Thoughts on the Charleston Terrorist from Someone with Mental Illness

I have been diagnosed many times with mental illness – bipolar, specifically. I’ve been hospitalized against my will six times, with three of those being in a two month period. I had a week long psychotic break at the end of 2012; an extremely intense, meaningful experience which is best described by saying I was dreaming while I was awake because I was too terrified to sleep.

I am also a successful software engineer who has worked at Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, as well as being an early employee at two startups – Uber and Twilio – that have gone on to be worth billions.  I have managed to overcome the mental illness i was diagnosed with, to the point where therapist i see regularly agrees with my assessment that “bipolar disorder” isn’t really a meaningful thing. It’s a label on behavior.

Speaking of labels, I haven’t heard the word ‘Terrorist’ used yet to describe this guy in Charleston. Maybe because he’s white, or not muslim, but to me, that’s what he is. He’s a terrorist. Why didn’t the NSA stop him? I’m sure they’ve got records of his calls and texts and stuff, but they probably weren’t looking too deeply because, hey, white skin, not Muslim.

have heard the word ‘mental illness’ used to describe this guy, maybe because he’s white, or not Muslim – and to me, that’s also what he’s dealing with.  He doesn’t look like someone with a lot of friends, or a sense of confidence, or a sense of self worth, or the ability to empathize with people around him.  Do I feel bad for him? Yes, but that’s because he’s a person, and I tend to feel bad for people as a general rule.

Please note that i’m not saying what he did wasn’t wrong – but if we go down that road, you’ll need to abandon about 10,000 years of cultural thinking that is baked into your reality model before you can understand my perspective.  The ways I view the world are so different from the ways you probably do, because I had to deconstruct what my culture pushed on me and told me made sense – even though my culture was replete with racism, sexism, violence, homophobia, ageism, and other undiscovered forms of  ignorance. If you can parse the phrase “a partial ordering on the set of all transitions between the set of all configurations of energy possible under the laws of physics”,  then you might understand how i see things. Otherwise,  if you think i’m saying something about what right and wrong are, you’re wrong.  This article is about mental illness – which you almost certainly have, if you are an adult.

Think about it this way: lead paint wasn’t banned from gasoline until the 1970’s.  The average age of the US congress is 62 years old – meaning your average congressman spent about 15 years of their life – you know, the early part, when their brains were still developing – inhaling lead fumes on a daily basis. Lead paint is known to make people forgetful and violent.  In other words, our country is lead by people who all suffered permanent brain damage as children, but learned to dress up in suits, say “please” and “ma’am” and all the secret stuff you gotta know to put on a happy face and pretend you aren’t suffering serious damage from the fucked up things we humans have done to each other  – not to mention how we’ve treated the less sociable animals.

The purpose of a mental hospital is not to help you recover. It’s to get you to keep the crazy inside long enough to function in every day civil society.  The mental health professionals are not going to help you figure out what trauma has triggered your psychosis or depression or whatever. They are going to teach you to shut the fuck up about it, so you can get out of that horrible place, because if you don’t shut up, you’re going to be stuck in there indefinitely.

A person with mental illness, the way it’s defined now, is not someone who believes crazy things – its someone who acts in a way that upsets everyone else.  If this guy walked into the church, dropped his trousers, and started jerking off furiously while chanting the french national anthem, we could all agree what he did was the sign of someone with mental illness – because it’s disruptive and unpleasant to the people around him, it serves him no benefit, and anyone with a grain social acuity could have seen that.  If he did that, and it got him a bunch of money, we’d say he was a provocative artist – especially if he made eye contact with the camera, held his head up and his shoulders back, and made references to the avant garde.

Shooting a bunch of people  who are praying – well, that’s also disruptive and unpleasant  to the people around you, to put it mildly.  No sane person does that. “What about someone who was raised to hate members of group X” – well, if you believe something only because your parents told it to you, then you are also crazy. You are suffering from that.

Think about a dog in a cage that snarls at you. You are smart  enough to infer that the dog has been hurt. You are probably also compassionate enough to understand that the dog’s snarling doesn’t mean it deserves to suffer. Nobody deserves to suffer against their will, even those who’ve done horrible things.

If the dog were wearing a suit, and insulted your culture, you might think it deserved to suffer – unless you could hear those sounds as the mechanism by which suffering moves itself through the universe. From the anger in a reality model to the pressure of the finger on a trigger, moved and amplified by the firing pin connecting to the charge, ripping valence electrons off of phosphorous atoms and connecting to the oxygen, pushing that anger out, through the bullets and into the larger world, where we are left to deal with the anger which was compressed and compacted into a hateful, cold sneer. There we go again, i’m letting my crazy out. He has the ‘bad guy property’, that explains everything perfectly with no need for further investigation. That’s what i meant to say.

I felt the anger at the unfairness of the world welling up in me, and i tried to kill myself to take the anger out of the world, because I didn’t want it to hurt anyone else.  The only person injured as a result of my mental illness was me, i guess because i’m lucky enough to have enough love to see that nobody else deserves to suffer instead of me.

We say ‘sane people’ aren’t mentally ill because they fit in – not because they aren’t fucked up. They are fucked up. Every adult is. Any adult who says they aren’t fucked up, who says they haven’t suffered from something or seen something horrible happen – or just been burned by the pain of seeing fellow sentient beings trapped and confused and in suffering- well, they’re probably lying.  The world is a painful, unfair place that hurts people sometimes without good reasoning, and that’s a hard thing to admit to ourselves.

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