(The following fictional vignette explores some aspects of “mental diversity,” a term I coined while helping a friend start up a non-profit dedicated to a more holistic approach to mental illness. For some expository discussion related to it, see, e.g., Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, The Variable Malleability of Reality and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change. For related fictional narratives, see The Wizards’ Eye and “Flesh Around A Whim”.)
My parents began to worry when I first started speaking. Initially, everyone thought it was cute, the way I spoke only in verbs and adjectives and adverbs and prepositions and conjunctions. But when I turned three and still hadn’t uttered a noun, the visits to doctors began, specialists of all kinds poring over me to find and fix whatever was broken.
I didn’t perceive them as others do, of course. I didn’t perceive them as distinct things, but rather as swirls in the stream, thoughts and beliefs and routines and even the physical stuff through which they flowed itself flowing, coming into this eddy or that and out again to enter another. I couldn’t express all of this, of course, at least not in words. I could only see it and feel it and know that it not only was real but was more real than what others perceived. And that’s why they were so intent on curing me!
Many of the experts I was sent to at first believed that I was suffering from developmental retardation, because I had not developed any sense of “self” and “other,” or any ability to identify discrete objects or people around me. All I saw were colored streams and rivulets flowing in unbelievably complex patterns and sub-patterns, similar yet different, across endless scales and creating endless ephemeral forms.
I sensed that these patterns could be tweaked and altered by acts of will, by undulating frequencies of vibrations launched into them, by complex sequences of movements in response to combinations of localized and dispersed messages flickering across chains of internal and external pathways, the whole reconfiguring around every new variation injected into it, and every new variation emanating from the coherence of the whole. I wanted to reach out and pluck the polychromatic threads dancing around me, but to do so required my will in interaction with the will of others and the will of nature itself; I could not do it alone.
But I could see that a single will, channeled through the right vibrations and mobilized by the right cascades of signals within and without, could affect other wills, could mobilize them in desired ways, or cause unintended and undesired reactions; and that, by doing so, this moving tapestry surrounding and permeating me could be altered in varying ways and to varying degrees, requiring varying amounts and kinds of force, using varying types of tools (themselves the product of previous pluckings of these threads); changing the trajectories of these interwoven threads and the patterns they formed, altering history on scales large and small, sometimes rippling outward in cascades of accelerating change, sometimes petering out as a small detour into oblivion.
I learned to write but initially used little punctuation, and when I did only commas, semi-colons and question marks. Obviously, since then, I’ve learned to conform to accepted modalities, using nouns in both speech and writing, using periods and exclamation points. I even have come to appreciate their convenience, enabling me to say little inadequately in abbreviated and easily digested form, rather than anything truly meaningful which requires at least a lifetime to utter.
For instance, it’s so much easier to say “people,” one word for all occasions, than ”interconnected by talking and writing and mimicking and imagining,” or “passionately striving, exploiting, and manipulating” or “fearful and hopeful and feeling and yearning,” along with all of the other various ways to express that moment of energy, that swathe of the cosmic dance as it manifests in various contexts and circumstances.
I’ve always understood why people become angry with me when I try to speak their language (they just are uncomfortable and walk a wide arc around me when I speak my own): I offend them by saying something rather than nothing, opening the mind to the torrent of reality rather than helping to stack the verbal sandbags against it. I’ve always understood but lamented it, because that torrent liberates rather than harms. Fortifying against it is the construction of one’s own prison from within, and yet that is exactly what we generally use our words to do.
Though the world and I danced in ways that sustained me on multiple dimensions, that fed my physical and spiritual whirlpools, I could not tweak the fabric of reality alone, at least not as substantially, and certainly not enough to truly thrive. Very few can; none, if by “alone” we mean not just without human cooperation, but also without nature’s cooperation. And I could not control the torrents of human emotions and their physical expressions that swirled around me in response to my strangeness, that swept me up and whisked me away. So, without others accepting what I had to offer, and offering what they had in return, my insights meant nothing, and my survival was always tenuous.
My teachers, for instance, were beside themselves (or, as I saw it, made more turbulent by my presence). I was quickly diagnosed as ADHD, psychotic, and just plain nuts, put on an “individualized education plan,” and assigned a special education teacher who slowed things down so I could keep up. Unfortunately, that just made it even harder for them to keep up with me.
Soon, certain kinds of swirls (tight, contained, buffered) were causing things to be introduced into the swirls that comprised me, things that were supposed to make me vibrate and flow in more manageable ways, to help me “focus” and then sleep, to “stabilize my mood,” and, I suspect, to just make me as much like everyone else as possible. In our society, people preach tolerance for others of different ancestry, religion, color of skin, and sexual orientation…, just as long as they, as individuals, don’t dare actually be different in any less superficial way.
What we as a society don’t tolerate, are unwilling to tolerate, is any actual variation of perception and understanding. That is a threat that must be squashed.
Now, I’ve been cured. I see the world as others do, speak and write as others do, am dulled and reduced even more than others are. The pills I must take keep me up at night, cause me all sorts of physical problems, have made it hard for me to think and function at all, though to the extent that I do, I do as others expect me to. Yes, now I’m cured….
I was an eddy in the stream, unique and beautiful, interesting and integral, but they’ve removed everything that distinguished me from the undifferentiated flow, everything that made me who and what I am. Now, I use nouns and periods, and say little in inoffensive ways. Now, I have been reduced to the blandness that others demand, in service to their convenience or their fears, and that impoverishes us all. That is the triumph of civilization, conquering me rather than flowing around and through me as I am, as I was, preserving the treasure of my individuality and, by doing so, enriching the mind and soul that we share.