What’s So Dumb About Helping Yourself?
Three events converged to make me cry:
One, it's revealed that David Foster Wallace — one of the most gifted writers of our age — spent a great deal of time reading barely-competently-written vague hand-wavey dreck, because it was the only way he could learn about self-help techniques for his mental illness.
Two, I recommended one of my favorite books, a rare and meaningful work of modern spirituality, and I had to offer a ton of disclaimers first about how it looks like, and is sometimes put in the same section as, the "self help" books. I felt like I was telling my coworkers, "Look, there's this awesome and artistic movie, but you'll have to go into the porn store to get it." Except that overall I find the porn section less insulting to my intelligence than the self-help section.
And Three, I had to witness a genius friend of mine, someone with a self-acquired at least graduate-level knowledge of chemistry and psychology (and tons of other stuff), purchasing books that aren't as well-written as tenth-grade textbooks, and which advertise things on their covers like, "NO scary big words!" Why? Because Friend has an anxiety disorder, and I dare you to find a college-level book on the subject of treating your own anxiety.
It is, I realize now, a not-so-subtle form of discrimination against the mentally ill*: As a society, we assume (and commercially enforce) the idea that people with mental problems are "feebs", that they must be broken or stupid and need to be talked to like (and can be taken advantage of like) children, with InfomercialSpeak, bad grammar, imprecise metaphors, and repetition.
But there are two ways in which this is massively wrong:
- It takes a great deal of maturity, strength and intelligence to not only recognize your own mental miswirings, but to seek to repair them yourself. This is not like fixing your own car; by definition the work involves facing down your worst fears, making a commitment to monitoring your own thoughts and actions and being responsible for them. Know many stupid people that are up for that? Me neither.
- A very high percentage of the wildly intelligent people I know (and I'm fortunate to know many) struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders. I think this makes perfect sense for two reasons: One, high-performance equipment requires more precise tuning and care. Formula One racecars require more time in the shop than family minivans, duh; and similarly with minds. Secondly, more intelligent people notice more, and are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance and stress. Stupid people don't have nightmares about what Wal-Mart means for our children's future, for example; so naturally, more intelligent people are under more stress.
And speaking of intelligence, it doesn't take a PhD to see the truth in those two bullet-points, so I refuse to grant that the collective speaking-writing-and-publishing world doesn't know them. Rather, I strongly suspect that that world, in concert with the rest of our society, is judging the mentally ill by their presentation of the materials designed to help them help themselves. The rigorous information is kept in scholarly works which don't ever insinuate that the person reading them might need to apply their knowledge inside their own skull. (If you've ever read books intended for therapeutic professionals, which I have, you'll also know that the mainstream-accepted of those are so careful about keeping the line between Sufferer and Fixer solid that it's almost humorous — and also useless, because most of the techniques one would apply to others "as a doctor" aren't very useful when dealing with yourself. Ninety percent of the work of a therapist is getting people to recognize their own problem, to develop the courage and ability to face it and fix it. This idea that psychology is when someone with a perfect brain and a magic wrench descends from Heaven and fixes your inner mind is stupid, and whoever started it needs to be smacked. …I know some psychologists, if you can't tell. ;)
…and the information intended for use by the people who are sufferers almost** universally assumes that they're not intelligent, that they won't recognize or demand rigor, that what they need is fluffy Oprah-approved hand-waving and a nice pastel cover and nice easy seventh-grade reading levels.
Well fuck you, writers and publishers and advice-givers. You don't deserve to read the napkin-scribbles of most "sufferers" I know, and your high-horse "normalcy" is just a statistical indicator of your mid-grade intelligence. So there.
*there's a finer line that can/should be recognized here, even if it can't be precisely drawn, between anxiety/depression spectrum mental illnesses and deep psychoses. The line is definitely fuzzy, which is why I don't want to draw it (DFW wasn't psychotic per se, but it killed him; others who we would say are incurably schizoid or bipolar have gone on to master and manage their own illnesses), but obviously the mentally-ill to whom I'm referring in this post are those for whom self-help books are a reasonable and possible route of treatment. …Or would be, if they didn't suck.
**as usual, I include the "almost" in the interest of logical accuracy, since there's an exception to every rule…but for the record, if there's a self-help book for mental illness sufferers that assumes its readers are intelligent, well-read people, I've never found it.