Local filmmaker and musician publishes book regarding mental illness
Psychiatry is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as the branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Psychology is defined by the same source as the science that deals with mental processes and behavior, the emotional characteristics of an individual. That subtle difference is something which local iconoclast Dave Elder wants everyone to understand.
Elder has written a book about his experiences with loved ones suffering from mental illness, "Expecting the Broken Brain to do Mental Pushups." That book, available at Amazon.com, and locally at River Read in Binghamton, N.Y. and Books I Should Have Read in Endicott, N.Y., is a journey through mental illness as seen through Elder. He recalls when he was three-and-a-half-years old in the mid-1950s: "my mother disappeared. The woman who took her place looked the same and had the same name, but was a very different person," he writes.
"The book is about my mom, it's the story of my life," Elder said. Elder describes the onset of schizophrenia in his mother, visiting her in some kind of hospital where nobody looked sick but were nevertheless incapacitated, the hushed conversations among older relatives about his mother. It was the 1950s, and mental illness was not understood as much as it is now. Today, Elder finds a troubling lack of understanding still, and considers the subtle difference between psychiatry and psychology the key to beginning to understand.
"Psychiatric is a physical problem in the brain, and in some ways it is simpler than psychology," Elder said. "If a person says they have tiger blood and you don't know what it feels like to have tiger blood, it would be a psychological problem if they were egotistical and saying they were better than you. If that person is telling you how they actually feel - like they can do anything - then there is a chemical imbalance in their brain, which is a physical problem."
"A person who has a psychological problem is kind of in a maze," Elder continued, "and a psychologist can guide them out of the maze. A person with a psychiatric problem is in a well and can't get out. We think of people as having control of their minds. People with psychiatric problems don't have control of their thoughts like other people, they can't make a choice to feel better or think differently. Mental illness is not a choice they make."
Elder graduated from Vestal, N.Y. in 1969, and moved around the country in the 70s and 80s, living in New York City,
Chicago and California before moving back to Vestal a few years ago. His older brother died six months after Elder returned, though his younger brother is still living. It was after giving birth to his baby brother, her third child, that Elder's mom developed schizophrenia.
Interestingly, Elder said that his grandmother also developed the disease after giving birth to her third child.
Elder remembers conversations, what had his grandfather done to make his grandmother go crazy? What did his father do to make his mother crazy? "Nothing, if you understand mental illness," Elder said. In fact, Elder said that his mother's diagnosis crushed his father's dreams of being a missionary.
"That would no longer happen," Elder said. Instead, his father stayed with Elder and his siblings, and dealt with his wife's mental illness all his life.
It's the experiences of his life that forms "Expecting the Broken Brain to do Mental Pushups." Elder likens mental illness to a person with a broken arm, an obvious malady that everyone can see and understand. Too often Elder finds that people expect a person with a broken brain to do mental pushups, while nobody would ask a person with a broken arm to do regular pushups.
Elder talks about his "sock drawer moment" in his book, the moment he began to see mental illness for what it is. There he stood, in front of a sock drawer with a loved one suffering from depression. She could not decide on which pair of socks to wear, "such a trivial thing but she could not decide. What difference does it make which socks you wear?" That's when it hit him that she had no control over her thoughts.
He used to think like many people think: it's only in your mind, why don't you just get over it? "Like she made the choice to be bad,"
Elder said, "but why would a person do that? Her brain's chemistry was not functioning right. The brain is an organ like the heart, but there is no stigma about heart disease, even though people can't see the problem in either case."
Elder also released a documentary last year entitled The View from Here, about a group of New York City realist artists that held a show for their art in 1961. He is also a musician who has recently played in numerous coffee houses along the East Coast, featuring his folk, rock and country inspired music. His musical career is highlighted on daveelder.com. Elder is also booked as a Feb. 5 guest on Bill Jaker's Off the Page show on WSKG radio from 1 to 2 p.m.