In 1964, Professor Harold Edgerton published a photograph entitled “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple,” an example of high-speed photography captured through the technology of his innovative Rapatronic camera. Dr. Edgerton developed the device in the 1940s, overcoming the limitations of conventional photography by capturing, through the implementation of the stroboscope, images unseeable with the naked eye. His photos, measured in milliseconds, give the impression that time has stopped.
My friend Carl is a carpenter and a poet. He built his home out of lumber hewn from trees felled to clear the site, a cabin in the woods among the Bambis and the brambles. If a tree falls in the forest, I can hear it in the creak of the door and the groan of the stairs. Together we sit on the deck, breathe in the ocean air, and let our thoughts be swept away by a high tide whispering the song of its people.
Carl attends daily to the needs of his wife, a person living with epilepsy. Theirs is a meditation on assistance and grace, blessed with gentle routines that help keep her body’s electrical surges at bay. He recently asked me how he could help, should I drop into an event of delusion or worse. I offered the answer I’ve shared with others: don’t make me wrong for my reality, and be accountable for your own. It can have the effect of giving me pause to consider alternatives to fear.
Accountability is not permission to blame or a consent to assign guilt. To be accountable is to be in the act of giving credit, an obligation to one’s self to stay involved in the process of trust, to ebb and flow according to the dictates of the moment. It is a personal system of checks and balances. For the rational mind, this is the basis for independent decision-making.
Schizophrenia ignores this construct. Thought is a renegade maelstrom caught in the stroboscopic synapse between apple and bullet. The disorganized mind experiences this as interpenetration, a merging of the fibers and strands of concept and experience. One idea encompasses every other, and every other encompasses that one idea.
For seven months I slept on the floor because I believed that sleeping in my bed would be tantamount to breaking my teeth. A friend came over and bounced on my mattress, laughing, “Look—my teeth are fine.” I recoiled uneasy, convinced that he was testing fate. I continued to sleep in the hallway. The floor was safe.
As the bullet passes through the apple, bloom and juice coat the edges of its casing and it emerges modified, moist and sticky. The apple is no longer an integrated object, its sweet pulp seared and rent by lead. Collision, displacement, recombination—that mysterious moment when two things become one.
The ordinary brain compartmentalizes every nuance of thought within its grasp, and society marches along in concert with the shared experience of what it finds in that seamlessly organized harmony of awareness contained. You have a bullet, an apple, a camera, and a moment. I have Brundlefly.
If you care for a person living with a mental illness, how can you help? Begin by listening without judgement, as you would to anyone else. Refrain from attempting to correct the convergence of ideas that their neural pathways create. Just listen. Is there an urgency to the message? You can sense that. Are they showing an emotion you can recognize, despite the nature of the words, the cadence of their speech? Listen actively, without reason. Bring your shared history with you. Bring love.
Be accountable for your own reality, and allow them theirs. Refrain from needless argument. Your loved one’s personal experience is as true to them as yours is to you. Perception is in the mind, and if that mind is caught in the Rapatronic snapshot of its disordered process, respect is key. Compassion unlocks. Patience rewards.
In those moments when I need help, I am the bullet and the gun. I am the apple anchored to a steel rod. The displaced matter, the residue, the photo, and the camera, are all objects coexisting as one idea: me.
The words “illness” and “sickness” imply a condition subject to convalescence, words best used when describing a bout of the flu, but grossly inadequate for illustrating the workings of the mind. Our culture has co-opted their use to accept the incomprehensible. This is not to say that listening to a person wrestle with their own mind is not frustrating. I acknowledge that it can be; the proof is in my loneliness.
Overcome the limitations of conventional thinking by nurturing, through the implementation of kindness and understanding, lives unknowable with the naked eye. Your actions, measured in a heartbeat, might secure the hope that change is coming.