Monday, June 1, 2009

Snap out of it!

You are having dessert at the annual Family Thanksgiving Dinner. Sitting next to you is your elderly uncle, Ted. Suddenly Ted falls out of his chair, grasping his left arm and gasping for air. "Looks like a heart attack," you think. So based on what you have learned about heart attacks, you lean over Ted's face and yell, "snap out of it!"

In reality, we would call 911. Paramedics would come. Doctors would hook up the EKG, give the medications, CPR, hospitalization, all that stuff. Even if Ted didn't have any insurance, the hospital is bound by law to treat his immediate condition.

But what if Ted has dementia? Or what if Ted is bi-polar? What if Ted started to pull down his pants and urinate on the table? What would be your response? I know what my reaction would be. In our culture we see mental handicap as either idiocy, or a personal failing. We tell the shaggy, rambling homeless person to get a job. Hospitals cut the ribbon on state-of-the-art cancer centers while antiquated state mental hospitals are shut down. Alzheimer's patients are segregated from their homes in locked memory care facilities. NAMI ( gets only TV actor endorsements.

I believe our culture has difficulty separating brain function and mind function. The body from the soul. Fanini may occasionally mistake the table for the toilet, it's just that her brain has lost the pathways that tell her what to do when she gets the urge. Likewise, living with the boys has taught me that babies are not just screaming lumps of flesh. Ganini cries because he hasn't yet formed the pathways that enable him to speak the words to tell me he's tired. Fanini is proof that just because you are crazy doesn't mean you are stupid. Both Fanini and Ganini don't have the voice to make others understand.

AIDS transitioned from the scarlet letter of sexual depravity to a star-studded cause-celebre because of powerful marketing. AIDS sufferers were still able to advocate for themselves via the media and the legal system. At the risk of sounding saintly, I think part of my life mission is to change how I treat those who cannot treat for themselves. I'm changing how I perceive and respond to Fanini and Ganini. I'm seeing them as humans, humans who have lost or not yet learned my level of brain-powered skills. And I'm spreading the news. I'm hoping what I do will ripple out into the wider world. I'm thinking I can change the world, one blog at a time.

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