Mental Health in Berkeley: Yours, Mine, and Theirs

by Steed Dropout
January 29, 2012

This is dedicated to Kim Nemirow, just another dedicated Berkeley activist, who was recently kicked off the Berkeley Homeless Commission, which was her spiritual home. Don’t quote me on this, but Kim’s own disability may have led to her ousting, a possible violation of the American With Disabilities Act.

Kim is still (four years service) a commissioner on Berkeley’s Mental Health Commission.

I won’t say Kim is stalking me, but I run into her all over town, where she hounds me to do a piece on “Mental Health in Berkeley.”

So here goes — Kim.

Dear reader, how is your Berkeley mental health? Let me poll you on this.

1) Do you go off on people?
2) Have you stalked anyone lately?
3) Talked on a nonexistent cell phone?
4) Subscribe to the intra-net. Don’t subscribe, but receive it anyway.
5) Sense strange smells. Worry that it is you?
6) Have a pile of documents proving that you are under investigation by multi-agencies?
7) Are you investigating the investigators?
8) Enjoying yourself too much? Too little?
9) Ever been called crazy? Do you agree? Disagree?

We won’t give the answers, because the questions answer themselves. One tip, though, on number 9. Any way you answer this, you’re crazy.

Such are the exigencies of mental health in Berzerkeley, known world-wide for its wacky ways.

Street People, Telegraph Avenue, all presumed mentally disabled. Photo by Ted Friedman.


Mental illness takes a deadly toll on us, especially in Berkeley where we think we are crazier than thou, even if we can’t prove it — but suspect that may be because we wear our disabilities like merit badges.

Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd, a local institution, wore, for many years, a button proclaiming, “Weird and Proud.”

Does Berkeley really have more diagnosed mental disorders than Peoria, or is it that in Peoria, they hide it better?

Is it Quaker’s (or Burma-Shave) who say: “Sometimes I think the whole world is crazy, except for me and thee, and sometimes I worry about thee.”

Old-timers at Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. 'Sometimes I think the whole world is crazy, except for me and thee, and sometimes I worry about thee.' Try to find the thee. Is it colorful-shirted gentleman, center. Photo by Ted Friedman.

What are we even talking about here? What is mental health, and can it be quantified?

I asked my psychiatrist, many moons ago, “Doc, just how crazy am I?” He stretched out his arms before me, starting with a wide arc. “You mean this much [wide]? This much [not so wide}, or, hands close together [narrow] this much”?

The doc must have learned this in Med school. I never asked that question again.

On “assignment” at the Berkeley men’s homeless shelter recently a shelter client asked me, if I thought he was “crazy.” He was waving his notification of benefits for his disability. “in Berkeley, it’s hard to tell,” I reassured him. He will blend into the wacky mix we love to call Berzerkeley.


Those, who have suffered horrors beyond belief, do not consider this a laughing matter, while others may laugh inappropriately, as I may be doing here. (Seriously folks, inappropriate laughter is one of my problems, in case, dear reader, you haven’t noticed).

I have a long-time friend, who’s brother committed suicide over schizophrenia, and another brother who tried to immolate himself, but only rendered himself scarred beyond recognition, living out his life in a nursing home, where he died prematurely.

My survivor friend is himself in an out of mental-health care facilities, and believes he is hearing voices in the walls.

A couple I know was threatened with a gun by a friend, who always said he was only a threat to himself; but that was before he was busted, and died in the emergency room, after horrifying quite a few Berkeleyans.

A friend is presently being stalked by a guy who owns a gun, and hears voices. The stalker sincerely believes his victim is evil. His life must also be valued, somehow.

House of cardboard, at now defunct Occupy Berkeley encampment. Is it sane to live like this? Photo by Ted Friedman.

And so it goes here in Berkeley, where we all may laugh inappropriately too often.


My first meet with Kim, four months ago, at a homeless commission meeting on the North side, pitted our mutual disabilities against each other. She was sitting next to me, and noisily zipping, then, unzipping, then re-zipping her zippered bags.

Eye-daggers seemed to miss their target, although later she told me that she knew I was pissed, and had tried then to be as noisy as she could. I am sensitive to noise, and other distractions that most people don’t even notice, or can ignore.

We had more pleasant meetings, when she showed up at Occupy Berkeley general assemblies. I’ve tried to get her to write for the Planet on her experiences in Berkeley homeless shelters, which she despises. Why? I wanted to know.


So what’s wrong with me?

Dale Berger was a Med friend, who engaged me in many hours of Medtalk about Psychiatric diagnoses from the the diagnosing manual used by shrinks. Berger was working on a paper, summarizing brain research into mental illness.

Invariably we’d fall into diagnosing Medheads. No one escaped our assessments, except ourselves. Berger clearly had an obsession with Bob Dylan. Although Berger died recently in Spokane, I have carried on the practice. Everyone we knew at the Med was clearly nuts, especially Craig Becker, the owner.

My case may not seem as serious as those I described above, but affected me in my early life, and after four years of homelessness in the late seventies. Without naming the disorder, which is an anomalous one, I will list some of my more “glamorous” symptoms, or characteristics.

Anti-social, exhibitionistic, histrionic, chronically depressed (except when elated, all in a single day), grandiosity, and paranoia. Although at times mild, these characteristics flare up at all the worst times.

Studies say street kids are nuts. Is it nuts to love your dog, bike, and old lady?
Photo by Ted Friedman.

I am consulting with a doctor friend of fifteen years, and a former psychiatric intern, to learn more about border-line personality. I still see a social worker, who treated me successfully three years ago — after a worse than usual downward-spiral.


Thanks for egging me on. If you’re feeling cheated because I haven’t really investigated anything, just consider my disabilities.

Steed Dropout writes, as Ted Friedman, for the Berkeley Daily Planet, just as Clark Kent used his name as an aka for Superman.

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