The mental illness next door

messFrom the street, the house appears stately—generously-sized, but not McMansion steroidal. The entryway, circular drive and two car garage seem classy. A fenced yard safeguards an in-ground pool and surrounds a swing set, shed, patios and walkways. Moving closer dispels the favorable first impression. As you approach, inconsistencies surface: patio boards are splintered, paint on the doorway pillars is flaking, flagstones are loose. There’s an air of neglect and dishevelment. It becomes apparent that the entrance pillars are aluminum–fake; just like the house exterior is a façade.

Any positive vibe disappears with the door’s opening, as smells of dog poop, urine, and mustiness waft and assault. With shallow breaths, we rush through the house opening windows to bring in fresh air. My friend, who bought the house to flip, invited me to help collect items to donate to our church’s ministries in Arlington and in Haiti. She had already been through the house and warned me, but you can’t understand until you experience.

The family had pets. If the smell weren’t enough to prove it, frequent crusty dog turds indicated that the animals not only lived in the house, but relieved themselves wherever, including on Chinese area rugs, hardwood floors and throughout the yard. The previous owners had already moved out, taking furniture and belongings for a fresh start. But they left massive amounts behind—antiques, furniture, mounds of clothes, piles of toys, kitchenware, china and crystal, and shelves packed with books. The basement playroom has a pool table, bar, and five stained glass light fixtures; and was also strewn with discarded toys, defaced dolls and enough playthings to furnish a daycare.

The situation not only made me sick to my stomach, but sick at heart wondering how a family with children ended up choosing a pigsty lifestyle in an upscale neighborhood. This is the shadow side of affluenza, the excesses of affluence. Few people really know what goes on behind our front doors. It’s not unlike neighbors explaining a murder/suicide next door, “Well, they seemed like nice people; real friendly.” The former residents of this house were clearly not poor, but they were living impoverished lives; not unlike obese people who are also malnourished.

Is this mental illness? And is mental illness a new normal? We all fall somewhere on a scale of quirkiness. When do our oddities become deviancy; sometimes leaving neglect, violence and criminal behavior in our wakes. Think of ways we have normalized abnormal behaviors: consumer zombies, phone hunchbacks, homicidal motorists. How can people live like this? Does it creep up; encouraged by advertising to grow the economy and buy more? It is such a bargain. I deserve it. It was a gift. Is it inertia; where life’s busyness causes us to put things off, like walking the dog or washing the dishes? Or is it simply we can’t find something, so we just buy another, until we are overwhelmed by excess?   

If there are no flashing neon signs to alert us when someone needs help, how can we know who is and who is not mentally stable ? Susan Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine killers, speaking on gun ownership..

If a friend unexpectedly knocked on your door, would you invite them right in? Or would you furtively step outside, hoping the visitor couldn’t see in? The bottom-line question is, How much is enough?, but here are more detailed questions to diagnose whether you are suffering from affluenza, if you are wondering or need denial busting. Check out Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel, to see the amount of stuff an average US family owns.

Can all seven billion of us have everything we want? mother earth.jpgEven if we don’t have limits imposed by money or space, the earth has limits. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis referred to our collective home, the earth, as an immense pile of filth (# 21). If I extrapolate from one putrid example in Montgomery County, we need to change some behaviors, starting with me. Needing something someday is not a good enough reason to keep and hold, as I evaluate my belongings. The clothes and household items I don’t need belong to the poor. Visiting a house shouldn’t require donning a hazmat suit and going through post-visit decontamination. I don’t want to leave a mess that someone else has to clean up.

© Joan S Grey, 4 Mar 2016

IndexCardCure™: guiding aspirations to action


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