Imagine a bulletin board on the internet that allowed anyone to comment – anonymously – on your job performance.
Anyone can say whatever they want about the work you do. Some praise and thank you. Others mock you and trash a project that you painstakingly researched and produced. You must always always put your name on your work and claim it as your own. Still, anonymous critics swipe away at your work, leaving you unable to confront your accuser.
That’s what it’s like to be a newspaper reporter these days. It used to be that when readers wanted to criticize or comment on your story they would write a letter to the editor. Newspapers didn’t publish anonymous letters. They called the author and confirmed the person actually wrote the letter.
Then came the internet. Anyone can anonymously say anything about your work – and you – without any consequence. It ‘s unfair but as my mother used to say – “Life isn’t fair.”
You were right, mom. Life isn’t fair.
I am also an alcoholic. An alcoholic journalist. It’s been 15 years since I had my last drink but I am still an alcoholic and still a journalist. Always will be. I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic or a journalist. I understand there is still a lot of stigma associated with being an alcoholic. But I am at a point in my career, life and recovery where I am comfortable with who I am. I don’t hide either but I don’t mix the two in reporting the news.
I’ve never liked the word asylum, unless you’re talking about some poor soul living under some repressive regime that desperately wants to be in the United States.
I’m talking about “asylum” as in “insane asylum.” You rarely even hear “asylum” used in that context anymore. guess that’s progress, right? So, I was shocked when a friend sent me an article which featured the word “asylum” in a bad kind of way.
According to the article, more than 1,000 bodies have been found on a construction site at the University of Mississippi. Some of the bodies are believed to have been patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum a century ago. None of the bodies have names or identifying information.
The asylum opened in 1855 and could house 150 patients. After the Civil War it expanded and could house 300 patients. Officials at the fast-growing University of Mississippi medical school planned to build a parking lot on the site.
Dr. James Keeton, dean of the medical school, said that moving the remains to a new burial site would cost an estimated $3 million — that’s $3,000 per body.
“We can’t afford that,” Keeton said, according to the article.
Really? Are you kidding me? First of all, I have a hard time believing the University of Mississippi can’t come up with $3 million to move the remains of mentally ill patients at the site of the state’s former Lunatic Asylum. If the Ole Miss football team needed $3 million, they would find it. Trust me.
What bothers me most is that no one seems interested in finding out who these poor souls are, where they came from and how to dignify their resting place. No one is mentioning conditions and policies at the Lunatic Asylum that allowed inmates to be buried in mass graves with no records identifying them, their illnesses and how they died.
Personally, I care. I think it is tremendously important for us to be reminded how people with mental illnesses were treated – mistreated …
I have a few questions about Urban Outfitters controversial “Depression” shirt – like who the heck would wear that?
You’ve got a cropped t-shirt (who even wears those anymore?) covered the word “depression” in a busy pattern of different size letters. In the t-shirt’s defense, “Depression” is the name of the clothing line. Really? Who names their clothing line after a mental illness? What’s next?
Well, I don’t know what’s next but I can tell what the last shirt that got Urban Outfitters in trouble. It’s the one that said “Eat Less” on an emaciated teenager. REALLY? I mean, REALLY? You tell me that there was a photo shoot at some studio and the stylists put an “Eat Less” t-shirt on an emaciated teenage model and SOMEONE in the studio didn’t say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not cool. We can’t do this!”
And there is some buyer at Urban Outfitters (who apparently didn’t get the memo about the Eat Less shirt) who saw the Depression t-shirt and thought, “Ooooo! We just have to carry that shirt!”
Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of the stuff that Urban Outfitters sells. In fact, I just got a pair of tangerine Chuck Taylors for $10. Obviously, I don’t have much fashion sense but I love a good deal. But what little fashion sense – and common sense – I have were thoroughly insulted by the “Depression” t-shirt.
I can’t help but watch Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, talk about mental illness after a mass shooting. He’s like a zamboni clearing the ice of any blame that should go to our lack of gun regulations and leaving behind a nice smooth surface for him to rant on and on about us “maniacs” getting our hands on guns.
I can’t help myself. I have to watch him. Last Sunday on Meet the Press he claimed there just weren’t enough “good guys with guns” to stop the “bad guy” with a gun at the Navy shipyard in Washington, DC. I think Wayne watched too many westerns as a kid. Wayne, you just can’t divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” You ever see the movie Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro?
We have got to stop letting guys like LaPierre stoke the fear of people with mental illnesses. The overwhelming majority of us are not a threat. Putting my name in a database because I tried to kill myself 30-some years ago is not going to make you safer, Wayne. And, it’s going to piss me off and clear the ice for a nasty, expensive legal showdown between the ACLU and government – which will again distract us from any meaningful gun regulation and care for people with mental illnesses.
The thing about suicide is that once you are touched by it, it’s always there.
For people like me, who have attempted suicide, suicide is always in our back pocket. Yes, I got well. I got treatment, therapy, medications and unfailing support. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams but suicide is still in my back pocket. I am as far away from suicide now as I can be and the thought of it is absurd to me now.
When my drinking and depression were at their worst, I would awaken in the middle of the night, lie still in bed and listen to my thoughts: “Oh, you didn’t hear? She killed herself.” Over and over I heard someone explain my death. I no longer awaken to those horrible thoughts. Today, my middle-of-the night thoughts are of stepping on damn dog toys on the way to the bathroom.
Suicide is not an option for me now but it’s still in my back pocket. Most of the time I don’t even realize it’s there. But it comes rushing back when I hear about someone who has done “it.”
It’s probably even worse for someone who has had a parent, brother, sister or loved one kill themselves. They say those people – the true survivors of suicide – are more prone to take their own lives, too. But that’s just a statistic – which is what a lot of the chatter about suicide is: data and statistics. We don’t really get to hear about it first hand because we don’t know how to approach suicide survivors.
I once went to a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and struck up a conversation with a couple whose son had killed himself years ago. They had shared their story often and were as comfortable as parents can be sharing their child’s suicide. They encouraged me to ask questions.
All I wanted to know is, what’s the best thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? Much of the information we get about a suicide is …
UPDATE: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
In response to my blog posted yesterday, I received an email this afternoon from a spokeswoman at NBC. Thank you, Brian, for doing the right thing. It means a lot to me – as both a journalist and a person with two mental illnesses. Below is the text of the email from the NBC spokeswoman:
Brian immediately realized the error of his words, and he updated the broadcast to omit that phrase for later feeds. The corrected video that aired in the rest of the country that night is online here. We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks and hope you can forgive the mistake.
As the recent furor over remarks made by Dr. Phil and news-anchor Brian Williams about mental illness seems to have subsided, I can’t help but wonder about the discussions that the shows’ producers had about how to respond to the outcry.
I am a journalist – a newspaper reporter – not a high-profile, well-paid network news anchor – like Brian Williams – who for much of his career has merely read the news that other journalists have gathered and reported. I am also mentally ill. I have alcoholism and bipolar disorder II, also known as hypo-mania.
In the last month we have heard Dr. Phil, the daytime talk-show host/psychologist who likes to “get real,” and NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams, each make a major semantic faux pas on national television.
Dr. Phil calmed a guest’s worries by telling her that her obsession did not mean that she was “insane” because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” Then Brian Williams described Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women captive and raped them for years, as “arguably the face of mental illness.”
I am not surprised the Dr. Phil has not apologized or retracted or even tried to explain his remarks despite calls for him to do so by the country’s major mental health organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. Dr. Phil is a talk-show host who routinely sacrifices his credibility in the name of ratings. Unfortunately, we have come to expect those kinds of reckless comments from television personalities.
But Brian Williams’ silence is disturbing. I would like to know if his silence is voluntary or imposed upon him by his producers and network officials. I know how these discussions and decisions go because in my 30+ years as a journalist, I have been in them. While the reporter has a say, the editors, producers, lawyers and company officials make the final decision.
As a recovered alcoholic, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that many doctors unwittingly commit malpractice when they prescribe a narcotic or benzodiazepine without first screening the patient for substance abuse.
Giving Xanax to an addict is a prescription for relapse. It’s not a shame-on-you mistake. It’s an irresponsible, negligent mistake that can be fatal. I’m not just talking about MDs either. I’m talking about the dentist who pulls a wisdom tooth and sends the patient home with a prescription for Percocet.
I have made this argument before and I get riled up every time I hear about a doctor who has done this. The latest case happened here in my hometown and the doctor was actually charged.
Dr. John Christensen, a chiropractor-turned-MD who got his medical degree from a school in the Dominican Republican that closed amid allegations that it was a diploma mill, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the overdose deaths of two patients he treated at his clinic. Besides the two murder charges, Christiansen also faces 89 other charges, mostly trafficking in oxycodone.
Investigators focused on 35 patients from several Florida counties who died after Christensen prescribed them high-powered narcotics. In two of those cases investigators concluded they had enough evidence to charge him with murder.
According to investigators, Christensen prescribed lethal doses of oxycodone, Xanax and methadone to patients who didn’t have legitimate medical needs. In fact, Christensen’s attorneys argued in civil lawsuits that the doctor was trying to help addicts wean themselves from drugs. Christensen settled the suits without admitting wrongdoing.
Although this appears to be a case of a doctor who was operating a pill mill and wrote prescriptions with full knowledge that his patients were addicts, this is a start and hopefully a wake-up call for doctors who don’t bother to screen patients for substance abuse before writing a prescription for these drugs.
Fourteen years ago today I took my last drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was because much of that night remains a blur – in and out of a blackout. I remember going to a party where there were massive martini glasses on each table filled with goldfish. I was determined to SAVE THE GOLDFISH! when the clean-up crew started flushing them down the toilet. Ah, the joys of being the last one at the party.
I have a few other snippets of drunken debauchery from that night but I clearly remember waking up and my neighbor coming over and asking if I was okay because my front door was wide open when he went out to get his paper that morning and some of my clothes — the kind of clothing that neighbors usually aren’t privy to seeing — were strewn about my front yard.
I stumbled into a 12-Step meeting later that day, sat in the back and realized I was in the right place — even though I thought it was insane that these people could be laughing at stories like mine from the night before! How dare they take this so lightly! Can’t they see how much pain I am in? What is wrong with these people?
I have a soft, mushy spot in my heart for dogs, military vets and and people with mental illnesses and brain injuries. So, when I went to the AOL home page to retrieve my email and saw a photo of a young man with his arm around a dog and this headline - “Airline Staff Allegedly Abused Veteran” – I had to click.
In the story, Jim Stanek, a disabled vet who served three tours in Iraq and now has PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) describes how he and his service dog Sarge were treated by United Airlines.
It is one of those flight-gone-bad stories that makes you want to escort the boards of directors at all the major airlines onto a plane, seat them in coach, close the doors, disable the bathrooms and leave them on the tarmac for eight hours with only peanuts, pretzels and water.
Stanek was trying to get back to his home in New Mexico after a fundraising event for Paws for Stripes, an organization he co-founded which provides service dogs for vets with PTSD and TBI. He got stuck in Dulles International Airport for a couple of frustrating days – flights cancelled, re-scheduled, cancelled, re-scheduled and on and on. It sounds like the kind of experience that would have driven the Dalai Lama to cursing.
On the suicide front, there was some really bad news and a shred of good news on the front page of my local newspaper last week. The bad news: 154 active duty, American troops killed themselves during the first 155 days of this year. That’s nearly one suicide every day. What this means is that more troops are dying of suicide than bullets or IEDs.
The shred of good news is that this story ran on the front page of our local newspaper – above the fold. Even Aljazeera ran it as the lead story on its homepage. Unfortunately, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times did not run the story on their front pages.
But at least some editors around the country thought it was important enough news to get on the front page. Which is really good news.
Newspapers generally don’t cover suicides unless the suicide has inconvenienced our lives, has a high rubber-necking score or you are famous. I know this is morbid, but I have been a journalist for 30 years and I know about these things.
For example, if someone jumps from a highway overpass during rush hour causing a massive traffic jam – that is news. Or person shoots himself at the local shopping mall – that’s news. When famed NFL linebacker Junior Seau puts a gun to his chest and pulls the trigger – that’s news.