Fungal Politics

For mycophiles, it is a point of fact that small things matter, and that ‘smallness’ itself is very much a matter of perspective. The enormity of the largest organism in the world was  concealed by the limits of human vision and common-sense. In part, the forests of the world are a construction of organisms whose contribution has been largely invisible and unquantifiable.

There is a commonality between the tiny labor of the fungi’s and the position of the mass worker in capitalist society, in that the enormous aggregation of tasks performed in the course of our lives gives substance to a world of forms that seems somehow greater than the humble parts of the sum. So we have that in common: The things we do can’t be seen, and our contributions get put down to good fortune for the structures around us.

Perhaps I like them because of their humility. Mushrooms don’t brag – there’s no appearance of stability to them, like vascular plants, or extensivity, like animals. More often than not they are concealed, hiding behind or below, doing the important work of eating shit and death. 

For people who believe in social justice, there is an apt metaphor to be drawn from the work that mushrooms do: We should not forget that small things matter. That ephemerality of appearance is not an indication of absence. If there is a lesson to be taken from the present period of post-Arab Spring, post-Occupy malaise, it is that we should not forget that small things matter. We live in a time when we begin to realize the enormity of the small things done by small creatures. Where network effects and nano-forces conspire to make huge changes, and where seemingly isolated events are connected through branching threads that travel underground.

Let us not forget the importance of the impulse- the flash of pain that precedes the massing of social forces. It is politically naive to credit the acts of single people for the outbreak of mass protest, but it is equally politically naive to ignore the network effects that connect to single acts, and that fact that the nodes of these networks are more accurately conceptualized as the branching threads of the mycelial network.

Paul Stamets, in a widely circulated TED talk, asserts that mushrooms will save the world. This is quite a responsibility to pin on an order of organisms that played no part in bringing us to the present ecological crisis, and somewhat mis-states the problem in that, in point of fact and in emphasis of the talk, it is not the world that needs saving. It is human beings. We need saving from ourselves. More specifically, we need saving from the society that we’ve created.

Despite the impulse of a bitter, reactionary environmentalism to banish human beings to ecological uselessness, and the incredible trauma inflicted upon the non-human world in the industrial period, I feel it would be a damn shame were the species, or the technological achievements of the species, to expire from the planet.

The gravity of the task that the mushroom undertakes in ecosystems parallels the importance of the social movements: To decompose those structures that have ceased functioning. To invade them, break them down, and make something useful of them. There is also the task of the symbiotic mycorrhizal species, which is to form relationships of mutual dependence and to fulfill them.

We are everywhere.

Anosognosia

I frequently experience thoughts of suicide. They are rarely actionable and they are rarely fantasies about actually ending my life- these seem to only emerge in my darkest moments. Instead, these they are little snippets of conversation that I imagine occurring between people I know in which they discuss my passing by my own hand. I think this stems from the embarrassment I feel at the state of my life, and a sense that this would be a thing that would put my feelings in the proper context for people, that it would be a full expression of the desperation I feel at the slow drag-along-the-ground that I am experiencing and that I fear will be interminable. 

In my most desperate periods of fear and agitation I have taken myself to the emergency room, towards what purpose I no longer understand, but one must be very careful in these environments. Talk of suicide can get you institutionalized. Ideally, when you visit the emergency room you get a little bit of valium instead of a trip to an institution. 

And an institution is a place to be avoided. Statistically, one is much more likely to commit suicide after release from a mental institution. This is paradoxical at first glance, but makes more sense if one is familiar with the mental health system. A mental hospital is not a place of healing. It is simply a legal obligation on the part of the state to warehouse people with inconvenient or unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors- they don’t provide you with talk therapy, or healing touch, or meaningful assistance with the material problems of your life. While there are pretensions of providing trauma-informed care in most hospitals, it is often the care itself that is traumatizing. Therefor, I am very careful with my statements to the myriad of healthcare professionals with whom I interact in my thus-far futile efforts to turn back into a functional adult person. I don’t talk about these specters of suicidality, lest I end up hospitalized and emerge sicker and more medicated.

It is a strange experience visiting a psychiatric facility for work when I feel so off myself. Certainly, I am doing a bit better than the majority of people committed here, at least on the outside, but not two years ago I was in a partial hospitalization program at this very same facility . They slapped a number of new diagnoses on me related to substance use, drug-tested me and had me participate in a bunch of useless, insulting ‘life skills’ groups. I discharged myself from the program after they played Sweet Home Alabama in music therapy. I can take pointless breathing exercises and stress management worksheets, but I draw the line at singing along to segregationist anthems. I am lucky that I had the choice to discharge- many others do not. 

The patients on the top floor of the hospital are those that are considered the most ill. I don’t know if this is a spatial arrangement that holds true in other facilities. This is the only one I’ve ever been to, excluding the ones that I was committed to as an adolescent, and those are too far in my past to remember. All I really recall of those experiences is the sense of confinement and the fact that the ceilings were covered in pats of butter launched from spoons by bored patients.

Patients on this unit are not infrequently forensic cases, which means they have been committed in lieu of going to a correctional facility if they are found to have been insane at the time that they committed a criminal act. Everyone on the unit is involuntary, and while there are many people at the facility who are being held for emergency evaluations that typically last three days, this is not that type of involuntary. These are people that the state has decided they are going to apply to treat involuntarily, which generally means at least a three month stay. It is rare that I know the particulars of why someone is in the hospital, but occasionally a patient will tell me, will even show me their court paperwork. 

Very rarely, the person in charge of advocacy at the hospital will provide me with some insight into their case and I have generally perceived this to be in the service of biasing me against the patient in some way. There is only one occasion that I can recall in which this was not the case, and it was a passing comment in which she implied that she thought a particular patient did not belong on this top floor unit. Then she hedged and said something about the patient believing she had pinworms, which still doesn’t mean she’s a threat to herself or anyone else (other than being a potential vector for pinworms). 

This unit is the only place in the facility where the staff are friendly to me. I don’t know why this is, and I never asked for fear of changing the dynamic. The degree to which this is helpful in navigating the floor is profound- I can ask who is new, who is having a bad day, and who might want to talk. This is purely for my own convenience. I’ve been burned out on this job since I began- it has never been easy for me to walk up to a stranger who is legally confined and ask if I can help them while knowing that I definitively, absolutely can’t. My role is strictly window-dressing to make the system seem more humane. The things I most frequently do with patients are refer them to their lawyers, refer them to another advocacy organization, or help them fill out the hospital’s own complaint forms, which are frequently ignored (though this is ostensibly illegal) and when they’re not, are responded to with a great deal of victim-blaming and dissembling. The people who generally want to speak with me are too psychotic to realize that I’m useless to them. 

On this occasion though, every staff person I encountered pointed me towards the woman who the patient advocate had mentioned. They said she didn’t belong, that it was a mistake that she was in the hospital to begin with. This is a strong statement considering the sources. My colleagues don’t hold the floor staff in high regard, comparing them to cops and prison guards. I have a hard time lumping them all in like this- certainly some of them are brutal and some of them are dicks but on the whole they are just working class people, and the hospital is a stop along the way to somewhere else. With that being said, there are few of them that would question the logic of involuntary commitment and it is exceedingly rare that they question the premise under which someone is hospitalized.  

After being directed by several staff to intercede on behalf of this person I headed back to the low stimulation area, which is a misnomer. This is a segregated area of the floor where they put all the newly arrived patients and all the people who are loud enough that they’ll disrupt the flow of the unit. It’s a hell of a place to put someone fresh out of the emergency room. There was a young woman crying on one of the impossibly heavy, unthrowable chairs that they furnish the units with. Obviously this was her, the woman that didn’t belong on the unit. I introduced myself and she said what everyone says, which is that she didn’t belong there and that I needed to help her get out. She said that they were already discussing seeking an order to treat involuntarily- to my shame I scarcely understand the process of involuntary commitment, though I have tried at many junctures to get a grasp on how it works, however in my limited understanding, the wheels are already in motion from the moment you arrive in the hospital and they plan on keeping you past a three day observation. 

She’d arrived in the hospital after witnessing her fiance commit suicide with a handgun. She told me very little of this event, just the bare details- that the police had shown up at their house for reasons that weren’t clear to me and that he had walked outside and shot himself in the head. Understandably, her reaction to this trauma was some sort of meltdown, the specifics of which I do not know, and this had somehow landed her on the top floor of the hospital. 

She seemed distressed but lucid- she wanted to get back to her house, she was bereft that she had missed her partner’s funeral, and she was awakening to the fact that she was in a total and austere institution that was not interested in helping her but in holding her. She said she had a job at a nursery to get back to and a cat that might very well be starving to death in her absence. 

I offered to speak with her and her psychiatrist. This never helps, but sometimes it makes people feel like they’re being listened to. I asked her psychiatrist to meet with us and had to explain my role to him. Then he stated bluntly that it was his opinion that she was suffering from drug-induced psychosis. When she tried to ask clarifying questions he accused her of being hostile towards him and stated that he would leave if she interrupted him again. I asked him if he had considered the significant trauma she had experienced in his diagnosis. He told me he didn’t have any more time to talk to us and walked out of the room without excusing himself.  

I sat with the patient in silence for a moment, and then I said that I thought that her psychiatrist was very much an asshole. She agreed. Psychiatrists rotate through this unit every two months because the tiny, rural state this facility is in can’t retain them permanently. Some of them are decent (for psychiatrists), some of them are bad and some of them are worse. This man ranked among the worst. I expressed this to the employees in the low stimulation area and they agreed sincerely. 

On my way to the unit clerk to pick up complaint forms the woman’s social worker pulled me aside. This is always a bad thing. It means either that I am going to be asked to break someone’s confidentiality or that the social worker herself is going to break confidentiality. In this instance it was the latter. She wanted to tell me that though the patient presented well that she was a heroin user and that she was using other drugs- that she had been told by the woman’s sister that she used ecstasy, which according to the social worker was a type of speed that causes psychosis, and that her dead fiance was a well-known heroin dealer in the little town that they were from. I nodded my head through all of this nonsense. 

It was unclear to me what the social worker’s intent was. I doubt that she was unaware of my relative lack of power in the grand scheme of things, so concern that I would get the patient released was an unlikely motive. Sometimes treatment teams interpret advocacy efforts as harmful to the patient’s recovery, as if it somehow perpetuates delusions. Or perhaps she was embarrassed by this particular commitment and wanted to mitigate my judgement of her, her colleagues and the institution as a whole. Either way, I ignored her and  assisted the woman with a complaint in which she requested a new psychiatrist based upon his rude and dismissive behavior, and then we called her attorney to request a preliminary hearing to contest her commitment. 

I visited the unit a few days later. The woman I had worked with was in good spirits- she was braiding the long, tangled hair of one of the other patients and had picked flowers in the courtyard garden and arranged them in styrofoam cups on tables. Her legal aid attorney had secured her a hearing and the hospital was releasing her rather than taking her to court. It is at this point that I made the observation, not for the first time in my life, that relief is better than pleasure, and that there is nothing finer than deliverance from fear- not that it lasts, not that it sustains, but that it is like the finest analgesic regardless. Her release from the hospital would not wash away the image of a loved one killing himself, or relieve her of whatever other struggles would surely plague her the second her medicaid cab ride started driving her towards home, but they were momentarily forgotten with the promise of freedom.

I have tasted this myself at times. Sadly, most of the time the relief doesn’t last and the near miss turns out to have hit you dead on. Sometimes waking from a nightmare is not enough, and the preconditions that gave rise to it don’t just haunt you, they possess you entirely. I would be surprised if this were not the case for this woman, but still, I am glad that she wasn’t robbed of months of her life, that she got to smell flowers rather than disinfectant for the remainder of the short northern summer and that she wasn’t shot full of antipsychotics against her will. I hope she got to visit the grave of her lover and come to some sort of peace with that, although I have my doubts about peace and its presence in our lives. 

Two Baby Squirrels

I work with people whose lives are ugly. They are all chopped up. They have no teeth. Things are breaking down in their bodies. Their minds are against them. They have no place to sleep.

This is obviously a judgment from without. I don’t know how many of these people would find their lives ugly. Perhaps there is beauty there that I don’t see. And I truly don’t see. This might lead one to ask as to whether I find my own life to be ugly, and the answer would be that I do. My mind is against me. My body is breaking down, teeth included. I am lucky in that I have a place to sleep, but when my parents die or some other sort of calamity strikes this might no longer be the case.

For work I visit psychiatric hospitals in New England and talk with the patients there under the auspices of providing advocacy. Someone with a less dire outlook on things might feel better about what they do, but I leave this position feeling as though I’ve done nothing for anyone, myself most of all.

Most of what I do is talk with people. Often this is just getting talked at. People who are manic will talk at you for as long as you occupy the same space, and mania seems to be a feature of many people who wind up in the hospital. I’ll walk onto the unit, sit down with someone, and an hour will pass in which I’ve said nothing and learned nothing. I burn an hour and all I have to do is nod my head. 

I feel bad writing this. There is a strong preference among my colleagues for not discussing mental illness as a physical affliction or material condition of people’s lives, but, with some remorse, I don’t share this inclination. My own experience has been that there is something distinctly different about my neurological makeup that makes me more prone to various forms of suffering, and I assume the same about the people with whom I meet.

With this being said, the afflictions that are most common in the hospital are poverty and isolation. One could argue that there is a chicken and egg problem at play in this statement. Is a person mad because they are poor or poor because they are mad? Do you lose the people in your life because your thoughts and emotions are disordered, or do your thoughts and emotions become disordered because you’ve lost people? My thinking is that neither is true- these conditions arise simultaneously and are intertwined, and whether or not I’m right about this or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the problems of poverty and isolation require remedy, nor does it change the bleak reality that this remedy will likely never be delivered, and certainly not on a locked psychiatric unit.

Yesterday was the worst. I was plagued by the realization that I am awful and that the world is also awful. I saw a woman at the hospital who had been injured by staff while being restrained and helped her file a complaint. According to her she punched a nurse and this is what precipitated the hold, but it is not my place to judge her actions.

I’ve worked with this woman before. I helped her and her former boyfriend navigate a period of homelessness, mostly by paying out of pocket for motel rooms. After we filed the complaint we talked about him. She says she’s done with him. He is currently in state prison. Apparently he has an ugly rap sheet, one that includes lewd and lascivious acts with a person under the age of 13, a fact that I am not surprised he omitted from our many conversations.

In the course of their relationship, which I observed to be violent on the part of both parties, they had both pressed charges against one another on multiple occasions, and apparently he neglected to attend a court date related to one of these incidents. It was only when she searched him on the prison’s ‘inmate finder’ that she learned about these other convictions. It made me sad to learn this about him and she was deeply distressed by it- somehow she hadn’t known. People can be excellent at keeping secrets as long as the secrets are their own.

She has been homeless for who knows how long. I drove her to a court date once, and she told me that a few years ago she’d been shot with a 30.30 right in the gut by her father and that she’d almost died. She’d had a happy week or so where it appeared that she was going to receive some sort of settlement stemming from this (how the man would have paid anything out after 8 years in prison was unclear to me) but the money never materialized, and not long after that she ended up back in the hospital.

This isn’t the only woman I’ve met in this job who has been shot by a man in her life. Up north, in my first months of working here, I met a woman who had just arrived from Oregon, fleeing her family for reasons that I didn’t entirely understand but that seemed to center on them being heroin addicts. She was homeless, having been beaten up and thrown out by the man she was staying with when she refused to have sex with him, and was sleeping in motels using vouchers from Economic Services. Years earlier she had been shot in the back, and most of the bullet had exited her chest. She showed me the exit wound right below her clavicle. She said she still had little pieces of bullet left in her body.

But as I was writing, yesterday was unbearable. I didn’t get shot in the chest or anything like that, but on a spiritual level I felt dead inside. I sat through a meeting in which a hospital bureaucrat grossly distorted statistics about patient complaints and ate a bad sandwich composed of some sort of deli meat. Possibly ham. When the meeting was through, I walked out into the parking lot. 

It was stiflingly humid but it had been windy earlier in the day and somehow there were two baby squirrels, unweaned, their eyes not yet open, dying behind my driver’s side front tire. Perhaps it would have been more humane to ignore their presence and end them abruptly by mashing them into the asphalt, but I couldn’t. I thought maybe it would be better for them to die in the cool grass in the shade, so I picked them up and put them somewhere that looked peaceful. I wished that I could save them, but I don’t know the first thing about dying infant animals. I walked by where I had left them today and their corpses weren’t there. I wondered what took them, hoping that perhaps something ate them. There seems as though there’s dignity in being eaten.

I drove home and talked to a friend who is also deeply depressed. Despite his struggles, I envy him. There is a functionality that he has that I do not. He complains that he can’t stand working part-time, that all the unstructured time is getting to him. I don’t like working part-time either, but I definitely don’t want to work full-time. I am more of a no-time person.

After this I went to therapy. Therapy has been helpful for me in some respects. It helped me go back to work. Not that working is something I want to do, but in the present it appears to be necessary. I told the therapist that I was badly depressed. He asked me if psychotherapy was working for me. He wanted to know, because it didn’t really seem as though there had been any breakthroughs.

I’m not someone who can be honest in the moment. I need time to sort things out. So I did not say all the things that occur to me now. That no, psychotherapy is not working, just like meditation, medication, drugs, no drugs, busyness and idleness have all failed to work. That maybe nothing will work, and it might just be that non-existence is the magic bullet. But therapists don’t tell you to commit suicide, even if they think you’re beyond help.

Face Down, Fist Raised

This blog is where I’ll be posting about my experiences of living with treatment resistant depression and severe anxiety. While I’m not sure I’ll be able to accomplish this, I am interested in articulating some political analyses of both the psychiatric regime and the experience of being sick. Otherwise you’ll find personal essays from the perspective of someone trying to stay afloat in the treacherous waters of the current moment where economic survival is untenable and spiritual fulfillment blockaded by a traitorous brain.