A gentleman just came in to my office to talk to me. He was one of the gently unsettled folk who often drop in to chat. He was pale, dressed in an orange and blue jumpsuit, and he wore a tall red ball cap. And wraparound sunglasses. He stopped in to tell me that the world is ended, caused by the oil spill off the Louisiana coast in the US. The cruise industry is done for also, he told me, because no one will want to sail through “that cesspool”.  Which makes sense.

This guy, though. This one wasn’t a poet. We get a few people in the office who ask how to have their poetry published (even though that’s not what we do; if you’re a writer looking to be published, you should talk to your local writers’ guild), and some of them are subtly off-kilter. Often, you can’t tell, until they say something like: “in fact, publishers should be paying *me* to write this book, because I’m actually a descendent of Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England stole my house and my birthright. She owes me millions of dollars.”

Or: “Actually, it’s odd that you say that lots of writers hear their characters’ voices in their heads, because I’m schizophrenic, and I *do* hear voices in my head…is that okay?”

To the first sort, one nods and expresses disinterested condolences at his loss. In the second case, one reassures the guy. Who am I, after all, to claim the voices he hears aren’t real voices? As long as the voices aren’t advising something that would cause pain and suffering, why not ask them their opinions on your stories? Maybe one of them is an editor. I mean, I say this kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I knew a fabulous girl who was having Serious Problems in school.

My mum taught her, and asked me if I’d come talk to her. So I did. One time, she told me, “sometimes, I see this big, black dog. It’s sometimes in the room with me; sometimes I just see it out of the corner of my eye.”

I said, “Does the dog scare you?”

She said, “Well, it scares me because it’s not really there.”

I said, “If you know it’s not really there, and you accept that it’s not really there, does it still scare you?”

She said, “No, not really. It’s just weird.”

I said, “So you have a puppy that’s really easy to take care of.”

She said, “Yeah, I guess.”

I said, “You’re not broken. You’re beautiful and sometimes out of sync with some of the rest of the world. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. If your syncopation starts interfering with your ability to understand the world around you, or if it starts harming you in some way, that’s when you get help.”

She said, “Nobody’s ever told me I’m *not* crazy before.”

I said, “Nothing wrong with crazy. Crazy is what you want it to be. You get to define yourself, here.”

She said, “Everyone at school thinks I’m crazy and they don’t want to talk to me.”

I said, “That would happen whether you were sane or not. People are terrible in high school.”

She said, “Really?”

I said, “I was voted ‘most likely to be institutionalised’ from grade seven to grade twelve.”

She said, “Um,”

I said, “Yeah, but the thing *is*, everyone is uncomfortable in high school. And if they say they’re not, or if they give the impression they’re not, then they’re lying. You just have one extra hurdle, but it’s no different than a kid with diabetes or arthritis.”

She said, “They tease me.”

I said, “Of course they do. They’re assholes because they’re adolescents. And, as they will realise in one or two years, they are missing out on a wonderful opportunity – to get to know someone amazing who will expand their understanding of the world. Most teenagers don’t even know they *can* expand their understanding of the world. ”

She said, “But what am I supposed to do about school?”

I said, “I don’t know. My *guess* is that there are people who do care about you at your school, people who do want to be your friend, but they don’t know how. My guess is that you’ll find your niche in a little while, but that it won’t necessarily be easy.”

She did make some good friends at her school, and she ended up dropping out and finishing her high school education via home schooling. She’s a successful clothing designer now. I don’t know if she still sees the big black dog, but several years later, she came to my apartment and told me she had named it Bruce. She’s pretty awesome, actually.

What the hell is my *point*?

Oh. Probably that I actually enjoy working up the street from the mental health centre because it expands my understanding of the universe.

cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. Thanks for a glimpse of the front lines you work in. Brings to mind a bit of This is Wonderland, where the lawyers tried not to pass judgment on their clients and managed somehow to be respectful of their clients’ unusual perceptions of the world. If someone tells me they’re hearing voices or seeing things I don’t, I believe they really are seeing and hearing them; they aren’t necessarily hallucinogenic. Sometimes I hope they are, but who am I to say?

  2. “Nothing wrong with crazy” is a naive statement. Sorry. You never knew Steve, who used to come in to see me all the time when I worked for a PCO. He was what they call schizophrenic, and there were times when he was in so much pain it would turn your stomach to see him. He’d check himself into the Munroe Wing for shock treatments. Then, when he remembered where he was, he’d be okay for a few months again.

    Also, you weren’t related to the woman who was busy checking out groceries at the Safeway on Broadway when a crazy person walked in and slit her throat.

    There are as many kinds of crazy as there are other realities. Some of them are almost whimsical, Cuckoo’s Nest, crazy, and others of them are not just the stupid misunderstandings of an intolerant unimaginative society.

  3. I was an excellent liar in High School.
    I waved at your house last Sunday as we drove past your town on our way home from Minot. Did you sense it like a disturbance in the Force? You might have just thought it was a chill from the rainy weather, but it was me. My puppy would have waved too, but he was pretty carsick, poor little bugger.

  4. Amazing and different. I wish more of the world could see beyond the different so that they could respect and honour the amazing.

    Hopefully I can successfully teach my kids that lesson. I am sure trying!

  5. DK:
    There *is* nothing wrong with crazy. Which is to say, people with mental illness are not inherently bad, wrong, or somehow broken. They’re ill, and in some cases need treatment.

    I may not have known Steve, but I knew Shari, who was schizophrenic and would slash her arms to let the bugs out. Who would scream for hours because of what was tormenting her. Shari didn’t like to take her meds because they made her sick and “stupid”, and so she would periodically have to be hospitalised in much the same way as Steve.

    I didn’t know the woman who was checking out groceries when a crazy person walked in and slit her throat, but I was good friends with a guy who was shot at a house party by a crazy person who was not being cared for (or about).

    A boy I dated looked me up years after I’d seen him last and asked me to go for coffee. He sat there and talked about how he could see the words coming out of my mouth. His mother later told me he was schizophrenic, and had gone undiagnosed for years; he chose to self-medicate. After his third suicide attempt, he was finally able to enter long-term treatment. I don’t know if he has survived.

    I have known many people who are literally certifiably insane, and have had my own fights with the mental health system in this province. A guy I know is an in-patient at a mental health facility, and he tries to get day passes to see his family, when his doctors think he’s well enough. Another good friend had a frightening breakdown recently, and had to be in hospital for a week, away from his family. I know crazy. And have known crazy.

    Call it naive, but I stand by my statement that there is nothing wrong with crazy. And that if and when it becomes dangerous or harmful to self or others, it ought to be managed, and ought to be managed a hell of a lot better than it is now. That girl I was talking about, the administrators at her school considered her a ‘troublemaker’; they didn’t know she hallucinated. They didn’t know she was being persecuted by other students…it took half an hour of talking to her and really caring about what she had to say to find that out. It took half an hour to find out she was too scared to tell her doctor about the things she saw and heard because she thought she’d be locked away forever.

    I believe that people who truly and honestly need to be inpatients at mental health facilities are marginalised. I truly believe they are treated badly by many people. I know first-hand that if you really need help, it’s extremely difficult to get in to a program or a counsellor or a hospital *unless you do something bad or dangerous*. That’s backwards, and it’s a disservice.

    Nothing wrong with crazy. Just like there’s nothing wrong with cancer, there’s nothing wrong with arthritis, and there’s nothing wrong with acquired brain injuries. It’s not like we want these things to find us, but when they do, we oughtn’t be treated badly. That’s what I mean by ‘nothing wrong with crazy’.

  6. I mean, okay. There *is* something inherently wrong with the fact that people have diseases. And there *is* something inherently wrong with the fact that people who are ill cannot get appropriate and good treatment easily. And there *is* something inherently wrong with suffering.

    But what I mean is, the label is what you make it, and that you don’t need to be bound by someone being an asshole and treating you like poop because you’ve been labelled “crazy”. It’s not inherently bad to be ill, is what I mean.

  7. Well said, dear cenobyte,

    As is usually the case, the recently converted to anything are usually the most vociferous about it. As a member of the generation who, in the absence of any real experience with mental illness, swallowed “The Social Construct of Reality” hook, line and sinker, and then had a rude awakening, I’m a little oversensitive to anyone who appears at first blush to be coming at the issue with pink pollyanna glasses on. I should have known better than to suspect you into that category. In short, there’s nothing “wrong” with being crazy, but it’s not “okay” to be crazy either.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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