote was taken from a passage discussing childhood trauma, saying that there is a correlation between it and mental illness. I think this is a bit unfair. Obviously we can’t control traumatic events and feeling different, yet these factors can permanently damage someone’s psychology. And the next passage went on to speak about immigration and race, whereas I was already in the back of my mind making the connection between my social differences (race, deviances from racial and sexual stereotype…etc.) and my own psychologically trifflin times. “Environmental Illness II: Immigration” on page 126 was dog-eared.
Moving to a new place makes you feel different. I know this. While I was growing up, my father was in the Navy; we moved many times including once from Japan to an insignificant town in Tennessee. But in the context of Suspicious Minds, the fact that I’d moved so much made me uneasy. Feeling like an outsider was not only challenging for me, but now that I’m over it I’ve just read that those repetitive moves are a psychological threat as much as being a Black woman in America.
I thought about an old friend who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an illness this book focuses on, after his study abroad in Vienna, Austria. I thought about how he’d told me he’d gone without any friends, felt alone, and from there quickly started to co-host parties after he’d taken up smoking socially. I didn’t press him with questions because I felt it was already such a personal subject, so I’m not sure how his decline in mental health went down. He mentioned his first big breakup with his girlfriend back in Saint Louis and that by the time it was time to come back he didn’t want to. I heard it in a way that inferred he’d gone mad while attempting to stay.
I thought about my schizophrenic older brother, with whom I have only had two comprehensive conversations. I know little about him because I don’t ask. His teachers described him as “very different” when he was young. When the topic at hand is how feeling different can lead to madness, I saw that the desire to stand out (a very American thing. A celebrated thing.) had a darker side–the danger of actually standing out. What might this mean for me, since I have plans to permanently move to Belgium? I believed that I’ve become an expert at moving. To be an expert at moving is knowing when to detach from your surroundings and your old friends in order to adjust to a completely new setting. It’s knowing not expect to be completely happy in the new town, and not to consider that you were perfectly happy in the last so that you don’t become nostalgic or deeply disappointed. I knew after a certain number of moves how to handle the change. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder if that means my moves might negatively impact my mental health. Chilled but not completely frightened, I continued on to read facts like “having dark skin raises the risk of psychosis among immigrants” (128). Dog-eared.
The next three pages I folded had sentences that confirmed ideas I’d heard about: “Many researchers believe that psychiatric symptoms are really just exaggerated versions of mental states that everyone experiences occasionally” (132). “That child abuse leaves deep psychological scars in an uncontroversial case in which a social interaction is damaging” (134). “Racial discrimination, in particular, may increase the risk of psychosis” (135). “The life expectancy for rich white people who live in the suburbs […] is twenty years longer that the poor African Americans who live [outside of the suburbs]” (141). These weren’t nearly as surprising as the previous ones, but they triggered emotional response, memory, or concern.
I thought about how when my mom first found out about my brother’s diagnosis, naturally she was unprepared. I think she was in denial for a bit and tried to pray his sickness away, but it got worse as he became an adolescent. By the time he was a teenager, he was very sick but my mom still hadn’t decided what to do about it. Of course, if she needed a break from mothering she’d go to bingo. My mentally ill brother, Naji, would babysit me and my sister, Ashley, those evenings. Reading the sentences about abuse and social threats reminded me of my earliest memory, a time when my brother joked that he was going to chop us up and then grabbed a large knife from the kitchen. He chased us around the house, and eventually out in the streets, all the while laughing. It began to rain. We didn’t live in a great neighborhood, so I don’t anyone cared what was going on. I think an older sister, Sagirah, was driving home and saw us, picked us up. When my mom had come back from decompressing at bingo, we told her what happened because it felt like neither myself, Ashley or Naji actually knew if we were going to be chopped up. My mom, still trying to keep her spirits up, mustered a laugh, said, “children will be children,” and told us to go to bed.
I decided I needed a break from reading. I made dinner, took a shower, watched a show. It was good to get a bit more engaged in the present rather my head. When I started reading again, it took fifty pages for me to want to dog ear something, and then another ten. That’s not to say that the unnoted chapter, “Hell is other people”, was boring. It was about the Suspicious System. This section is the first thing that I’ll take away from reading this book. The Suspicious System, which is controlled by the amygdala, is a part of daily life. I use it with my housemates, classmates, and coworkers. I use it with friends, family and strangers. Before 2014, it had been out of whack from early social interactions with my brother. Everyone seemed like they might be ready to hurt me until I was twenty-two, when I started taking an SSRI. Now I can pick up on real social cues as opposed to responding to imagined ones.
The book ended shortly after “Hell is other people”. It was a good reading experience and I learned a lot about mental illness. We are still trying to understand so much of it, but fortunately our culture is currently obsessed with psychology. And since culture does shape mental illness (by defining what’s acceptable and what’s not) now is the best time to be mentally ill. Even if we might be a country buzzing with phrases like “I blame my anxiety for my shortcomings as a person,” this major attention on mental health will ultimately produce more discoveries, and move science forward from”it must be the vapors, some leeches will do the trick.”