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Screw It Up (It’s Okay)

“Did you hear what Dr. Phil said?!”

 

I’ve been getting that a lot lately. At first I was reluctant to respond because I didn’t see the episode in question. Being as my time is very limited, there are very few TV shows I will make time for (thank God for DVR). I don’t even watch the shows we’ve appeared on (we still have yet to see the most recent Discovery Health/TLC special “Born Schizophrenic: Jani at 10). I only make time for “Dr. Who,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Falling Skies,” and “The Walking Dead.” The last one I highly recommend for parents of severely mentally ill children because it is the only show on television that I guarantee will make you feel better about your life).

 

So I did not see the Dr. Phil episode, where, while attempting to tell a young woman with an obsession that she is not “insane” (her words) because, allegedly, “insane” (which is a legal term, not a psychiatric term) people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” As such, my fear in commenting on something I didn’t see with no understanding of the context was that I would help to create the infamous “yellow purple monkey dinosaur.” This is a reference, for those of you who don’t know, to how when one person tells something to one person, who then tells it to another, and that person tells another on ad infinitum, what the final person hears is not even remotely close to what the first person actually said.

 

But, having actually been on the “Dr. Phil” show, I knew people were waiting for a response from me. Am I going to take Dr. Phil to task, having actually met the guy? Am I willing to burn a bridge that probably did more to promote sales of January First than any other media appearance?

 

Well, I hardly think I am “burning a bridge.” How many guests does Dr. Phil have on every year? I would be shocked if he even remembered us. Nor do I expect to go back on his show, regardless of what I say. What reason would there be for the producers to ask us back?

 

The first thing you have to understand about Dr. Phil or any other talk show is the sheer volume they must produce. I am sure the producers would love every show to win a Peabody, but when you have to produce 150+ shows a year, that ain’t gonna happen. A lot of what CNN or Fox News says is crap, too. That is what happens when you have to constantly produce content.

 

This is why, I assume, Dr. Phil can do a show with a Wohlenbergs, who were in the “20/20” with us, and attribute their two eldest daughters’ symptoms to a lack of parenting skills, only to turn around two years later when we were on and make some rather cogent clinical observations (like his explanation to the audience of Jani’s “flight of ideas” being a common attribute of schizophrenia), followed a year later by this show where he seems to imply his guest cannot be mentally ill because she doesn’t “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” So many shows based in between each of those three distinct episodes that you cannot assume that Dr. Phil actually remembers anything he said on a prior show.

Next, how these shows operate is that the producers have a variety of potential stories and who they book depends on who is available at the time they need to tape. Meeting Dr. Phil was for me like meeting Dr. Drew when I went on his show on HLN. I met him literally five minutes before the cameras started rolling. In Dr. Drew’s case, he had to be reminded who I was and why I was on his show. I hold no ill will for this. He was literally prepping for the show as they were wiring his microphone. Dr. Phil is a little more in depth than that but the total time we spent with him was less than one hour (including hours spent at “The Dr. Phil House” and then the live studio taping). In short, these guys are prepping for the show right before they go on (Dr. Phil tapes numerous shows in a single day). As make-up and mics are going on, they are deciding what they are going to ask you and what angle they are going to take. Intros and outros and read off the teleprompter but the Q&A or discussion has only a rough guideline. You answer a huge questionnaire before the show and maybe one or two (or sometimes none) of those questions make it on the air because the host has to ask what they feel are the most pertinent questions that their audience will be interested in while in their earpiece they are being told how close they are to a commercial break. They want quick and punchy statements (which is why I almost always get cut off-I talk too slowly, forgetting that I sometimes less than 3 minutes before the commercial break). For my critics who believed that I mislead Oprah about the allegations of abuse against me, I didn’t. During the “pre-taping,” the producer, filling in for Oprah, asked me about those accusations and I answered. So I was fully prepared to answer them but obviously Oprah, who, like Dr. Phil, makes the final decisions about what questions to ask, decided to skip that. Apparently, there were other questions either she found more intriguing or she ran out of time.

 

Several times prior to taping “Dr. Phil,” the producer asked us, “What help do you want from Dr. Phil?”  I guess that is how the show operates. People come to Dr. Phil for “help” and he “gets real” with him. He had a hard time with us because there was nothing we wanted in terms of help. Having remembered the Wohlenbergs show, our only request was that he acknowledge that brain based mental disorders are in fact very real. But Dr. Phil likes to preach to people (it’s his thing), hence the bizarre, out-of-left-field advice that we had a “sexless marriage” (we don’t) and that we needed to “take time for ourselves.” I guess that was the best he could manage with two parents who weren’t looking for help. We were looking to educate the audience, his audience, which is quite big: over 3 million per episode. Yes, we were overwhelmed but we were overwhelmed by Jani’s illness in the same way a parent of a child with leukemia would be overwhelmed by it. And we are advocates. This is what we do. To be an advocate, you have to be somewhat functional, which pretty much rules out most of Dr. Phil’s guests.

 

I told you all of that to give you some context about Dr. Phil and other celebrity doctors. Ultimately, they are entertainers. That is their job. So the first thing I have to say is if you are taking life lessons from Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz or any of these other celebrity TV doctors, you really need to get out and experience the real world a bit more. They are not there to “educate” you. They are there to entertain you because you watch Dr. Phil for the same reason you watch the Kardashians or Honey Boo-Boo: deep down, in places you don’t like to admit to, you like watching a train wreck. Part of it is natural human curiosity (why do you slow down to look at a car crash on the freeway?) and part of it is that it makes you feel better about your own life. These shows are a distraction from YOUR pain and YOUR suffering.

 

There are already plenty of advocates writing that what Dr. Phil said was horrible and reinforces stigma. And they would be correct. So I am not going to beat that dead horse again. For me, what is more important than what he said (because I guarantee you he doesn’t even remember saying it-it should not be taken as what he believes or doesn’t believe) is how the audience reacted.

 

They laughed.

 

Apparently, the idea of a person sucking on rocks and barking at the moon is amusing to them. Even though if a person actually was doing this they would be seriously disturbed and in desperate need of psychiatric care.

 

I suppose the image was funny.

 

Or….is it that people laugh when they are uncomfortable?

 

Come on, you remember high school! How many times did you chuckle at an act of bullying? You didn’t laugh because you’re an asshole. You laughed because you didn’t know what else to do. You didn’t know how to respond. You were afraid. So you half-chuckled because every one else was doing it and you didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.

 

Unfortunately, severe mental illness is not sucking on rocks and barking at the moon. If it were, the entire Jani Foundation and my advocacy would be unnecessary. Sucking on rocks and barking at the moon is weird… but it isn’t going to hurt you or kill you.

 

Severe mental illness does. It destroys your brain, everything that you were, are, and ever will be. It makes you cut yourself, smash your head into a wall and not feel any pain, and in general reduces you from a functioning human being to something you step over on the sidewalk and, in reality, fill your prisons.

 

In short, it takes away your control over the one organ in your body that actually gives you any control at all.

 

It takes away you.

 

And it will do it long before you realize it, if ever. You will think you are fine. But you are not. Friends and family will drift away. You will come to fear everything. If you are able to get yourself help, it will probably be anywhere from 18 months to a DECADE before you actually get any treatment.

 

Mental illness kills slowly, so I guess we can wait.

 

So, no, I am not going to take Dr. Phil to task for something he won’t even remember. The bigger issue is not Dr. Phil. It is the audience that laughed at what he said, and, by extension, the millions across the country who laughed at what he said. Not because they were bad people but because they didn’t know what else to do. It was like being back in high school and watching the scrawny kid get bullied all over again.

 

Back in high school, why didn’t you say something?

 

Fear? Not wanting to get involved in a fight that doesn’t concern you?

 

Yeah, that’s what the Germans did from 1933 to 1945.

 

It’s like that famous quote by Edmund Burke that everybody loves and attaches as their email signature but few actually act upon it:

 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

 

It’s okay to be afraid but you can’t let that stop you. Because the lives of mentally ill children and adults depend on you NOT doing nothing.

 

You think I always know what I am doing when it comes to Jani’s schizophrenia? Most of the time I am feeling my way in the dark. I have screwed up time and time again and will continue to, but I have to keep going because she is my daughter.

 

My point is that if you try to help those with severe mental illness, you will f*ck it up. Probably more than once. Human relationships are never perfect.

 

But it is the effort that matters.

For context, article by Pete Earley: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/07/31/pete-earley-and-doctor-phil/2596369/

and Janine Francolini: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/janine-francolini/dear-dr-phil_b_3684665.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=877486b=facebook

7 comments on “Screw It Up (It’s Okay)

  1. Michael, I just got to say that I feel what it must be like, i can never FULLY understand, but i can always do my best to try to understand, because I know how it’s like when it feels like no one understand, but also… no one tries to understand.

    And it’s true that the media’s job is to get an interesting story out to the people, and they might not care if it’s the complete story of the case and so on. That can be a little bit annoying, especially if you’re trying to tell people about Jani’s case. Because I suppose it can be misunderstood by a lot of people.

    But I just also gotta say… That I admire your work so much!! I have read your blog a lot and I would really like to support you with money when I get the chance. (if you still have the Jani Foundation? I’m not sure how that works) But anyway, I think you’re doing a really important job with giving mental health ..things (i don’t know how to say this because I’m from norway and my English skills are NOT the best haha) But giving it more attention, so people can know how many people that are actually struggeling with this. I have been admitted to mental hospitals and been seing psychiatrists for maybe 5 or 6 years now. When I get older, I really hope I can do what you do, and make a little change. (it doesnt have to be big, as long as it is anything.)

    Thank you for telling us your story!!
    And sorry for this veeeery long comment/reply

    1. Thank you. Yes, we still have the Jani Foundation. We are now a registered non-profit here in the United States and provide social events for local mentally ill kids, free of charge to them and their families. Donations to the Jani Foundation can be made at http://www.janifoundation.org/donate/.

  2. I watched Dr. Phil in horror one day as he berated a woman who was so badly abused she actually *dissociated on camera* (physically!) for being distant and dysfunctional, and praised her abuser for putting up with her anyway.

    He then started talking about ways to heal a relationship so horrific, dysfunctional, and violent that an adult child lived with them to protect her mother (and was prone to similar dissociation).

    I hate Dr. Phil. I’m beginning to hate him and all of Oprah’s little pets (I’m looking at you, Dr. Oz.)

    All I know is that I’m thankful that there are sane, battle-scarred veterans like yourself out there to advocate for mentally ill children.

    I’m finally beginning to win our fight with our daughter’s (comparatively mild) ADHD (she is medicated and happy, and excelling in school) but it is largely through the education through YOU that I’ve learned to fight for her.

    You’re touching more lives than you know. Keep it up.

    And keep showing your humanity. I know it’s painful, but as someone with dark secrets driven by mental illness herself, I know how deeply they hurt, and how bringing them to the light can help others.

  3. hello!
    I will keep this brief but there is a uric acid metabolizing disorder where children bite themselves…. In one case a child kept biting off their lips and his teeth were removed. very violent with some developmental delays.
    just something to consider.
    hoping wellness your way!