Back in boyhood I’d occasionally hear my parents in hushed tones discussing so-and-so’s nervous breakdown, a mysterious condition that baffled me. I sensed through those half-heard conversations a nervous breakdown didn’t entail the wild spasmodic movements I had seen in a documentary about Huntington’s Chorea, but rather a nervous breakdown’s pathology resulted in some sort of behavioral outrageousness that brought to mind the phrase “at the end of your rope.”
It wasn’t until I saw John Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana that I got a clearer picture of just what a nervous breakdown might look like:
Here’s Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD of the Mayo Clinic’s website’s explanation:
The term “nervous breakdown” is sometimes used to describe a stressful situation in which someone becomes temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It’s commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming. The term was commonly used in the past to cover a variety of mental disorders; it’s used less often today.
Victims of nervous breakdowns tend to be high strung. The term comes from archery. A high strung’s person’s nervous system’s akin to a bow whose string’s high tension tends to shorten the life of the bow, which explodes at some point in the hand of the archer.
Richard Burton’s character in Night of the Iguana, Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, certainly seems in the following clip to qualify as high strung. His definition of statutory rape is especially noteworthy.
Interestingly, as Night of the Iguana was being shot,
Diazepam (Valium) was approved for use in 1963. … Chemist Leo Sternbach made the discovery that led to Valium while working for Hoffmann-La Roche. Sternbach had created an entirely new class of tranquilizers named benzodiazepines, which were safer and more effective than previous treatments such as barbiturates, opiates, alcohol and herbs. His other breakthroughs would include the sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon, Klonopin for epileptic seizures and Arfonad, for limiting bleeding during brain surgery. (49)
Of course, creative types like Tennessee Williams are notorious for being high strung, if not bipolar, and have sought self-medication via demon rum and other numbing agents, which almost invariably lead to more stress. In fact, this morning’s NY Times has a book review on a study of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver as rummies, a book I intend to check out.
illustration by John Cuneo
The 12-Step people claim that there can be no cure for substance abuse except through a religious belief of some sort, whether it be as stringent as Hasidim Judaism or as vague as Steve Earle’s “I know there’s a God, and He ain’t me.”
Alas, however, the path to Enlightenment is much longer than that trip to the liquor cabinet.