Friday, July 16, 2010

Mel Gibson: Asshole, Not Bipolar

I don't have a TV in the new place I moved into two months ago and I don't intend to change that. Drama and voyeurism I can do without, particularly the interminably ridiculous Mel-Oksana melodrama that is diverting our attention from things that really matter, such as Lindsay Lohan (did I just say that?). But - alas! - people are linking Mel's tirades to bipolar, and here I have to step in. A few points:

People say crazy things when their relationships head south.

This is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Heaven help if my life were on tape - or yours. Yes, Mel said things you or I would never dream of saying, but we also know - deep inside - that there is not much that separates us. Philosophers have been debating this stuff since the first practical application of vocal chords, and Shakespeare's entire body of work is based on that fine dividing line between the God inside us and the beast inside us.

"What piece of work is man ... "

Bipolar is the crazy diagnosis, not the asshole diagnosis.


I have bipolar, which makes me prone to doing crazy things if I am not careful, and sometimes even if I am. But I'm not an asshole. Big distinction. I sometimes find I have to correct people who get the two confused. They see someone acting inappropriately and next thing I'm hearing the B-word used to explain that person's behavior.

No, that's not bipolar, I cut in.

Then what is it? they ask.

That's being an asshole, I reply.

There exists a whole range of personality disorders that can singularly or collectively be defined as "the asshole diagnosis." In the past, I have received angry comments along these lines: "As an asshole, I take great umbrage to what you say." So let me set the record straight:

We all have personality issues in abundance. The world around us is a very scary place to negotiate, particularly when we lose our sense of control. We typically compensate by distorting reality and assigning fictitious traits to others. The eastern mystics put it best when they say that life is an illusion fabricated out of our thoughts. Inevitably, things go wrong. Some of us are more skillful at avoiding life's many pitfalls than others. Others are not.

It's not easy being an asshole. It's also not easy being around one.

Crazy is not related to personality.

Just about every diagnosis in the DSM notes that the behavior in question is "uncharacteristic of the person when not symptomatic." If you are a humanitarian, then, bipolar is not going to turn you into an anti-semite. If you are a closet anti-semite, however, bipolar may expose you as a raging anti-semite. Something like this happened to Mel Gibson three or four years ago. Who knows what was going on in his head. Bipolar may or may not have triggered the outburst, but his loathsome bigotry was of his choosing. 

But crazy and asshole do overlap.

There is no doubt that bipolar both complicates and amplifies the situations in our lives. Anger is often a justifiable reaction to our sense of outrage, but those of us with bipolar are skating on thin ice. We get triggered too quickly. Our vulnerable brains overload, and next thing we lose it. And once we get going, it's very hard to stop. Our racing thoughts take over. 

Maybe something like this happened to Mel Gibson. Or maybe he's just being an asshole. When you're on the receiving end, you shouldn't have to make the distinction. I frequently have to remind those with bipolar that when it comes to relationships, "the bipolar excuse" simply doesn't cut it. The best we can expect are certain accommodations.

It works both ways.

Those of us with bipolar are extremely sensitive to negative situations in our lives, whether from the depressive end or the manic end or those hellish mixed states in between. Our built-in amplifier has a way of turning a barely tolerable situation into one equating to being trapped inside a burning building.

Two weeks ago, I had no choice but to end a personal friendship. She was the "normal" one, but she exploded on me. It was a very painful choice, but one essential to my well-being. I may be "crazy," but I don't need crazy in my life. The world is crazy enough as it is.

Also see Therese Borchard's take on the matter at BeyondBlue.

13 comments:

Willa Goodfellow said...

My church disability process explains that it is less restrictive than SSDI -- "You don't have to prove that you cannot stuff envelopes in a seated position for two hours a day in a sheltered workshop." On the other hand, not just any psychiatric diagnosis qualifies, even if it makes you unemployable in the church. For example, "can't get along with people" does not qualify one for a disability pension. (Though it sometimes is good for a big severance package!) The caveat is clearly aimed at certain manifestations of personality disorders, what I call "the asshole exclusion." I do indeed know some formerly employed clergy who fall into this category. And they often receive generous severance packages.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. Let me run this one past you:

I think most of us are pretty tolerant regarding other people's views on faith and spirituality. But there is a strong risk of that changing once a person becomes invested in a particular viewpoint - such as being ordained in any faith.

If that person is not careful, suddenly he or she is imposing their narrow doctrinal views on others. And heaven help the poor slob who disagrees - oops! that's the point, heaven WON'T help them - they've been cast out, they won't be saved, they're not The Chosen, on and on ...

And heaven help tolerant and liberal clergy, who are nothing but backsliders in league with the devil.

Tell me if I'm wrong here. It looks like we have a situation where organized religion encourages asshole behavior. They're right, everyone else is wrong. We have a whole history of wars and inquisitions and outrageous institutional behavior to prove it.

In any facet of life putting a person in charge brings out the asshole in them. But organized religion adds a whole new dimension.

You may think a cop is an asshole for giving you a speeding ticket, but you know you were speeding.

But when a man or woman tells you that you are not in God's grace based on some interpretation of something Paul may have written to Timothy?

We're talking serious asshole, here. And I don't see how you can just be an asshole on religious matters and be a nice person on everything else.

I'm wondering: Does organized religion turn nice people into assholes? Or does organized religion attract assholes? A bit of both?

I know that organized religion also attracts many of the most compassionate and thoughtful people on earth, but I have no doubt that the assholes are way too successful in driving these people out.

Over to you ...

Willa Goodfellow said...

Next,

If you get to know people who belong to fundamentalist churches, most are not assholes. Their public voice is of the asshole variety. But they are not, especially not in the personality order or other revisionist diagnostic category. – And I am all for the addition of the “Asshole Personality Disorder” category. My clergy friends remember a long discourse I once gave on making a differential diagnosis between “jerk” and “asshole.”

If I were to apply a sweepingly generalized slur of personality diagnosis, it would be Dependent Personality Disorder. In my experience, Asshole overlaps better with Narcissistic.

But the milder, gentler, more accurate description would be simply that this version of Christianity attracts people who need structure and stability in a time when the world offers little of it. There was the basic insecurity of the world begun in the 20th century: world wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, the end of the industrial era, to be replaced (and unemployed) by the information era, and the consequent overturning of social structures. The 21st century brings us terrorism and environmental disaster. We are all seasick from all this paradigm shifting and can use something to hang onto.

Some not necessarily Christian people (or maybe Christian but falling far short) take advantage of this basic second chakra need. They make the price tag of a bit of security the support of their own self-serving agendas. Follow the money. Follow the money. That’s where you find the assholes. But as a lesbian who gets to know Baptists and share conversations about Jesus, I find that the little guys really are not assholes.

The thing about Christianity, it carries within it its own critique. Both outsiders and insiders can compare our behavior to the teachings of Jesus, and find us wanting. On that basis, outsiders can dismiss us; insiders can reform. John Newman (author of Amazing Grace) first had a religious experience and became a Christian, later realized that meant he would have to give up the slave trade, later realized that meant he would have to become an abolitionist. “What Would Jesus Do?’ is a powerful question, and keeps moving us out of our service to self.

Do other forms of security reform their adherents? Sports fans? Overeaters? Shoppers?

A much shorter answer to your questions: No, organized religion does not turn nice people into assholes. It organizes them, sometimes with less than Christian results. But it offers the opportunity and inspiration and spiritual power to do better. And no, organized religion does not attract assholes. Power attracts assholes, wherever that power is found.

You asked.

Willa Goodfellow said...

Next,

If you get to know people who belong to fundamentalist churches, most are not assholes. Their public voice is of the asshole variety. But they are not, especially not in the personality order or other revisionist diagnostic category. – And I am all for the addition of the “Asshole Personality Disorder” category. My clergy friends remember a long discourse I once gave on making a differential diagnosis between “jerk” and “asshole.”

If I were to apply a sweepingly generalized slur of personality diagnosis, it would be Dependent Personality Disorder. In my experience, Asshole overlaps better with Narcissistic.

But the milder, gentler, more accurate description would be simply that this version of Christianity attracts people who need structure and stability in a time when the world offers little of it. There was the basic insecurity of the world begun in the 20th century: world wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, the end of the industrial era, to be replaced (and unemployed) by the information era, and the consequent overturning of social structures. The 21st century brings us terrorism and environmental disaster. We are all seasick from all this paradigm shifting and can use something to hang onto.

Some not necessarily Christian people (or maybe Christian but falling far short) take advantage of this basic second chakra need. They make the price tag of a bit of security the support of their own self-serving agendas. Follow the money. Follow the money. That’s where you find the assholes. But as a lesbian who gets to know Baptists and share conversations about Jesus, I find that the little guys really are not assholes.

Wrap up coming…

Willa Goodfellow said...

To conclude:

The thing about Christianity, it carries within it its own critique. Both outsiders and insiders can compare our behavior to the teachings of Jesus, and find us wanting. On that basis, outsiders can dismiss us; insiders can reform. John Newman (author of Amazing Grace) first had a religious experience and became a Christian, later realized that meant he would have to give up the slave trade, later realized that meant he would have to become an abolitionist. “What Would Jesus Do?’ is a powerful question, and keeps moving us out of our service to self.

Do other forms of security reform their adherents? Sports fans? Overeaters? Shoppers?

A much shorter answer to your questions: No, organized religion does not turn nice people into assholes. It organizes them, sometimes with less than Christian results. But it offers the opportunity and inspiration and spiritual power to do better. And no, organized religion does not attract assholes. Power attracts assholes, wherever that power is found.

You asked!

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. It looks like the first part of your comment got lost. Here it is:

Wow. Thanks, John.

Okay, you know you have set me up and I have to say:

First, Christians invented hospitals and built the first ones around the world, including pretty much all of the United States.

Conservative Christians (I am not one) give more. More money, more time, more blood. And not just to their churches. Liberal Christians (if I have to choose between the two, that’s the one I am, but of a pietistic, evangelical bent) follow in a close second. The only arena in which religious people do NOT give more is big buildings with their names on them. Those are given by rich people who are not religious. These finding were discovered and checked and rechecked by a secular humanist sociologist who set out to prove the opposite.

Second, and not so well known, outside of isolated times and locales, the asshole form of Christianity is a relatively recent phenomenon. The so-called fundamentalist (more focused on incidentals) and literal interpretation of the Bible is a distinct minority voice in the history of biblical interpretation.

I know, that statement sounds preposterous. These people have come to be the public voice of Christianity, because a few decades ago the television network people stopped giving away airtime to religious organizations and started charging. Liberals weren’t motivated to pay, assuming their slippage in membership, begun in 1963, was a temporary generational glitch. Fundamentalists saw their opportunity and jumped into the breach.

If you shout loud enough, you sound like the majority.

To be continued…

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. I'm really glad I asked. Very informative answers. A lot of it corroborates the book I've been reading - The Case for God, namely:

The fundamentalist literalist strains of Christianity and Islam and Judaism is a relatively recent phenomenon, a reaction to the scientific and economic and political revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Prior to that, there was plenty of room for flexibly interpreting and re-interpreting scripture. Since published Bibles weren't widely available anyway, there was less emphasis on scripture and more on what can best be defined as organized meditations on God.

At any rate, people like Augustine acknowledged that scripture always needs to be reinterpreted in light of new scientific discovery, or words to that affect.

I'm up to the part of Armstrong's book following the 30 years war, where 35% of the population of central Europe was killed.

The situation then sounds very similar to the one you describe today.

More ...

mmaaggnnaa said...

Hey, John -

Very well said . . . I think grumpy people should not get to make the rules!

Same goes for assholes . . .

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

John McManamy said...

In the 1500s and 1600s, we suddenly had a host of new Christian faiths, aided and abetted by the printing press. (Equivalent to evangelicals and the TV medium.)

Ironically, in an age of liberalism and new ideas, the various religions took doctrinally extreme positions to separate themselves from other religious. Karen Armstrong contends that various scientists such as Galileo also took extreme positions.

There had always been a tension between religion and science, but they had reasonably co-existed. Now, in a very uncertain world, there was little room for accommodation. As you point out in reference to modern times, people are willing to trade freedom for security.

More ...

John McManamy said...

I have a number of very good relationships with people of faith. I have to stifle myself when they attack Darwin and say they're voting Republican.

I'm sure they find my world view incomprehensible, as well.

But yes, I take your points:

Christianity is a force for good. Historically, it has been in the forefront of just about every progressive social reform, and when enlightened science meets enlightened Christianity we have the best of all possible worlds.

And, like you say, it has an excellent self-correct mechanism. (What would Jesus do?)

Anyway, I was very glad I asked. Keep posting. :)

Laura said...

Thank you! Thank you! I cringe every time I hear the terms "bipolar" or "schizoprenic" in the news media or even in entertainment venues, because they are used as soundbite explanations with little depth or followup, or just basic research. Funny how rarely those terms appear with accomplishments and positive news, but are instantly jerked out for a-hole or criminal behaviors. I have a hard time reconciling this callousness to the bipolar behaviors I have witnessed, like excessive generosity or obsessive concern with water quality for local children.

Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness and letting me know I do not rage (as much as I am allowed to) alone!

(P.S. I am having trouble with the link for the newsletter... Any help?)

John Backman said...

I wish I had more insight to add to this discussion, but John and Willa have covered it extremely well. Thank you for a discussion of Christians, assholes, and belief systems that goes so far beyond what one usually sees in the blogosphere. (I'm with you, Willa: Christian, Episcopal, more on the "liberal" side but enthralled with the monastic/mystic side of the faith.)

John McManamy said...

Hey, John. Thanks for your comment. It gave me a chance to re-read this discussion from more than a year ago. A good way to start the day. :)