By Michael Rice, LISAC, CTRTC
So much of the world appears to be caught up in the belief that any behavior that is not considered usual or normal is the result of a mental illness . . . that there is some sort of chemical imbalance in some people’s brains. I am often challenged in my group sessions about the behavior of those who have been labeled schizophrenics, when I state that most of what we are calling mental illness is no more than the behavior of unhappy people. Even those who have received this diagnosis have challenged me on this statement. They seem to want to wear their badge of mental illness to let others know they are helpless and that there is nothing they can do to improve their happiness. I often hear, “Normal people don’t talk to themselves; see things that aren’t there. So there HAS to be something wrong with their brain.”
Those who have received mental illness diagnoses have been told that they have some abnormality within their brain and that there is nothing they can do about it . . . that they will have to learn to live with it for the rest of their lives while taking medications that drug their brains to cause them to not hear voices and stop seeing invisible people. These drugs also stop the person from functioning normally by shutting down all of their emotions; having a flat affect; losing interest in the things that they used to enjoy, and losing their ability to be creative. Ironically, many of these medications prevent the person from overcoming their unhappiness or to discover other creative ways to deal with their unhappiness.
It is one’s creative ability that leads them to choose the behaviors they discovered to deal with their unhappiness and frustration in the first place.
I saw the movie, “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks, when it first came out in 2000. Since then, I recently saw it again on my local cable network and was able to make the connection of how some behaviors would be considered mental illness by some in certain circumstances but not mental illness in other circumstances. Allow me to explain:
In the movie, after being marooned on a small island in the South Pacific, Chuck (Tom Hanks) found himself without his basic genetic needs. He had to be creative to survive and began to improvise ways to provide shelter, food, and to hydrate. He soon found himself without the power to do much about his situation but maintained enough power from within to continue to survive. Even when he considered suicide, his tested method failed and renewed his internal power for survival.
Chuck’s freedom was now very limited. He had only a small portion of the island in which he could navigate as most of it was mountainous and surrounded by pounding waves. He was held in solitary confinement. He certainly was not having any fun. All of his basic needs for happiness were not being met to the degree that he wanted.
The first thing he did when he reached the island after his plane crash was to yell out to connect to someone . . . anyone. Even the sound of dropping coconuts led him to think that someone might be near and he would yell out towards the area where he heard the sounds. He was missing the genetic need for connecting with others and belonging to the social world he had recently lost. He still had the image of Love in his Quality World from his deeply satisfying relationship with his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), back in Memphis.
From what I have described so far, and for you who have seen the movie, you would not think any of Chuck’s behaviors were the result of a mental illness. In fact, you would probably think that it was his creativity and improvisation that was able to allow him the ability to meet his needs of survival: shelter, food, and drink.
But it wasn’t long after his initial awareness that he was, indeed, stranded in the middle of nowhere and the odds of being rescued were minimal. He still had the strong genetic need for love and belonging and after injuring his hand while attempting to make fire, his frustration led to him choosing to throw objects that had washed up from the plane crash, kick the sand, swear, and destroy whatever was near him. His bloody hand from the injury he incurred left a palm print on a volley ball that had been part of the cargo in the plane.
He eventually created fire and was so elated that he proclaimed to the sky and the sea of his accomplishment in boisterous pronouncements. “Look what I have created! I have made fire!” His power needs were beginning to be met giving him a better sense of worth and success.
After he had calmed down and successfully created the fire, he began staring at the volley ball and saw the potential for something in the bloody hand print . . . a human face. Since no one was around to offer a need satisfying relationship in the form of connecting with others, he would create his own person to meet this need.
He made the air hole the nose and erased some of the blood to make the eyes and mouth. The company who made the volley ball was Wilson and their name was boldly printed on the ball. This became Chuck’s compensation for connecting with someone whom he named, “Wilson.” So far, you may be saying to yourself, “So . . . ? What’s your point?”
Chuck then began talking to Wilson and even answering on Wilson’s behalf to satisfy his need for love and belonging and connecting. And I would be willing to wager that you would still be thinking, “Well, sure. There’s nothing wrong with that. He did it to keep his sanity . . . to keep him from going crazy on a deserted island. . . . to connect with something or someone when no one else was there to connect with”
If Chuck behaved like that back in Memphis where he lived, would you still say his behavior was an acceptable way to behave? One might be inclined to get as far away from him as possible because, “who knows what a crazy person who talks to himself or to inanimate objects might do?” One might also believe he is seriously mentally ill and should be placed on brain meds and in dire need of a psychiatrist.
In an isolating experience, you are more likely to accept Chuck’s unusual or unnatural behavior as typical, rational, and understandable. But if not deserted on a lonely island, the same behaviors are seen as symptoms of mental illness and chemical imbalances. The unusual behavior one may create and perform serves the purpose of easing their unhappiness and frustration, at the time . . . just like Chuck on the island. If he didn’t have Wilson to talk to, and imagine that Wilson was talking to him, he would have felt much more unhappy and frustrated than if he hadn’t created Wilson.
The person who sees things, hears things, and talks to people who are not present, or to inanimate objects, is no different than Chuck. While they are not physically on a deserted island, they are in a deserted world based upon their choice to isolate or detach from others because of unsatisfying relationships with the important people in their life. They have detached from others and can be alone while around others. Their creativity to deal with their frustration and unhappiness is no different than Chuck’s creativity in producing and talking to Wilson, a volley ball.
Often, their frustration is the result of wanting to do one thing with their life while others who are important to them want them to do something else. They may attempt to take both routes and find it impossible to do. Consequently, they may become so frustrated that they then choose to take neither route and isolate even more, which further destroys their need for love and belonging. And since love and belonging are basic genetic needs, they create their own people in their mind and imagination like Chuck did.
The only difference is the circumstances. You could see Chuck’s dilemma and rationalize Chuck’s behavior because you could relate to being in his situation. Since you could relate, you deem it normal, acceptable, and not a mental illness at all. You were living in his world on the screen and silently thinking, “I’d probably do the same thing.”
If Chuck behaved in this manner back in Memphis, you would not see the situation he would be experiencing in his world. His unsatisfying situation and internal frustration would be very real to him but invisible to you. Since you have most of your needs met, on a somewhat regular basis, in a world where they are more easily attainable than a desert island, you might be inclined to think and believe Chuck’s behavior is a mental illness.
When Chuck was rescued and came back home, he didn’t talk to things or people who weren’t there anymore. First of all, Wilson was lost at sea before he was rescued. When Chuck got home, he was back in a world with people with whom he could connect . . . and it didn’t take brain meds to get him to stop talking to imaginary things or hearing imaginary voices. He only had to connect with others and those who are important to him. After five years of living in isolation, his rescue not only saved his life, it restored most of his basic genetic needs for happiness: Survival, Love and Belonging, Freedom, Power, and Fun. The love of his life had given up hope for his return and had married someone else. There would obviously be some emotional pain from that loss because he had maintained the picture of her in his Quality World all those years. But even losing Kelly didn’t cause Chuck to return to his island surviving behaviors.
Would you say a child who has an imaginary playmate is mentally ill? Or would you say they are being really creative? When you dream at night . . . are some of your dreams really “out there?” Does that mean that you are crazy when you are dreaming or is your mind simply being creative? If your brain can do that when you are asleep, it is also capable of doing it when you are awake.
In our world, it appears it is much easier to convince others that a person is mentally ill than to convince them that they are sane and only frustrated and unhappy due to unsatisfying relationships with the important people in their life.