An angel pushed me down the stairs
One of our members is on the edge of crazy. I cant discuss the
details, because it is too personal and too private right now. But
madness in community is a rich topic and I want to explore how my
unusual home deals with odd and sometime problematic behaviors of our
We are not a therapeutic community. And yet we have significant
therapeutic affect on some fairly strange people who live here. We
have a fair few people who talk and sing to themselves, others are
sociophobic and work mostly at hours when no one else is awake. We
integrate them fairly effortlessly. We relatively gracefully handle
the cook who breaks down crying dramatically in the dining hall when
it is at peak capacity. We have members with anger issues,
depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, neurosis and a
host of other issues. And we deal, adapt, comfort, embrace, enable,
disable and distance ourselves. It is not like we are collectively
immune to the effects of mental health struggles, but for a whole big
range of odd we are more accepting and tolerant than the mainstream.
A dear friend of mine with multiple personality syndrome spoke
recently about his work with past domestic terrorist organization and
how he identifies as a dog. Members take this in stride.
What we worry about institutionally is how we deal with someone who is
functioning outside our comfort zone. The challenging work is trying
to figure out how those zones are defined and how (or if) we can
One quick way to fall out of our comfort zone is not taking
responsibility for your part of the problem and instead blaming others
for things which go wrong. This will crash relationships and
ultimately your standing with the community. You can also erode your
connection to the community by blowing off your work shifts and
especially kitchen cleaning shifts [basically the only mandatory work
in the community is cleaning dishes once every week to 10 days, you
will assigned a “K shift” by the labor assigner – unless you have a
medical or other exemption from it.] If you can work demonstrably
less than quota and lie on your labor sheets, or not lie on them and
this will build resentment towards you.
So how do we do a good job of handling a mental health break down?
When we are on top of it, we pull people off their K shifts and other
obligations, we build up care teams around them and we send in the
folks from our mental health team. Why it is certainly not required,
many members who serve on the mental health team have first hand
experience with these struggles. Empathetic compassion turns out to
be a highly desirable characteristic of a mental health crisis
adviser and care giver.
Being on a crazy (or just struggling) persons care team is often an
challenging question for me. If it is someone I am emotionally
attached to, I almost always join up, and often play a coordinating
role in the function of the care team. But if the person struggling
is someone I know but we are not close, I often think of joining. I
feel like these are services we should be providing collectively, we
have the resources to do it and taking care of our own who are
struggling is one of the important things which sets us apart from
mainstream culture. My experience with people who are struggling in
the mainstream is they often are committed to mental institutions,
even temporarily, because there is no one (or not enough people) who
can get off work to support them.
I remember distinctly the mental health team asked me to advocate for
a member who had hidden a pet cat in their room (in violation of our
agreements) and was in a sexual identity crisis. I remember before I
was asked, I felt like it would probably be best for the community if
this person moved on. But when I was asked in, my perspective had to
shift. Like the public defender who represents people who have
committed the crimes they are accused and then gets them off via a
technicality, I was quite confident that if I did what I was being
asked to do, this problematic member would quite likely be able to
stay in the community. Which was exactly what my “client” was asking
me to do as their advocate. They mostly followed my advice, accepted
my edits to their public statements, dragged out the evaluation
process as long as possible as I suggested. And this person lives
here today. They are much healthier and they contribute quite a bit to
the community and they are still exploring their complex sexual
identity. This is from inside a place of having convinced us that
they can fit, their initial manias and uncooperative behaviors are
passed and while they are still quite unusual in their manner, they
are fully accepted and viewed as responsible communards.
For me the acid test is that if we can see that someone is likely not
going to be able to stay here because their needs for care are beyond
our capacity, that we dont simply give up on them. That we deal with
them compassionately, and make the efforts to permit them to stay, if
there is anyway we can figure that out. And one of the things which
plays into our ability to deliver on compassion and acceptance, is how
long the member has been here and what their work ethic is. When
someone who has been here for a long time and has supported the
community a lot falls into a mental health break down, we will go far
to land them safely and back here. For newer members, we can show
less compassion and flexibility.
And of course there are many stories from these incidents. One member
was being criticized for taking to many sick hours and just as they
were getting better, they feel down a set of stairs, hurt their leg
and were unable to work again. When interviewed about the accident
they said “An angel pushed me down the stairs,” Which was the
beginning of their unraveling with us.
And as good as I think we are, we still have along way to go and make
many mistakes. We have had members kill themselves, while in crisis
and in our care. This is devastating to the community. Alternatively, if we have someone commit suicide without us being aware that they were in trouble (as Allen did) then the community pulls together in a powerful and important way.
[This post has been edited in response to some correcting comments which appear below. Because of these deletions, this comment below no longer refer to this post.]
Tags: ill behaved angels, madness, mental-health, multiple personality syndrome
About paxusa funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.
9 responses to “An angel pushed me down the stairs”
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Paxus, two important points I want to highlight from your post: The first is that people go in and out of crazy, which the mainstream medical model–that puts people on life-long medication–fails to note.
The second is that dealing with craziness requires a huge amount of energy. Too much crazy can drag down the psychic well-being of a community, cause people to leave and, of course, can prompt additional psychological breakdowns.
As someone who dealt with my own mental health challenges at TO I think we generally do a good job, but I do feel like there is a cmty message of “pharmaceuticals are bad, try everything else before going to the terrible western medical prescription route” that discouraged me from seeking that type of help. And I feel sad about that, because my life became exponentially better when I finally basically broke down and sought medical help and started on Zoloft. While non-drug solutions work for a lot of people they didn’t for me, and I wish there was less stigma at TO around taking meds. Ah well, onward and upward.
I am struck by your compassion in this post. When I see people being allowed to work way under quota because of mental health problems, I feel resentful. I think this is because A) I have felt like I was having mental breakdowns and continued to work over quota and B) I think working will ultimately be healthier for the person than stewing in their own thoughts in their room. I guess I also stubbornly believe that since 42 hours of work is the most concrete requirement of living at Twin Oaks, it seems selfish not to do this, especially since there’s work you can do in your room if you really feel like you can’t leave your room. You could watch movies and peal garlic, for instance.
Having said that, I missed at least two work shifts during my membership where I called up the honcho and said, “I’ve been crying in my room all day, and I would really prefer not to be on this shift.” And each time this happened, the honcho seemed understanding and said that it was fine that I didn’t come. Perhaps I can take a lesson from these people. Thank you for identifying something I need to work on in my ability to empathize with others.
An attempted clarification:
”We have had a member simply stop working and just watch videos in their room all day.”
In actuality I was journaling at least 80% of the time. I’m really not sure how anyone would know what I was doing in my room, but your information is incorrect.
”They said they were listening to voices in their head, which they felt were some deity.”
Listening to my “head” was what I STOPPED doing. Listening to my Heart was what I BEGAN doing. For someone who had been controlled for a very long time by what I and everyone else THOUGHT I should be doing, this was a very necessary process. The Journaling was very helpful in sorting out this difference.
”In the feedback we had for this person, one member said “When you hear voices in your head, and you are trying to decide if it is god talking to you or you are crazy, you are probably crazy.”
I don’t specifically remember this comment, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t said. I do remember realizing after trying to respond to some of the feedback, that I may as well stop talking. My actions were going to be interpreted by each according to his/her life experiences and belief system. For instance, “What exactly does God mean?” I was certainly not listening to “God” in the sense that this “deity” was proclaiming what I should and shouldn’t do. I was not receiving instructions in my “head” or “voices” as you have described. I was calming my mind, its “shoulds”, and listening to my Heart speak. I attempted to articulate this in my Feedback opening statement.
Coming to Twin Oaks was a very valuable experience for me. It was a huge step, and it followed my first huge step of resigning from a position in the Mental Health System, a field I was becoming more and more disillusioned with by the day. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but it was. For the first time in life I was listening to my Heart more than my head. I began a process of removing the “shoulds.”
I certainly understood and still do, the effect my actions had on the community. They were very similar to my family and friends’ reactions to my resigning from a job with no back-up plan and then 8 months later joining Twin Oaks. I recognized that I was letting people down and not following the rules when I stopped working at Twin Oaks, just as I knew I wasn’t following rules and expectations when I resigned from my job. And I knew that I was going to have to very strong in enduring the disdain that would surely follow. I tried to make as little impact on the community (financial and otherwise) as possible, by staying away from the dining hall and public places, eating as little as possible, and keeping my actions drama free. I understood that I was not contributing in the shared work so important to the community’s survival and I sincerely felt badly about that, although I knew that the community would certainly survive. I also understood that the community rightfully had to ask me to leave. I didn’t know where to go.
I am sincerely grateful to the members of Twin Oaks for allowing me to live and share in the community. I took away from it invaluable experiences culturally, socially, and personally.
For my own sake, I felt the need for attempted clarification. Now, as then, I can only try to articulate my experience, and have no control over its interpretation.
As far as the main message in your blog, yes, I believe Twin Oaks has a broader tolerance than main stream society for “quirkiness.” Having worked on the Mental Health Team, it seemed to me that there was a great deal of inner pain that was only a problem so far as it impacted the community. Of course that is also true of mainstream culture and hardly unique to Twin Oaks. As you stated Pax, there are many services available, both on and off the farm.
As you know, there is still an incredible amount of stigma related to poor mental health/life adjustment. This stigma is reinforced by words such as “crazy”, “wacked”, “loony”, etc. People use them without thinking, their being so ingrained in our collective vocabulary. Just something to think about.
Thanks for your comment. i have edited the post so that it no longer contains the incorrect version of your story. i am happy you took the effort to set the record straight.
Paxus at Twin Oaks
19 Assad falling 2012
This is such a beautiful and eloquent reply. I hope you are well, and I’m glad our paths crossed at TO.
I have what may (or may not) be an interesting ‘take’ on mental illness. I have some fairly minor issues, although they occasionally present themselves in rather large ways in my personal life, but after my lifetime of dealing with other people, I am of the opinion that everyone is ‘mentally ill’ in some respect or other… it’s just a matter of degree. I think this is essentially unavoidable inside of a society that is, itself, mentally ill.
There are people who have managed to mostly overcome this, depending on their personal life experiences, support systems, feeling of security and encouragement from those who have loved them in their lives. Alternatively, there are those who have had the BEST of circumstances, only to discover that they have a chemical issue in their body which affects their brain and causes them to act in unacceptable (and more importantly, self destructive) ways.
Mental illness has always fascinated me to the point where I have been drawn to it in self destructive ways in my past, but I have come to the point where I am able to acknowledge that and be wary of this tendency. I’m ‘on alert’ for it, so to speak. While I still allow myself to work through this process, because I believe there is a lot of personal healing involved, as well as the benefit of helping to heal others along the way, I am learning to set personal boundaries to help prevent the issues of others to negatively impact my own life too strongly (I hope). 😉
Here’s to each of our continued mental and spiritual growth. May we never stagnate.