The continuum

Sunday night, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up late to work, one in a long string of staying-up-late nights, and then I couldn’t let go. For two hours I lay in bed and ruminated over the papers I had stayed up to review. Not wanting to fret about insomnia (which only exacerbates insomnia), I occasionally said to myself, “It’s okay. At least I’m resting my body.”

At 3am, I moved to the couch. I noticed the many ways the lights from the street made their way into the room. I bunched a feather pillow under my head and replayed a couple of weeks of work in my head. And then I thought about the weeks ahead. In no way was I worried or panicking. It was simply as though my brain continued to develop and work on problems even as my body lay there immobile.

At 4:30am, with the same loop of images still playing in my head, I thought to myself: “I am mentally ill.” No, really.  It occurred to me that this is what people mean by obsessive thoughts. Leave it to me to have them about drafts, and colleagues, and presentations, and this student and that one, and even that pile of folders on my desk that I keep meaning to put in the shredder bin.

“Ah, no. Not mentally ill,” I thought. “Just fucked up.” I did have enough awareness to step outside myself a bit, look at my thoughts, and recognize how unproductive they are. I wasn’t able to quiet them, but I could reality-test them.

Years ago, my friend Betsy told me and our small circle of friends about the mentally ill/fucked up continuum. This is not unlike the sexuality continuum, although M.I. and F.U. have nothing to do with a person’s sexual identity. Essentially, we are each of us M.I. or F.U., and there are gradations between.

Looking at the social world through this continuum, and especially looking at people you know through this lens, is helpful. Imagine you and your friends are talking about someone you know who is exhibiting behavior that is really irritating. It’s possible to analyze that behavior, and then ask yourselves, “Is she M.I.? Or F.U.?” (It has to be one or the other. There is no “normal.”) Recognizing another person’s mental illness helps us develop sympathy for all the things about her that might hurt our feelings or send us into a rage.

And recognizing the validity of the continuum — we are ALL on it — forces us to confront our own F.U.-ness and find a shared humanity. Sometimes when I find myself thinking disparagingly of another person’s neurotic demands, I stop for a moment and wonder about the demands I might be placing on him that satisfy only me.

It’s good to tell your peeps about this notion and use it among yourselves as a shorthand. To a friend I once said, after she had described the servile way she related to her stingy parents, “That is totally F.U.” Although I was secretly horrified that I would let a remark like that through my filter, later she said she found my observation liberating, and it made her want to change the relationship.

Is awareness enough? After all, it’s not enough to realize that laying on the couch at 3am and watching traffic lights blink on the ceiling while mentally rehearsing a conversation or rereading a student draft in one’s imagination is F.U. A person has to characterize the tendency and stop doing it.

Or write about it.

“Pantone Mugs,” by ardenswayoflife on flickr via

2 thoughts on “The continuum

  1. I love you, Jane Kokernak. This is, indeed, a world-shaking paradigm shift. Believe me, contemplating where people’s behavior fits on this continuum will let me off a lot of mental hooks in the coming days…

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