ESSAY: Nearby Frontiers

by Matthew Maitland Thomas

The house was in a small, weed-choked town on the very outer rim of a tiny metropolis. Not far away there was a shuttered factory. Within sight of the factory was the ruin of a granary. On the main drag there was a Dairy Queen. Across from the DQ was a grungy laundromat. The town was a despairing place, and I was there, in the cramped rooms of the house.

A dog was locked in a room at the back of the house. The dog was not at all socialized and was vicious, probably to the point of being murderous. It made a great commotion behind the room’s heavy door. Finally, there was the clattering of claws on wood followed by a violent thud. The dog’s owner laughed, but not me. The dog had rammed the door, trying to escape.

Shortly before I left, the dog was taken outside. It had to come through the front room. Chaos engulfed the house when the door was opened. The dog was a fury of muscles and teeth. Snarling, it lunged for me. Flying spittle hit my face. Its owner pulled hard on the choke chain. The dog yelped, recovered, and lunged again and again, each time coming a millimeter closer to my nose.

I encountered the dog once more on the way to my car. It was chained to a stake in the ground in the side yard. Instructing me to stay outside the well-worn path made by its endless pacing, the owner dared me to turn my back on the dog. While I stood before it, the dog crouched, growling softly. When I turned my back, the dog flew at me as though let loose from hell.

The dog in its three manifestations — the unknown terror locked behind a heavy door, the spasmodic font of chaos disturbing a settled room and the beast upon which you cannot turn your back — is a tidy representation of mental illness. But this representation is shallow, empty and lazy (even the term “mental illness” feels inadequate). It is thus because it excludes people. What the dog-as-representation-of-mental-illness describes instead are the “loony-in-the-attic,” the “maniac” and the “psycho,” the tawdry minstrels of “crazy.”

These are not people. People are our friends and lovers, spouses and partners, parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, our acquaintances and the strangers we pass on the street. I know that; I know better. And yet, when thinking about mental illness, I wrote this dog into existence, gnashing teeth and all. I might as well have named it Madness.

If, like me, you are in close physical and emotional proximity to a person who lives with mental illness, you understand that such metaphors are not only thin and unimaginative, but fail morally and ethically. They are inaccurate. They are cruel. When unchallenged, that cruelty opens the curtain on a horror show of mistreatment, exclusion, violence and suffering. A new metaphor is needed, one that is kinder and more accurately describes mental illness as perceived by someone like me, one of its watchers, who is co-located with mental illness by way of a person who lives with it, who lives with me.

The house, the dog and the puddle of a town dissolve into a vast openness. A sea of tall grass, shimmying in the breezes that ripple the plains, runs clear to the curve of the Earth. A single guard tower interrupts the space. This is the last outpost on the far-flung reaches of a great empire. One sentry mans the tower. His duty is to watch the lands beyond the border for the stirrings of trouble. But there are none, not ever. Whatever war or campaign of conquest it was that established this border happened long ago. Its heroes and villains are the stuff of legend and fairy tale. The rest is morning mist.

Observer of an uneventful expanse, the sentry has little to do, so he goes about his life. He reads, does laundry, takes naps, eats and goes for walks. Every so often, a dog comes sniffing around the tower. The dog is not wild; it belongs to someone, the sentry somehow knows. It reminds him of the dog he had as a child. The sentry feeds, pets and plays with the dog. He watches as it bounds off across the plain, headed home to its family. He has not met them yet, wherever they are, but he suspects they’re probably not so different than him.

Far from his capitol and its dogmas, on the edge of the border lands, the sentry feels the prejudices of his imperial upbringing flaking away. The Enemy? The Other? Lies and hyperbole, the sentry concludes while checking over the guard tower. It is in great need of repair. The stones are weathered. The foundation is cracked. The sentry hopes the construction detail never arrives, that the tower be forgotten, that the swaying grasses grow tall enough to weave a sheath around the tower and pull it down to the earth. Then, he will sit on the leftover mound and look across what used to be a boundary. Whoever dwells beyond the edges of his empire, the sentry understands, is not strange or dangerous, and they are certainly not to be hated, hurt or feared.

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