Wednesday, October 31, 2012

50 Years ago today, I was a "mental patient"; comparing crises a half-century apart; web sites can be lost in catastrophes


Fifty years and one day ago, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 1962, in the pre-dawn hours, I was half-asleep in a windowless green-tile hospital room, with one roommate, at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesday, Maryland.

I written the details of my “hospitalization” and (what amounts to) reparative therapy before.  That particular night, right after the Cuban Missile Crisis had resolved “on the outside” (as we called it), I had come down with a typical cold, and saline drops hardly did much.  There were, I believe, three regular rooms with other patients on the way to the “Day Room” in the middle of Unit 3-West.  From the next room, I heard cries and screams, from a particular female patient who had recently arrived.  Her mantra, in group therapy, had been something like, “Why can’t we love everybody?”  That night, I overheard (like in a soap opera) the psychiatric  nurse scold her in the room, and saying she would get a fix “in the muscle”. 

Fifty years ago.  It’s amazing how time flies.  On the half-century anniversary of that morning, as the Cuban crisis ended, the whole East Coast would find its modern way of life challenged by a freak super-storm, which could become a more common occurrence in the future because of the grand summation of so much individualistic excess.

I was 19 then, thin and gawky, and physically weaker than other boys, slipshod about details of personal appearance (shirt tails and the like), already with a slightly receding hairline visible from a simple crew cut (more common in those days), and yet to have any chest hair.  Much of the therapy had to do with my attitude about my own body, and what I made of the appearance of others.  I tended to see a world through symbols that represented abstractions, such as moral worth and worth and virtue,  that did not have much use for the relativism of real life with real people, where a certain flexibility and openness are required to function as part of a family or social group – to “belong”. 

The psychiatrists were very concerned with my fantasies as a source of pleasure, not really because of any direct harm (there was none), but because of the indirect implications for others if it was OK to build a life this way.  The fact that, as an only son, I would not give my parents a lineage was not the least of these, but it seems curious that I have any “moral responsibility” for that.  

Yet concerned they were. Nurses dutifully wrote down any sarcastic wisecrack that I made, as if their existential reading mattered as much as anything in international relations.  Everyone took offense to the idea that I reacted to earlier shame from others (the teasing, sometimes bullying) by becoming an “oddball”, capable of keeping others on their toes -- as if I thought that no one else with developmental issues comparable to mine should ever have families either (and that's a big "threat").  It was like, at some point, all priorities were to change, from sexual reticence to outright courtship, a psychological windshift that accompanies any cold front.  I would keep rotating, threatening to spin down. My attitude was elitist, the antithesis of that wailing female patient. Later, I saw in my medical records a diagnosis of "schizoid personality". 

Of course, no one then quite saw that technology would make an outlier like me productive, perhaps a useful check on the necessarily shortsighted conformity of others.  All of that is possible by self-expression: Internet user-generated content and social media.  People could believe they were listened to or "heard", even if mostly (out of their sight lines) by spam bots.  And we could, for any number of reasons well covered here, see that threatened.

The New York Times (Business Day, Oct. 31) has a sobering front page story by Quetin Hardy and Jenna Wortham, “When floodwaters rise, web sites may fall” like dominoes.  Some ISP’s may indeed have trouble operating if their servers or power sources were located in low-lying areas.  I have not experienced any difficulty with my own sites.  Two of the ISP’s are located in Loudoun County, VA, well inland in huge server farms.  My Google stuff I believe is largely hosted around Charlotte NC (or maybe Raleigh-Durham).  So is a lot of Facebook.  These areas are relatively “safe”.  One ISP relocated a lot of its servers from Florida to inland (Piedmont) Virginia after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 shut down many of its customers (including me) for a couple days.  The “Bits” link is here.

We would do well to ponder these questions with other likely disasters, such as mega-earthquakes and particularly super solar geomagnetic storms, which will be much worse.

Extra: Mitt Romney, campaigning in Florida, is talking about “sacrifice”, about moms and dads giving up exchanging Christmas presents so they will have enough for their kids, about living for purposes greater than themselves (or what they can imagine by themselves).  Of course, those common purposes could turn out to be “wrong”.  I wondered, what does that say about the people who didn’t have their own kids?  That brings me back to that night at NIH.  

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