“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” -Frederick Buechner

Vulnerable. Raw.

This is how schoolchildren, teachers and parents in a small Connecticut town have felt ever since the devastating Sandy Point school shooting a few months ago.

Media speculation doesn’t help; the televised analyses provide the salt and lemon juice to be rubbed into the seeming death by a million proverbial paper cuts of people directly and indirectly affected by the shooting.

A quick (s)troll through social media sites finds an endless moray of articles calling for more gun control. Now. NRA be damned, we need those weapons off the streets. Our babies, our collective safety, all lay on the line.

On this note, I ask people to not confuse correlation with causation – just because America has the highest numbers of mass shootings by a long shot may not mean that this is an issue determined by our gun control policies, but rather our attitudes towards fear. This is not the discussion that scares me most in the aftermath of these shootings. The discussion that scares me is the one surrounding mental illness and how to deal with it.

An letter entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” bounced around like a pinball played by Tommy amongst my circle of friends on Facebook shortly after the shooting; I can only assume a similar trend follows everyone else around. While seemingly enlightened and well intentioned, this presents a problem: we have people who are either mentally healthy or suppose they are mentally healthy because they have not been told otherwise commenting on –to put it bluntly and rather crassly—what to do with the “crazies.”

The mother in the article has a very legitimate concern: her son threatens physical violence to her and her other children on a regular basis. I applaud her for not turning her child over to the state, to the prison system, or to a private institution, because frankly those are probably worse environments for her son. But she compromises her safety and the safety of her own children in the process. She is forced into a situation where her career is no longer what she dreamt of, but the appropriate measures taken to financially afford the care of her child. This is real life right here.

What is not talked about is what it is like for the son.

But really, who gives a damn. He’s a monster. He pulls knives on his own mother. Who in their right mind would do that? Or even their left mind?

It’s not about the function of the brain at this point. I encourage and personally challenge each and every one of you reading this right now to consider this: this is about the people born into these brains, these systems of electrical systems somehow jury-rigged in a practical joke of evolution, God, or Mother Nature to operate differently. These are the people who have to regularly go through the process of thinking either streamlined fifty steps ahead of average or permanently mired in a Rube-Goldberg contraption, forever delayed to get to the point due to it’s own flawed design, full of redundancies and detours.

This is what we deal with.

Yes, we. I .

I want to humanize this for you. I am fortunate to be a fully functioning human being who happens to also have significant troubles with ADD, Anxiety and Depression. In my definition of significant, I mean it impacts how I live my life; how I study, how I date, how I love, how I (don’t) interact with my parents, how I earn money to live, how I perform mundane household tasks, how I create relationships and how I can empathize with the world around me. And while this is a fairly “common” mental illness, people still do no talk about it.

And I am blessed enough to have the personality, character, passion and drive to be successful BECAUSE of this. Yes, because. Not in spite of. Not with my difficulties. Because.  Unless you’re Harvey Dent, every coin has two different sides, and each of these things come with a blessing. But it’s often at the cost of the way I interact with the people around me, and sometimes the cost is unbearably high.

We can look at abnormal psychology through two different lenses: the one that views it as entirely caused by what we are made of – our genetic code. The other is by proxy from the environment that created it.

At this point, humanity and science can do very little to change genetic makeup of any given individual in a targeted and meaningful way. We like to think we are on the cusp of a breakthrough, but truly we are still flailing about, barely comprehending the basic code that gives us both form and function. And then there are the ethical considerations.

What we can change is our environment.

Let me repeat that: we have the ability as a society to structure the world around us in many varied, beautiful and healthy ways. But we don’t. Not usually.

Here’s why this is important.

People who struggle with a mental illness – and probably many mentally healthy people as well – often cannot control where their mind goes or what their mind shows them. This is life in the constant grip of fear. This is life in the constant mire of uncertainty of what the world around you is doing. This is complete loss of control of self in the absence of healthy structure. This is terrifying. And when the world around you fails to listen to what you – the person inside that brain­ – is saying, you wonder whether you make sense. You get frustrated. And when enough people  in your life ignore what you think are your own attempts at asking for help in the only way you know how, you become willing to do anything to get your point across. You’ll tantrum, yell, scream, hold somebody’s feelings hostage. And to a degree, all people do that. But there are those among us who, through no fault of their own, cannot see where the line in the sand is drawn for most other people as to what may be appropriate. It’s like being blind to social cues, reality and appropriateness. I like to think of it in terms of “In order to make room for more cool things I could do with my brain, God (or, if you prefer, nature) tossed out some of my hardwiring for social niceties.” Maybe it could make sense in computer terms: I got a device with more RAM, but some of the subroutines and updates to the operating system most of the other kids have didn’t come installed and is not necessarily backwards (or forwards) compatible with different versions.

So why is this relevant to the way we structure our environment?

Because society as a whole forms the environment through which people – all people – operate. Our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, families, friends and random aquaintances all shape the seemingly pedestrian experiences of our existence by adding the building blocks to the structure.

You never know how what you say affects those around you, and a seemingly innocent comment can cut deep to the core at somebody who is trying desperately to fit in, and failing at it in the process. What we need, no what you need, is to live fully present in a world created by compassion and courage to see things from somebody else’s viewpoint.

Why do I bother to include you, the reader, in this process? Because you are one tour of duty in Iraq away from coming home fully immersed in a PTSD meltdown. You are one head injury away from slowed cognitive processes or one spinal cord injury away from becoming incapacitated. You are one abusive relationship or sexual assault away from feeling worthless and paranoid. You are one blood clot away from a debilitating stroke and being unable to speak or move part of your body.

You are fragile. And so are we.

People of all races, ethnic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, income levels, political beliefs and religions are and can be affected. Instead of defining the sum total of a person’s existence by a few electrical misfires or chemical imbalances in their brains, or by damaging programming from a childhood riddled with abuse, I challenge each and every one of you reading this to respond differently to all people around you and to change the stigma surrounding those who are quite literally “wired” differently.

Chances are, it terrifies those of us living with these differences as much as it terrifies you.

I leave you with this inspiring TED talk from Elyn Saks:

Note: This is one in a series of TED talks about mental illness entitled “All kinds of minds.”

If you feel moved to action, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness‘ “Stigma Busters” program.

For more information on mental illness and domestic violence, click here or here.