The Normal One

A few weeks ago, I spilled my coffee at the breakfast table three days in a row. Someone suggested that maybe I was guzzling too much caffeine, and I replied that, no, I’ve been on an unhealthy-grad-student level of coffee consumption for some time. Curious, though, I went off for a few days, but it didn’t change what I had first noticed this winter while wrapping Christmas presents: my fine motor skills are gone. That, and a partial erasure of my short-term memory (as well as the chunk of change I’m paying pharmaceutical companies for the privilege of both) is the bargain-basement price of happiness, for now.

But I’m not the one whose hands are supposed to shake. When I was little, I assumed the normalcy of elements of my relationship with my brother that now, looking back, I realize were distinctly formative. That my friends’ would be my brothers’ friends (and that he would always be the “bad guy” with us); that, when we traveled, I would be entrusted with the plane tickets, despite being four years younger; that my brother would also always be taken out of the “normal” classroom, but for different reasons. Yet, for some reason, I mostly just remember that my brother had really messy handwriting and a shaky grip. It’s weird what kids notice.

My parents let me in gradually. I first remember a matter-of-fact explanation that my brother would not—following the assumed upper-middle-class pattern—go to college. But I was mostly shielded, and I hid myself, locking myself in my room any time there was shouting. It wasn’t until 9th grade, when my brother really fell apart, that I recall hearing the word “bipolar” and only later, with its growing popularity, “autism”. Such strange and inexplicable demons make everyone feel impotent, and I was no exception. The best I was contribute was to sleep outside his door a few times when he was manic, in the hope that he’d wake me up and not my parents.

Oh, and there’s one other thing I thought I could do: achieve. Relentlessly. It’s probably not a coincidence that high school was when I went into arrogant I’m-going-to-be-a-Senator-after-I-go-to-Princeton (I literally put this in the yearbook) overdrive. It wasn’t great timing, since shortly after I became acutely aware of my brother’s limitations, I had an unexpected and novel confrontation with my own. But even as it imposed itself on me, depression was not something I allowed myself. I was the normal one. Or maybe more than that: I was the one who was compensating, the one who was succeeding for two. Having a disabled brother was lumped in with other reminders of my “privilege” that served as good fodder for admissions essays and self-serving save-the-world fervor.

I don’t pretend I will ever understand the challenges my brother faces. I will only say that certain experiences have made me more or less empathetic towards them. I’m afraid I’ve tended towards the latter, which is why my most recent “episode”—our well-worn family parlance for mental illness—was in a way a good thing. Mental illness, I’ve realized, doesn’t fit well into my usual worldview. There’s no zero-sum class war; no structure or power to overthrow; no “privilege” to be negated and redistributed. There’s no one to be angry against except god, and in a sense, the very randomness of it all feels like an argument against him/her anyway.

As I was melting down last summer, a psychiatrist threw out a term I’m so ashamed of I feel the need to unload the burden publically. He said I suffered from “survivor guilt”. But I am no survivor. My brother lives a life full of vitality and meaning and community, things—despite the unfair apportionment of certain skills and capacities between us—that I’ve at times been sorely lacking. There is so much absurdity to placing lives on a continuum, to thinking there’s any measure by which one can ‘make up’ for another, or even that worth can be measured anyway. No one exists to be the subject of a college essay or an inspiration or a reminder of privilege to others or the subject of a hackneyed blog post-conclusion. We just exist. And some of our hands shake.

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One thought on “The Normal One

  1. This is a stressful world and most of us are born into stressful situations of one sort or another. Some of us are able to cope or at least endure, and some break.

    There are two basic ways of dealing with stress in our society. The most common one is to medicate. An astonishingly high percentage of the US population is on some sort of physician-prescribed psychotropic drug. Others often self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

    But the other way of coping is something a dude who was about half my age taught me many decades ago. I was almost always angry and always had many justifications for my anger. He was always calm–inexplicably, at least to me, placid. So I asked him how he managed it, and he said, in the manner of the youth of those days, “I don’t do stress.”

    It turned out to be the wisest thing anyone had ever said to me. As the years went by, it began to penetrate and I began to mellow. Sure, part of it was age, but I know many older people who are either constantly entraged or on medication to control their rage. But the most important part was that I realized, gradually, that I didn’t have to “do stress.” It was always there, but I didn’t have to react.

    I have a dear friend who is close to retirement–three months away, to be exact. She is in very poor health and in a very stressful job. Yesterday, in a bid to attempt to help her stay alive long enough to retire, I gave her the same mantra that had been given to me so long ago: “I don’t do stress.”

    I told her to start repeating it to herself the moment she woke up, and to keep repeating it, Hari Krishna style, throughout the day. I told her that’s she’s not Harry Truman and that the buck doesn’t stop at her desk. I told her that her boss’s problems were not her problems, and that since the office would have to learn to get along without her in a few months, she’d be doing them a favor if she started helping them get used to it beforehand.

    Nobody likes stress, but stress happens, particularly in our modern version of what passes for society. So people try to pass the stress along to others, to share their stress, to unburden themselves of it, or to delegate it.

    Stress kills. It is a major factor in weakening the immune system, and therefore a major factor in most serious illnesses.

    We live in a world we did not make, and that we probably cannot fix. It is going to kill us, one way or another. But unless we’re held captive and being tortured, we don’t have to do stress. Sure, being economically dependent, whether on a family, or on some form of wage-slavery, is a form of captivity and torture, but there is some leeway in such situations for avoiding stress.

    You can’t run away from what’s in your head because wherever you go, it is still right there with you. You can relieve yourself by trying to focus on other people’s (often more serious) problems, but your own problems remain. Meditation, or distractions of any sort are also temporary solutions.

    Have a mantra, Alex.

    It was freely given to me, and I pass it along to you the same way.

    Repeat after me:

    “I don’t do stress.”

    Now say it again.

    And again.

    And again and again until you find that you rarely need it any more because you’ve lost the stress habit and have developed the new habit of not doing stress.

    That doesn’t mean you have to be mindless and callous like politicians and oligarchs. Most of them are on medication or self-medicate too. I means that you find less stressful ways of living. If I’m typing, which I often am, the more stress I feel, the more strain on my muscles, the more typos I make. If I force myself to keep going, it only gets worse. If I get up, stretch, do something I enjoy for a few minutes, and then come back to the keyboard, it makes a big difference. The earlier you spot the stress cycle and interrupt it, the easier it becomes.

    Stress is unavoidable. But our habitual reactions to it are not. And it’s crucial–either we kill stress or it kills us.

    Maybe that’s part of what Gurdjieff meant when he spoke of being in the world, but not of it. The stress is part of the world we live in and will always be with us, but we don’t have to allow it to be part of our essence. It doesn’t mean we have to be unrealistically positive or unfeeling. It just means that if we wish to keep opening doors, it helps to remember to put a little oil on the hinges.

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