EARLY MORNING GIRAFFES, AND A WELL-MEANING NEIGHBOR

I love taking walks, as I’ve mentioned before, and usually find some bit of magic in them. There was the time, as a dramatic example, a bald eagle swooped low over me on South Street—South Street!—as if to bring me the courage and invigorating sense of benediction I then needed.

The two small giraffes I saw ahead of me at 6AM today, on the steep grade I was climbing, were not magical, however, but merely a trick of light, perspective, and my eyes, still full of sleep. They were greyhounds, just nosing about, as I saw when I got closer. (They possessed their own mystique, of course.)

My thoughts were occupied by a well-meaning neighbor, who planted many of the shade trees on my street, and who cleared all our parking spaces with his snow-blower these last two colossal winters. I rarely see him, so when our paths crossed recently and he asked how I was doing, I mentioned I’d graduated. Graduated from what? “Social work, for counseling,” I said.

“So you wanna work with the crazies, huh? That’s burnout work right there.”

“Well,” I said, “it probably helps that I don’t see them that way.”*

I’m frankly baffled as to why / how such stigma continues to exist. I know this isn’t an original thought, nor even the first time I’ve made the comparison, but is it really that different from the old confusion of epilepsy with demonic possession?

There is no person of such sound physique or character that he wouldn’t be affected if dosed past his own personal threshold for drugs. There is no one who wouldn’t fall into a stupor; or panic; or see, hear, and feel things, based on whatever chemicals were circulating in her brain and blood.

Even when we are healthy, we feel good and clear and sane because our own personal pharmacies are generating the right balance of chemicals. For many people, that balance gets thrown.

Mental health, like all health, exists on a continuum, or something akin to one. If that scares people because it seems too fragile, I think it ought to give them hope for the good that can be done. I could write about this at length but will have to take a piecemeal approach, given the limits of time and my ability to organize my thoughts and research. My approach, in brief, is holistic.

One important point to make is this: genomes can be mapped, and consequently we’ll see more attempts at targeted medications; but what about epigenetics? A person whose liver has been compromised from birth by a toxic water supply, for example, will likely be more vulnerable to all sorts of things (and possibly less responsive to treatment) than those raised on clean spring water or reverse-osmosis carbon filtration. We’d all do well to a) value our health from the inside-out, and b) demonstrate humility and compassion. Mental health professionals included!

I was thinking of these things as three police vehicles passed me, turning into their parking lot up the way. It so happens that the neighbor in question is a retired police officer, and I’m sure he saw many things in his time on the force to darken his view of humanity. I myself feel pretty grim about it anytime I find myself near a television, which thankfully is fairly rare. The work of law enforcement is psychologically stressful and legitimately dangerous, however small the town, however easy the precinct, and I mention my neighbor’s profession not to incite antagonism against cops, but to encourage the use of mental health sensitivity training among all first responders, so that dignity can be preserved and lives can be saved.

As I write these last words, inside a small office next to a rest home, an old man with dementia is out making the rounds of the parking lot, checking all the license plates. I’m told this was once his job somewhere, and that he’s allowed to continue it here because it settles him. The people in charge even give him a fluorescent vest to wear. I have to smile as he limps along—he looks so purposeful. He’s doing his work.

* For the record, I have never personally worked with those known as the severely mentally ill; but my sense of the ethics of care holds for them as for the kids, inmates, and addicts with whom I’ve interacted.

4 thoughts on “EARLY MORNING GIRAFFES, AND A WELL-MEANING NEIGHBOR

  1. I can picture the old man in a fluorescent vest checking the number plates. And I smile too. I wish more nursing staff were as liberal minded and thoughtful as those at that rest home. If I ever get to the stage of requiring supervision, that’s that kind I place I want to be at.

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    • I honestly don’t know that there’s anything especially commendable about the place overall; somehow he may have lucked into some special treatment. In any case, I agree. Mid-August greetings, Barry, and thank you for reading.

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  2. Your writing is so nuanced, graceful, compassionate… unusually articulate and clear. I admire what you are contributing to the conversation about what “health” is and how we might care for ourselves and others. You combine scientific knowledge, philosophy, and ethics in ways that inform AND enlighten. Thank you, Elizabeth!

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