What is madness? Who are the people that occupy the lunatic fringes of society—those we refer to as crazy, insane, nuts, addled, bonkers, unsound, disturbed, unbalanced, raving, demented, unstable, schizo, nutty, unhinged, loopy, batty, daft, or “non compos mentis”? What is the difference between someone who is euphemistically deemed “touched” or “eccentric” versus an individual who is labeled “deranged” or “psychotic”? What leads a person to forsake the sensible, orderly psychological realms we attempt to build for ourselves and embark on a journey into those disjointed mental hinterlands outsiders often find so intriguing and yet so terrifying?
Whether it is in legend or literature, on stage or on screen, in the sphere of the imagination or in the “real” world of daily life, human beings have always been fascinated by the thin line separating the rational self from the irrational. Some of literature’s most fascinating characters spend time venturing in and out of lunacy. Hamlet and King David feign madness for a while, whereas Ophelia, King Lear, King and Lady Macbeth, and Holden Caulfield all go wildly loony. What about all the suicidal artists who have opened up new and creative possibilities for the rest of us, such as Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemmingway? Would they have ventured into art’s uncharted waters without their demons driving them on? What separates the crazy cat lady living alone in her apartment with her brood of felines from the babbling alcoholic begging for change on the freeway off-ramps? What separates a prophet or a shaman from a cult leader or a maniac? How is the man who washes his hands until they are cracked and bleeding different from the kid who straps explosives onto his body and threatens to blow up a busload of school kids?
My own experience in dealing with the mentally unbalanced has come in two forms: family and work. My ex-wife’s brother, sisters, and niece are all certifiably nuts to one degree or another. Although she is not entirely crazy, her niece is the most neurotic person I’ve ever met. She is afraid of practically everything (i.e., bugs, the dark, reptiles, bridges, close spaces, various foods, someone reading her newspaper before she does, just to name a few). My ex’s brother and one of her sisters have both been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and their mother was so paranoid that she believed local drug lords were spying on her through her television screen. When my ex’s brother or sister go off their meds, they experience wild hallucinations. Her brother sees giant insects crawling up through the floor, and many of his visions come in the form of religious iconography. The Virgin Mary statue in his living room talks to him, and once when he was in the hospital recovering from a particularly bad episode of lunacy, he thought I was Jesus, and he would only take a bite of his lunch if I commanded him to eat. Her sister still sends long, rambling letters to my house (usually six or seven at a time) where she describes being followed around by “Edgar J. Hoover’s men” and agents from the KGB because she has secret knowledge these governments don’t want revealed to the world.
When I worked at a grocery store, we had some regular customers who were total wackos. One fellow was convinced that the Russians were seeding the clouds with radioactive chemicals. Therefore, he always wore a face mask, and he would only buy chicken that was raised and processed in Arizona. We even had to bring the box of chickens out to the counter to prove to him we were not switching the chicken he wanted with an out-of-state bird from a company like Foster Farms. In the classes I teach, I could point out at least a half dozen students who, given the right set of circumstances, would likely be up on the roof gunning down their teachers and classmates with a high powered rifle. (I try to stay on these students’ good sides.) Yet none of these kids pose an immediate threat, and even my wacky ex-in-laws are relatively harmless. Perhaps it all comes down to degree; that’s the way mental health experts deal with all the subtle nuances of human behavior, and if we are honest, it’s these odd-ball folks on the fringes who often make life so interesting.