Sanity frightens me because it is so fragile. One day, you are a card carrying member of the Sane, the next you wake up to hear demonic voices telling you to kill your gerbils. You might laugh, but this is unfortunately typical with conditions like schizophrenia, and researchers are all too fuzzy on why these things occur or how to fix them permanently. For the most part, you are sane simply because it is largely agreed that your behavior makes sense. Even sane people are allowed a certain degree of irrationality (religion, philosophy, politics, eating Twinkies, etc.) as long as they don't step too far outside what we expect of them and polite society. In fact, for someone who would happily eschew many social mores in deference to free expression and comfort, I have a mild obsession with making sure I never go too far over the line for fear that I won't be able to find it again.
When someone is confessing their reaction to some traumatic event that has befallen them, my response tends to be, "That's reasonable," no matter how little this is comforting, simply because I would want to be assured that I was still acting within allowable parameters despite my pain. When faced with someone else's trauma, I want to know their mindset so I can see just how far this has pushed them, how much temporary insanity one is allowed when one's parent dies contrasted with one's pet or computer.
I often (possibly too often) phrase the actions of others as though they were fictional, but the analogies aren't too far off. If one is behaving within the bounds of their previously established character - which can be rather wide - they are sane. I have gotten away with near murder (or, at least, swatting away imaginary fairies) in my adolescence because I had taken pains to establish myself as an eccentric; no one believed I was serious and just shrugged my contrived oddity away until I found better ways to seek attention (namely, this).
This is not to say that acting within the bounds of one's character is necessarily good in general or specific, but it is consistent. Consistency tends to be all we really require to grant someone admittance to our clubhouse of sanity. In fact, a good deed can call someone's sanity into question (i.e., George W. Bush fighting for gay rights suddenly). No matter if this might benefit us, it isn't quite right and we won't trust it. We need a compelling reason for this person to expand their character to include this new behavior, one that more or less fits with how they have already established themselves. We do not readily allow modifications to our consensus reality.
I have had friends deal crushed up aspirin to middle school children to get money for real drugs or get drunk and pick up strangers at seedy bars six nights a week. However societally and personally destructive this may have been, the people concerned were being constant and even self-aware; they were quite sane. They could enumerate what they were doing, why they were doing it, and that they knew it was not likely to make them happy in the long run but it also wasn't going to kill them. As such, I quietly continued to monitor them for changes that might signal their actions had pushed them to daffiness, at which point I would be forced to intercede.
Listening to the justifications of those who might be slipping from sanity provokes a dire discomfort. In good conscience, one cannot enable them but must tread gently in being truthful. The wrong degree of honesty and that person, who absolutely does not wish to be confronted with what is going on, will turn on you and you will lose any ability to help them (to say nothing of any friendship you might have shared). There is an urge, likely too often indulged in, to distance yourself from what your friend has become, further isolating them inside the prison of their skull. You never agreed to this in the social contract of friendship. In fact, this interloper stole your friend's face and memories, consigning them to a pit into which your words can no longer reach. No matter if you once loved that person, you can't love who they have become. Worse, you rethink if you ever actually did love them, the revisionist's conceit.
I'm not exempting myself from this. Through the years, I have become almost angry, such was my frustration that my friends had slipped so far beyond my grip that I lost them. In dating passionate, artistic girls, I had the occasional call that an ex was now institutionalized for her own good. I was copacetic, because I had accepted that passion and insanity tended to carpool; I knew what I was signing up for. These girls tended to come back from this brink, a little more skittish and a little older, but themselves. It is those who do not get help who frustrate me, those who have to increasingly justify their madness as my problem, often at 3AM to my voice mail.
My friend Melissa works as a case manager for adults with severe psychological problems, the sort of people you instinctively avoid on the street because something in their demeanor strikes you as off. Her clients are not stupid (some are actually geniuses) and the majority of them were once fully functioning members of society. Then, something happened to change that, whether a traumatic brain injury, a horrific event, or simply their brain deciding that it had enough of sanity. Thereafter, they lost that connective tissue that let them be bankers and teachers and we sloughed off into a group home in hopes they could one day again believe that bleach cleaned a bathroom better than fire. Most never come back from the brink, but Melissa helps make their insanity as comfortable and functional as she can.
Some cultures thought the mentally ill were touched by the gods and were thus revered as divine. The best we can do now is hope a cocktail of drugs and the newest methods of psychotherapy can show the afflicted the line they crossed on a winding path, something that often seems to work little better than shaking rattles at them and beseeching the demons within to vacate and silently hoping we can keep the darkness from taking us as well.
Soon in Xenology: Cornish's.