Straining at a gnat and swallowing a… fly?

WARNING: POTENTIAL TRIGGERS …… LONG POST ALERT!

I have been watching some TV series’ lately, which is a real joy since for a few years I couldn’t for a few years due to the many triggers in modern television shows.  For those who don’t know, a “trigger” is an event or stimulus that is real – that is, which really exists – but which sets of thoughts and feelings related to one’s mental illness.  For example, a “trigger” for depression, like the word “failure”, may bring on feelings of responsibility and guilt which, left unchecked, could spiral into self-destructive or even suicidal tendencies. Similarly, a “trigger” for paranoia can spiral into mania or psychosis.  It all depends on one’s level of stability and how vulnerable one is toward the trigger.

Many concepts for modern television shows can be “triggers” for me if I’m unstable or vulnerable.  For example, during times of instability, I am significantly vulnerable to shows about “secret agencies” (such as those which were depicted in the series “Fringe”). Another vulnerability for me is shows related to mind control, bionic implants, nanotechnology, and so forth.  Same with paranormal shows like “Ghost Hunters” or “Long Island Medium”.  Basically anything where it is suggested that things are not quite as they seem.

When a “trigger” takes effect, my mind begins to believe that the same sort of thing is occurring in the real world.  For instance, I may watch a movie such as “Alien”, where a crew member thought to be a man turns out to be an android with artificial intelligence.  My mind will latch onto the idea, and I will begin to think perhaps I am not actually human… perhaps my thoughts are not really mine, but were programmed into me… perhaps my insides are not the usual internal organs, but machine parts moving in strange ways.  And before long, I can actually hear them making strange noises, feel them grinding together inside me, and my awareness of my surroundings becomes surreal and artificial-feeling.

Depending on my level of stability, small episodes like this may escalate into full blown psychosis, or they may just spin around in my mind awhile before breaking apart… rational thinking becoming once again engaged, dismissing those thoughts for what they are: part of the illness rather than credible ideas.  During the months and years when I was unstable, I gave up television for the most part to avoid the “triggers”, except for innocuous shows such as talent shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and so forth, or older shows like “Leave It To Beaver”.  Basically I only watched shows where everything depicted pretty closely corresponds to what normally happens in reality.

So now that I am feeling more stable, I have been catching up on some of the best television series of the past six years.  A couple of months ago, when I finished all of the seasons for one show, I searched to find out which show had won the most awards lately.  It turns out the show is “Breaking Bad”, the story of a high school chemistry teacher who learns he has cancer, and decides to begin manufacturing methamphetamine (a drug commonly known as “Crystal Meth”) for dealers and distributors, in order to finance his cancer treatments and provide money for his family (should he die).

Now, this is not a show I would have chosen during a vulnerable time, and I have to say that I was not greatly impressed by the pilot episode.  In fact, the first time I attempted to watch the second episode, I ended up putting it aside and watching all of the episodes of something else instead.  But a couple of weeks ago when I was feeling stable enough, I got into “Breaking Bad”, assuming that since it was nominated or won so many awards there must be something to it that didn’t come across in the pilot.  Now I’m on Season 3 and really enjoying the subtle (or not so subtle) humor of the show.

Last night and today I watched an episode called simply, “Fly”.  It is a smart and funny episode – rather an unusual one – in which the chemistry teacher is beginning his workday in a special lab provided to him solely for the manufacture of Crystal Meth.  A fly buzzes around him, and in his subsequent efforts to kill it (to prevent it from “contaminating” his “recipe” for meth), he falls off a balcony and suffers a blow to the head.  His partner – a recovering junkie and meth dealer who is grieving a recently deceased girlfriend – enters the lab and the two of them begin an exchange about the fly that made me think of the play, “Waiting for Godot”.

The dialogue between them is fascinating and hilarious.  The chemistry teacher begins enunciating his words very carefully and clearly, speaking slowly as one would if teaching a small child to read, explaining that there has been “a contamination” and that they must seal off the lab until the contamination is “eradicated”.  The junkie partner responds in alarm, thinking there must be an outbreak of Ebola or something similarly threatening in the lab.  When he learns it is only a common housefly, he says, “…and you think I am the idiot here??”  They proceed with attempts at killing the fly comparable to the antics of “Laurel and Hardy” or “The Three Stooges”.

The funniest aspect of the whole episode is explained at one point by the junkie partner:  “It’s just a fly.  No one will care. We’re making meth here… not space shuttles.”  To which the teacher responds, “There will be no cooking until the contamination is eradicated.”

I hear a phrase lingering on the edge of my mind… something like, “Straining at gnats but swallowing a fly.”  A web search reminds me that I am recalling part of a verse of Scripture from the Bible found in Matthew 23:23-24.  Jesus is speaking to the crowd around Him and says, “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

Just as it is silly to worry about a fly contaminating a harmful drug, it is equally ridiculous to worry about the small faults and sins of others when one is struggling with much greater issues oneself.  Elsewhere, Jesus teaches a similar lesson, saying, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

As I have worked through the various issues associated with my mental illness, my perspective on the faults and sins of others has changed dramatically.  No longer do I worry about the “gnat” of their actions, unless I also see clear evidence of the “camel” of their intentions.  For example, it no longer bothers me so much when I am overlooked or disregarded, unless I find clear evidence that it’s deliberate and intentional.  Most of the time, I can write off such things to the blindness of the world toward the mentally ill, but occasionally I do find signs of intentional discrimination or intent to harm.  Because I am aware of my vulnerability to “triggers”, when that does happen, I always seek confirmation from trusted friends and reliable resources – I no longer trust my “gut” or my “intuition” as credible.  I have found that this practice makes me more objective, more gracious, less in a hurry to judge, more willing to forgive.  Would that I could have discovered this approach without going through the traumatic events of the last several years!

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