The ass, the a-hole, and the angel

As I perused Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, one quotation caught my attention more than the rest:

Adventavit asinus,

Pulcher et fortissimus.

The ass arrives,

Beautiful and most brave.

This quotation comes from the Feast of the Ass, a Medieval European celebration of the donkeys of the Bible, in particular that which carried Jesus, Mary and Joseph during their Flight into Egypt. The relevant performance at the Feast of the Ass was based on a passage from the Book of Numbers in which Balam, King of Moab, incensed at the Israelites’ slaughter of the Amorites and fearful of what that event might portend for his own people, summons the non-Israelite prophet Balaak to curse the Israelites. The Lord commands Balaak to go with Balam’s messengers, but to speak only what He commands him to say. With a defiant Balaak now en route to ir-Moab to meet Balam, God sends an angel to stand in Balaak’s way. Balaak’s ass turns away from the angel thrice, prompting Balaak to smite him thrice to spur him onward. Balaak even tells the ass he would kill him, had he a sword. Finally, the angel reveals himself, and the Lord bestows upon the ass a voice with which to contend with his master.

Nietzsche’s intent here is to argue that at some point, the internal “convictions” of a philosopher will appear in his or her arguments, much like the voice of the ass, no matter how much said philosopher may wish to drive toward a particular point. This quotation helps Nietzsche complicate the notion that philosophers may convincingly feign objectivity.

However, this quotation and the passage from which it is ultimately derived strike me as directly relevant to my situation at present. Like the ass, as a person living with Bipolar I, I frequently find myself at loggerheads with people who act like Balaak, poking and prodding me, interfering with my recovery. These individuals invariably see this sort of interference in my life as positive. Examples include my parents and clinicians during my residential treatment and subsequent partial hospitalization. One therapist told me I had majored in “underwater basket weaving” and that my life was a “disaster.” My parents, for their part, have pushed me consistently to rush into the world of employment without considering my need to take my time as I recover from manic psychosis.

Unfortunately, like the ass, people with severe mental illnesses find ourselves robbed of a voice in a hegemonically neurotypical society that chastises us for our inability to conform. We are executed, incarcerated, and abused at far higher rates than the general population. As the recent documentary Bedlam points out, for many with chronic mental health conditions, prisons have become the new asylums.

The prospect of being punished in such a way for actions beyond our control looms over us like the Sword of Damocles. The stakes are far too high for me to jump back into the workforce without taking adequate time to prepare myself. Make one wrong move, I tell myself, and I could very easily end up in “Bedlam” myself. For those who struggle with paranoid delusions of persecution, such treatment of the mentally ill is hardly helpful. Certainly, we’ve come a long way since the titular Bedlam, one of the first mental asylums, with “lunatics” shackled to walls and swimming in their own excrement, but in important ways we remain outcasts, rejects, and perennial suspects. This is the case despite the obvious fact that mental illnesses are widely misunderstood among the general population. For example, “schizophrenic” is frequently used as an adjective to describe anything that indicates cognitive dissonance. Were such a usage in any way accurate, every member of our society could be aptly labeled as such. In reality, schizophrenia is a mental illness with clearly recognizable symptoms per the DSM V.

There are always angels, though. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to characterize many of my fellow patients that way. They were, by and large, individuals who struck me as far more sane than society in general. Many were idealists shattered by their inability to bring about change, and others were just good people who had endured a hard time. During my second psychiatric hospitalization, I bonded with one individual in particular. I’ll always consider him a friend. I’ll refer to him hereafter as Chaucer so as not to violate his privacy.

Chaucer spoke almost entirely in fluid verse. Really, he was rapping. He would sass the hospital staff, call out certain patients’ bullshit, and indict the system that had punished us for our differences by banishing us to a locked ward, all without missing a beat. One day, should he choose, I have little doubt we’ll be seeing him on television accepting a Grammy for Best Rap Album. For my part, when I arrived at the ward, I was enraged. I was furious with my mother, with the government, at everything. Soon, though, I lapsed into a sullen, catatonic silence. I had lost several nights of sleep and was withdrawing from the psychiatric medications I had been prescribed during my previous hospital stay. Small wonder, then, that he and I were diagnosed by the hospital staff as psychotic.

Psychosis is defined as an inability to distinguish delusions from reality. To be clear, I accept that diagnosis, at least for my part. That being said, I think many of the other patients had a firmer grip on what is truly real than many of the Nurse Ratcheds who saw themselves as practicing medicine. We took our medications, we exercised, we read: we did everything we knew we had to do to get the hell out of there. In the process, we forged deep connections with our fellow patients, each of whom came into the ward with a unique story of woe. I’ll never forget their kindness, just as I’ll never forget the propensity of our nurses to keep the thermostat set to Arctic while giving us only one sheet, plus our monochrome yellow scrubs, to stay warm.

The thought of them or me enduring incarceration, solitary confinement, or death for our psychological differences gives me chills, yet that is precisely what was ultimately meted out to several patients upon discharge. As soon as they were deemed stable enough, there was a cell waiting for them. One patient was undocumented, and deportation loomed.

My fellow patients were the true angels. We cared for each other. The law, the medical/industrial complex, and society at large are Balaak. I was the donkey given a voice. Was it just for Balaak to threaten his steed with death for his defiance? I doubt anyone would agree.

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