Addiction or Mental Illness: What’s Your Poison?

Ok, maybe that’s a false choice for some (or no choice at all), but with the popularity of the “rehab” route these days of gaffing celebs, as well as the various crack-ups splashed all over the news lately, I’m a little worried about us all right now.

I’ve been sympathetically enthralled by last week’s stories of the astronaut, Anna Nicole Smith, and MIT’s Professor Sherley and their concurrent degrees of unraveling in high stress environments. So much violence and uncertainty in our lives feels random, but for women and children at least, we’re much more likely to know our assailants, and as it turns out, a prior relationship exists in 40% of all non-fatal workplace-related incidents.

I didn’t know Sherley other than as a data point in my overall research on gender in academia, but I’m feeling some real psychological disturbance over his hunger strike. For one, he’s moralistically appointed himself the symbol of redressing institutional racism, claiming that by his receipt of tenure MIT will

“provide a clear and lasting admission that racism and corrupt process were responsible, and they will not be tolerated at MIT.”

(from his 5th Open Letter to the MIT Community sent via e-mail this past weekend)

He’s gone from stem cell researcher to anti-“embryoism” (his word in one of his “Tenth Hour” daily 10 am hunger strike addresses) activist to martyr. Part of me is disgusted.

But a larger part of me is worried, fretting from my ringside seat over what I see as one man’s disolution over what is to him an unjust and intractable solution. He’s willing to take his own life, or go to his grave believing former colleagues are racists with his blood on their hands? Over a tenure decision? Meanwhile making himself both the symbol and the solution to the struggle? I know I’m not the only one who sees something disturbingly wrong with this picture. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s worried about this guy’s mental health.

Meanwhile, across the country, another woman packs a mallet, a knife and trash bags to confront a fantasy opponent, Anna Nicole Smith gives up on life in a FL hotel room, and just another work week in Philadelphia ends in tragedy yesterday.

When I worked in Lower Manhattan on post-9/11 small business recovery, I dealt with no shortage of irate business owners furious with us, the government, terrorists, you name it, over the physical and emotional damage inflicted on their operations and lives. I saw a lot of tears, a lot of yelling, and a lot of red flood people’s cheeks. But there was one owner in particular whom, after his grant failed to pay off and we refused to give him any more money, really made us his primary target for all his loss, anger and desolation. Fortunately, it never amounted to more than furious tirades in the office or over the phone or in long, rambling letters to the local officials, but my imagination did not lack for images of him storming through our un-locked, un-guarded office door in a non-descript high rise downtown, armed and inconsolable and looking for justice any way he could find it. Now my anxious, worst-case-scenario mind is at it again with Sherley. (A belief in the random and an orientation towards worst-case visioning are both lasting legacies of breaking my back in ’00).

We don’t need outlier events like Katrina to remind us all how tenuous our grasp on life can be. But I’ve used it repeatedly here at The RP to try and highlight the similiarities between our own daily struggles and contexts with those who seem to have suffered and live so differently from the rest of us. Turns out, I’m reminded lately, I needn’t be so farsighted.


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