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I don’t write much about really personal stuff, but in recent years there have been mild-to-serious mental-health issues affecting my immediate and extended family. As a consequence I have uneducated ideas about evolution and mental health to offer. And with them, for comfort, photographs of a beautiful garden.

A member of the extended family, let’s call them FC, stayed with us for a while in September because their immediate family needed to go overseas and it’s not OK for them to travel internationally or be alone in the house. Also we are happy to have FC visit, because they are cool and oddly erudite and charming.

FC has multiple diagnoses, both psychiatric and neurological, is on a formidable medications regime, and suffers more than anyone should have to. It’s so, so sad.

Arbutus in Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park

Arbutus, I think. All the photos here are from Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park.

Last winter a member of my immediate family received a mental-health diagnosis which included the word “mild”. While our experience is less bad than FC’s, I’m here to tell you that even a “mild” mental-health issue can inflict real quality-of-life damage on the patient and those near them. This is serious stuff and should be taken seriously.

And then, earlier in the year, I visited with my brother, who works for a healthcare provider that serves people in the worst-imaginable situations, typically with mental-health diagnoses and addiction problems and criminal records. They put them in apartments — not large or luxurious but not dingy. This is funded by a conservative (for Canada) government because otherwise these people are going to be spending time in the emergency room or prison, which is way more expensive than a basic flat.

My brother’s organization allowed me to go on rounds with him, after swearing me to absolute secrecy. It was inspiring and mind-expanding. I think I’m staying within the bounds of the agreement by sharing one impression: His clients are, you know, just people. I enjoyed talking to them, one at length because they grew up in a place I know pretty well.

The program seems to work, but these people are teetering on the edge, could be gone in a flash without the right level of support; or even with it. This is a profoundly humane activity and makes my life’s work feel pathetically inadequate.

Back in Vancouver, we walked around gardens with FC; they and I both took lots of pictures, but I have a fancier camera. I’m not gonna go all mystical about the healing powers of nature, but I can testify that I find in-garden time helps my own stability. And I think this experience isn’t uncommon.

These days, my own family spends quality time with family-support groups and psychologists and various flavors of therapist. It’s exhausting and sad, but there is progress. I gather there are many people who stumble quickly into super-helpful combination of meds and therapies, but I can testify that the road is longer and rougher for plenty of others.

Purple leaves in the sun

Coleus, I think?

Why? · You have to wonder. Homo sapiens is the result of millions of years of evolutionary pressure, and mental-health issues are not exactly rare in our species. So the question is obvious: How is this state of affairs consistent with that evolutionary filter?

I have no expertise in either evolutionary biology or mental health, but I do have a theory. The world is full of artifacts and activities that are what I’m going to call “overtorqued”; that is, exhibit high performance at the expense of reliability and flexibility.

Here’s one: Serving in tournament tennis. Anyone who’s watched elite play has seen first-serve misses, often in an extended series stretching across multiple points. That first serve, if the effort were dialed back say ten percent, might avoid many faults. But the win potential of a full-effort first serve is high enough that the athletes are taught to accept its high failure rate.

Red flowers and large succulent backed by a dark rock wall

QE Park’s gardens are built into former quarries; as you can see, the stone is impressive.

Another example: If you’re a serious computer nerd, say a video editor or gamer, you can “overclock” your computer; make it run faster than it was designed for, at the risk of it becoming more failure-prone or even (literally) burning out. Lots of people do, because fast is good when you’re doing something that matters. Yes, I’m saying that to the extent that the human brain is like a computer, it’s like one that’s been overclocked.

Finally, consider the cheetah: A fragile species, with little resilience against habitat degradation and whose young are highly vulnerable to predation. Evolution took that bargain, trading off for exemplary hunting efficiency in just the right set of environmental circumstances.

Possibly evolution selected a similar trade-off for humans: Boosting genes that raise brain function past the level that an engineer would consider “safe”, because that gets us the occasional Marie Curie or Ramanujan or Miyazaki, whose successes benefit the family or the tribe. The cost is that everyone knows someone who suffers some degree of mental dysfunction.

It’s not hard to imagine what other direction evolution might have taken: Suppose our species had a predisposition to loathe and be repulsed by anyone whose behavior fell even slightly outside the expected norm, to the extent that those people would never find mates and pass their genes along.

Obviously there are issues of recessive genes; there are several well-known genetic lethalities that remain endemic in Homo sapiens; the postulated difference wouldn’t entirely stamp out pathologies of the mind. But still, if we were as a species less tolerant of eccentricity, it might be a very different world.

And in fact, people are unsurprised when those who exhibit exceptional achievement are also, to use the vernacular, “a little crazy”.

Fallen blossom on leaf-covered water

I don’t know what the fallen blossom is, nor the nature of the green vegetation covering the surface of the water.

Thank goodness · But most people fighting through mental-health issues aren’t mad geniuses; they’re just our loved ones, ordinary people who got dealt a shitty hand and are doing their best, with whatever support and acceptance the rest of us can grant them.

Maybe you’re among the lucky few who haven’t (yet) been exposed to this kind of thing; if so, you probably will be, eventually. Thank goodness that we have therapies that sometimes work. (So sad that sometimes they don’t.)

Helping out a person going through these issues is often painfully difficult, simply because their perception of reality differs from yours. You can’t change that. But you can hang in and do your best. Sometimes things do get better. And when they don’t you still need to be there.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Brad Smith (Nov 28 2021, at 10:08)

The tree is, indeed, Arbutus menziesii which is commonly called Madrone here in Oregon. The wood is hard and dense and difficult to work with but an amazing color and grain. One often finds turned bowls and other wood sculptures for sale along the northwest coast made from Madrone.

Our extended family has individuals that are also challenged to greater or lesser degrees. And stories, sometimes whispered, about some long gone and how they were treated, or not, 'back in the day'. Institutionalizations off and on, various therapies that were once in vogue and so on. I suspect that, by and large, treatments today are more effective and humane with outcomes which are more rewarding for all.


From: George (Nov 28 2021, at 12:27)

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. My best wishes to FC and the immediate family.

Last flower = some kind of fuchsia?


From: Rob Jaworski (Nov 29 2021, at 09:05)

> Maybe you’re among the lucky few who

> haven’t (yet) been exposed this kind of

> thing; if so, you probably will be,

> eventually.

I feel I've been lucky that for most of my adult life, I haven't been exposed to this kind of thing. Maybe that's because I did get lots of this growing up. Not to get into any details, but my mother was diagnosed with (I believe it was) schizophrenia when my siblings and I were young. It made for somewhat of a bummer of a childhood, but somehow we weren't affected too badly and my dad, bless his heart, did what he could to manage it and maintain as regular a home as he could. The one thing I regret is that I didn't get to experience all the father-son stuff that I could have, such as Little League, Cub Scouts, camping, etc. We never really bonded that much because he spent all his time managing my mom. I'm making sure my kids have as present a dad as possible, and so far, I think they're getting that.

My comment about the images is that the exposed rock of the quarry is a very nice contrast to the plants. Thank you for pointing that out, and thank you for this post.


From: Rob (Nov 29 2021, at 12:27)

I'm not sure you have to cite "Marie Curie or Ramanujan or Miyazaki" as the pay-off for overclocking human brains; compared to our evolutionary competitors, we are ALL Marie Curies and Ramanujans and Miyazakis. Its also less than clear that the magic sauce for current hominid dominance is intelligence; the real magic lies in our social behaviour. But the price of that is precisely our drive to care for lame and halt members, regardless of their strictly utilitarian value.

For most (if not all) of human evolutionary history, we lived in extended family groups. Large families are a lot better providing care for and ultimately even tolerating weird aunt Mary and freaky brother Fred than both the impersonal rules-based cold comfort of the state or the individualist but bloody law of the jungle libertarian free market.


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November 27, 2021
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