Are you kidding? These are the ugly serpents I desperately feared as a boy.
When I was four years old, my family moved to a new home in the foothills of the Salt Lake Valley. During the first summer, my father killed with a shovel two rattlers while we were gardening in our backyard. I thought he was very brave and was valiantly protecting our family. Later when Mrs. Richardson, my second grade teacher, gave my class an assignment to list the things we feared most, “raddle snakes” (sic) was first my list (I still remember her correcting my spelling!)
Yet, over the years as an adult as I’ve read about and had more encounters with these snakes, my feelings have moved from terror to cautious fascination. “About the only way they bite is if you try to catch them or you try to kill them, or if you accidentally stepped or sat on one,” these same naturalist reported. That’s consistent with my experience. The Great Basin rattlesnake is the one I’m familiar with. Perhaps other varieties are more aggressive. But I’ve never had a problem them, though I’ve come upon them about ten times on mountain hikes. The only person I know of who was bitten had crazily picked one up to show his kids. He was the father of one of the young men in my troop when I was a Scoutmaster. (That made for a great campfire story about never messing with dangerous things such as drugs and pornography.)
On the other hand, poisonous snakes do good in the world. They are part of the wonderful ecosystem that interconnects animals, plants, and geological features. Further, their venom is used for medicinal purposes. It’s used to treat heart attacks, blood disorders, brain injuries, strokes, and other diseases. I recently met a man in Colorado who maintains a warehouse of 75 caged rattlesnakes and extracts their venom—every two weeks consistent with the animal’s regeneration period—for medicinal and research purposes. He told me that demand is so high, he intends on quadrupling his snakes and production.
Like rattlers, I also feared mental illness when I was younger—including my own experiences with major depressive episodes when I was eighteen. My doctor told me I just had a “temporary chemical imbalance,” but I was left feeling it was a lot deeper and more serious than that. It was such a scary thing for me that I was afraid to ask too many questions. My parents treated the situation with secrecy and unease. For years after that experience, I feared that more episodes—more “temporary chemical imbalances”—would mysteriously erupt. Discussing mental illness was a taboo in my home growing up.
But I’ve become more enlightened over the last twenty years. Through therapy I grew to understand what happened to me when I was eighteen and the factors that caused the episodes. I no longer fear they will return. I’ve also recognized and learned to manage the moderate chronic clinical depression and generalized anxiety I’ve experienced much of my life. I try to manage my mental health closely and carefully and I consider myself to be in recovery.
Yes, I’ve become more knowledgably and comfortable with the topic of mental illness. I have no problem discussing it with others. In fact, my memoir book of my experiences with mental illness was published. I’ve taught many classes, led support groups, and given many presentations about mental illness.
I’ve learned that mental illness has its benefits, too. Harvard psychology profession Nassir Ghaemi’s book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness states that some individuals have risen to great leadership at moments of crisis in history because of their mental illness, not in spite of it. Lincoln, Churchill, and Gandhi are among the several examples cited.
Psychologist Fred Frese has schizophrenia and became a director of a state mental hospital that he earlier had been committed to. I heard him say at a conference that he views his disease as not a “deficit,” but a “difference” from those who are “chronically normal.” He said that people with schizophrenia usually have greater abilities in theoretical rationality. He referred to the movie, A Beautiful Mind that portrays the life of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics who lived with schizophrenia.
In my case, I believe my experiences with mental illness have helped me be a more empathetic, resilient person.
So, rattlesnakes and mental illness: both things that are very scary in ignorance, but may be beneficial when understood and dealt with in an enlightened way.
Rattlesnakes and mental illness are beautiful!
 Deseret News, 6/20/2014, B1