Sunday, August 6, 2023

Bowe Bergdahl, Sinead O'Connor and the Virtue of Mental Illness


Madness is the false punishment of a false solution, but by its own virtue it brings to light the real problem, which can then be truly resolved.”

-Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

It has been said that these are dangerous days, to say what you feel is to dig your own grave. Truer words have never been spoken by saints or sinners. Lately, it feels like all I do is dig and no matter how deep I sink my shovel, I never seem to hit rock bottom. 

Transgender children are being mauled by legislation that brazenly invalidates their existence, my friends are being thrown out into the streets by their so-called kin, Ukrainians are peppering their neighbors' playgrounds with cluster munitions for membership in a social club that openly despises them, my found family of misfit Queers can't seem to find a vehicle that can carry us for longer than a mile without catching fire, the Sahara Desert is slowly crossing the Mediterranean Ocean onto the scorched shores of Southern Europe and it all feels so goddamn personal to me that I could fucking scream bloody murder for hours on end without ever going hoarse.

It's moments like this when I feel like I just can't fucking do this anymore. Everything I do hurts. Everywhere I step is a landmine. Everything I hear shatters my brittle heart into a thousand little pieces. And every time I lose my shit, the world stares at me like a leper at a pool party and tells me to just calm the fuck down. Every week is a new nervous breakdown, another crying fit in a well-lit public space, another fist fight with an army of angry ghosts who never seem to get tired of watching me swing my bloody fists in the wind. And it was at the bruised ass end of another one of these weeks of being thrown curve ball after curve ball that I can only seem to catch with my face that two stories seemed to hit me just hard enough to put all this carnage into perspective.

After what feels like centuries of well-publicized disgrace, former army sergeant-turned-deserter Bowe Bergdahl had the bullshit charges against him vacated just days before Sinead O'Connor lost her own 56-year battle with ghosts alone in a London apartment. Try as I might, I can't seem to separate these two stories any more than I can seem to separate the endless trials of my loved ones with the suffering of the world around us. Much like me, both Bowe Bergdahl and Sinead O'Connor are complicated characters who have been defined by their struggles with mental illness. They have been branded by friends and foes alike as being unwell. But were they really? 

Bowe Bergdahl was a soldier who walked away from his post one day in 2009 and hasn't stopped being punished for that decision since. He spent five years as a prisoner of war in the custody of the Taliban, being flogged with copper wires and kept in a cage too small for an animal before finally being released as part of a prisoner exchange in 2014. Then-President Barack Obama celebrated this shallow victory in a pointless war he actively continued to stoke with Bowe's parents at the Rose Garden but when Obama's partisan adversaries succeeded in cajoling the military into persecuting the 44th president's political football he quietly washed his hands like Pontious Pilot and ignored Bowe's parents' pleas for a pardon as a man who had openly called for their son's execution prepared to take Obama's place in the White House.

"I am sorry for everything here... The people need help. Yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live... We don't even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks." These were the words that Bowe Bergdahl sent his father in an email before he walked away from a war that would take his country another decade to admit we lost before it even began. A group of his fellow veterans who left those same battlefields to seek employment on Capitol Hill sending other people's children to die in their place are now begging the Defense Department to retry Bowe and lock him up this time. But Bowe Bergdahl is the man that we call crazy. Just like we did Sinead O'Connor.

While the music industry loudly sings the praises of their fallen prodigal daughter, 'that poor crazy girl', they conveniently neglect to mention that it was they who hurled her out into the cold for defying their decree of silence in regard to the crimes of the powerful against the voiceless. Sinead sold seven million records for these gutless jackals and was showered with trophies and trinkets before she threw it all away by tearing up a single picture on live television. That picture was of a man named Pope John Paul II. A man in charge of a church whose crimes against children were rocking Sinead's home country of Ireland to its very core at the time of her performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. The same church that robbed her of a childhood and me as well. In fact, 1992 was also the year that I was molested in the basement of one of the Catholic Church's schools in rural Pennsylvania.

For the crime of so much as even speaking our names, Sinead O'Connor was shunned by the waking world and turned into an international pariah. She spent the last thirty years of her life being heckled and mocked and belittled as mad, ill, unstable... Even after the crimes she threw herself on the flames to warn you people of were made horrifically public, Sinead remained persona non grata while John Paul was canonized as a saint. 

But Sinead also remained brazenly unapologetic, insisting that she "fucked up their career, not mine." And perhaps that was the craziest thing about this woman. She never wanted the shallow idolatry of her vapid peers. As she proudly proclaimed of the fallout from that telltale event, "There was no doubt about who this bitch is. There was no more mistaking this woman for a pop star." Clearly, the words of a crazy woman. For daring to utter such blasphemy, Sinead would only be honored in death.

What the fuck is crazy anyway? And who exactly gets to decide? Insanity is defined as a deviation from normal behavior. But what would have been "normal behavior" for a soldier and a pop star? Had Bowe Bergdahl been sane, he would have kept his mouth shut and his rifle steady while children continued to die in the streets and turned his career as a hired gun for the state into something to brag about in a resume for public office. Had Sinead O'Connor been sane, she would have kept her mouth open but allowed nothing but silly nonsense to escape it for the thoughtless pleasure of the masses. Thank God that Bowe Bergdahl and Sinead O'Connor were insane because when sanity is defined by a society that values blind patriotism and vapid cultural ephemera above the lives of children there is no virtue more honorable than insanity.

Our twisted society persecutes those of us brave enough not to conform to its collective sickness by making us feel bad just for feeling bad about living in a world that they made bad. Well, I'm through with feeling bad about feeling bad anymore. I am ill and I am ill because this world, this society, this civilization that we all hold in such high regard makes me ill. Quite frankly. it should make you ill too. And if saying these words out loud makes me crazy then I am proud to be crazy. Just remember what I told you, dearest motherfuckers, because if they hate Bowe, Sinead and me then they will hate you too. 

Peace, Love & Empathy- Nicky/CH

Soundtrack: songs that influenced this post

* War by Bob Marley & the Wailers

* Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O'Connor

* Vampire Empire by Big Thief

* I Wanna Be Sedated by the Ramones

* The Day After Tomorrow by Tom Waits

* Mandinka by Sinead O'Connor

* Suffer Little Children by the Smiths

* Crazy by Patsy Cline

* Bug Like an Angel by Mitski

* Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle by Nirvana


  1. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”
    ― Kurt Vonnegut
    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
    — Jiddu Krishnamurti

    An Inverted Means Test
    Last week I was told by two government bureaucrats I was no longer eligible for the monthly senior’s supplement benefit of $20.30, not because I had too great an income, but because I had too little an income by 12 bucks a month.
    This idiotic Orwellian inverted means test begs litigation.

    Imagine their reaction if they found out I’m the proprietor of an under-the-table loan business.

  2. While even Thomas Szasz proposed that there were "conditions" (not "mental illnesses"), which were caused by brain physiology or chemistry, which could adversely affect perceptions sufficiently to lower quality of life for certain people, I would tend to agree with him that these could really only be termed "mental illnesses" if the patient thought them sufficiently debilitating to affect her quality life adversely to an extent that she sought treatment. The state should not have a say in determining these things to be illnesses warranting coerced treatment.

    I am one of these people. I was diagnosed as schizo-affective at the age of 24, and have voluntarily been taking psychiatric medicines for 42 years to treat it. I was very fortunate that most of the psychiatric practitioners I consulted had a fairly skeptical attitude toward coercive treatment, and worked with me to try to determine the most effective treatments with the most tolerable side effects. One of my doctors actually came right out and told me that, in his experience, coercive treatment always backfired, eliminating any trust of the doctors by the patient in question.

    Psychiatry could be a noble profession, if and only if, all ties to the state were completely severed. The mere fact that, at one time, ECT and even lobotomies could be given to psychiatric patients without their consent, should give pause to supporting "harmless" coercive intervention.

    The idea that the state has the legal authority to label a person "mentally ill" simply because they are different, even if that difference is not a problem as far as the person who is different perceives it, is horrifying in the extreme when we follow the principle to its logical conclusion.

    1. In the Canuckistan province of BC it is still legal pursuant to the BC Mental Health Act to involuntarily apply ECT to a person without their, or their guardian’s consent:

  3. "What the fuck is crazy anyway?"

    In my opinion, a person if crazy if whatever differences they have in their mental and emotional functioning from "normal" are causing them problems, as they perceive it. A person can never be defined as "crazy" if another person perceives these differences as harmful, and certainly not if a psychiatric professional does so. I have met some good psychiatrists, they really do exist, but should we really effectively be putting a gun in their hand?