punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Making a lifestyle out of being unwell

I had lunch on Tuesday night with an old friend from my high school days. He's actually the father of a friend of mine since elementary school. Let's call him Jack H.

When I was in 5th grade, I met a kid named Peter H, who was friends with a friend/neighbor of mine named John. Peter was a bright-faced, freckled, red-headed kid with a great sense of humor. He also liked sci-fi, and was one of my first sci-fi buddies. Peter was a grade below me, and so when I went to junior high, we sort of lost touch, but in high school, we occasionally met and hung out, but not very much. In fact, most of our contact was in cub scouts, then webelos.

On the day of my mother's suicide, Peter's dad Jack attempted to push through the police line that was formed outside my kitchen door. When the ambulance showed up, and then the police, all the neighbors were crowded around the house, and were so nosy, that more police were called to keep them at bay. I think at the peak, we had 3 cop cars along with an ambulance. During the day, I had to speak with the Sergeant on duty, who had an assistant deputy, along with a detective who was doing a lot of the questioning and note-taking. And in the background were the paramedics, and two other cops, looking around the house for clues or whatever. I think another 2-4 cops were the ones outside the house, shooing away people. jack was the only one who actually made it to the kitchen door, where I saw his face. "This guy claims to be here on your behalf," said one of the cops. "Do you know him?" I did, but I told him I didn't want to speak with anyone. Kate was already there, providing moral support.

Jack never let up, though. How he followed through was a blur, but when I lost my job, Jack gave me money and helped me buy a new suit. He also took me on a few scouting trips with his scout troupe a few times. Over the years, we still stay in touch, often in the form of dinners or some e-mail. We usually meet about 2-4 times a year, but recently, it was a lot less, and tonight, we discussed we should get back to meeting more often. He keeps me in touch with some of the friends we knew in McLean, as well as his son Peter.

Many years ago, his son married someone whom I assume he loves very much, but is... well, I keep thinking that Jack is very diplomatic when speaking about her. Peter's wife is someone who seems to be one of those cases where someone gets so depressed that they are incapacitated and can't hold a job. These people medicate themselves, but seem unable to function except as a person who is always in need, gets what they want, and uses their mental illness as a crutch and a shield. Recently, she has wanted to adopt a child (because of her meds, they can't have a biological child), but since she doesn't work, and Peter is trying to finish nursing school, Jack thinks this is not a good situation to raise a child, and I agree.

But my underlying wonder that has kept me awake is the never-ending controversy of where mental illness ends, and where laziness begins. Being someone who suffers from depression, but forges ahead anyway, I guess I am unfairly unsympathetic to the person who says, "I'm depressed, I can't work, and someone must take care of me." I feel bad for feeling this, because I don't know where the compassion for the mentally ill is defined in my mind. Like, I know that it is really cruel and awful to say, for instance, "Oh, get out of bed, lazyhead!" to someone bedridden in the last stages of cancer. But I also don't want to be that guy who says, "Oh, you feeling blue? Take a week off from work, you poor thing," to someone who should just go to work anyways, and make the best of it like everyone else.

Let's take one I hear about, CFS, or "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome." According to the CDC, a person will be classified as having CFS if he or she meets the following two criteria: first, unexplained fatigue that is not due to ongoing exertion, is not relieved by rest, and results in a substantial reduction in previous levels of activity. And next, if four or more of the following symptoms are concurrently present for six months or more: impaired memory or concentration, sore throat, tender cervical or auxiliary lymph nodes, muscle pain, multi-joint pain, new headaches, unrefreshed sleep, and post-exertional malaise. Now, I am not sure how they would screen some medical "post-exertional malaise" versus "just plain tired of working, want someone to take care of them." I am not saying CFS is not a medical issue; it seems the CFS is a kind of catch-all for where all the other known diseases and causes have been checked. It would seem to me that, as time went on, they would find some CFS patients were suffering from something real that hasn't been discovered yet, like an undetected virus that attacks iron in the bloodstream, but only when exposed to ultraviolet light and using aluminum cookware. Or whatever. But I always wonder how much is a real problem versus something psychosomatic.

I guess I have known too many divas and psychodramatic people who are latching onto the new semi-medical theories that they can shift blame on to draw attention away from their own bad decisions in life. But who am I to judge? And I guess Jack takes this approach, although, I might find it hard to believe that if CR had married someone similar, if I would be so understanding. In fact, I could very well see that I'd say, "CR, this fiancee of yours is a mopey, unemployed, depressed sad-sack who never finished college and is still living with her mom at age 26. She doesn't make eye contact when she speaks to people, has fits of hysteria, and all you have ever told me about her seems to be whatever latest medication she's having problems with. Marrying such a person will be a difficult road because she won't change, and your life will now consist of babysitting an adult who will give nothing in return but a few muttered phrases of thanks for understanding her. Is this the legacy you wish to end the family line with?" Don't get me wrong, I know there are some serious, 100% real medical and psychological issues out there. I read or hear stories of many of my friends who triumph in spite of such limitations. I have respect for people who have CFS, depression, ADHD, or whatever, but manage to get out of bed to go to work, research the problem and take notes, and always try the newest and latest ways to get better. They want to get better. But what if they don't ever do anything about it, and claim that their illness prevents them from doing anything about their illness?

I never know what to think.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000672.html
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