Enough Already with the Trauma

Learning to live with your inner mishegas

Chelsea Burgess (Flickr/radarxlove)
Chelsea Burgess (Flickr/radarxlove)

On May 18, 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—or DSM-5, the latest revision of the so-called psychiatric bible. On the very same day, the first and only edition of The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas appeared, containing the writings of the brilliant, if frequently farmisht, Dr. Sol Farblondget MD, PhD, PTA. With yet another edition of the DSM coming out earlier this year (1,120 pages, $170), we asked Dr. Farblondget if he had any new case studies, any new thoughts or theories, that might be cause for a revision of his own work.

“Are you kidding me?” he said, after inviting us to lunch at his New York apartment. “At 74 pages and selling retail for only $10, the Mishegas Manual is as good a bargain as you’ll find anywhere south of Delancey Street—not only more informative than the APA’s cockamamie doorstop, but infinitely more useful.”

After watching his colleagues produce version after version of their overpriced, internally ferkacht, and often unintelligible tomes, Dr. Farblondget sought a simpler alternative. “What I wanted to do,” he said, “was to help people transform ordinary tsuris and mishegas—the glooms, blues, angsts, and general chazzerei of their lives—into transcendent and easy-to-understand categories, and to do so by doing what the DSM never does—by giving clear descriptions and practical illustrations.” He called our attention to the epigraph for The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas, which he had borrowed from Gershon Orwell’s book, Funny Farm: “All men and women are meshuga, but some men and women are more meshuga than others.”

After offering us some herring to go with the bagels, bialys, lox, onions, sable, and smoked whitefish he had already set out, Dr. Farblondget referred us to Section 5 of his manual, which outlines the “Categories of Mishegas”:

Farmisht. A little confused and/or befuddled. For example, an elderly man walking along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach stops another elderly man. “Listen,” he asks, “was it you or your brother who died last week?”

Fartsadikt. More than a little confused and/or befuddled. For example, a man telephones the Kronkheit Psychiatric Institute and Nursing Home and asks for the nurses’ station on the third floor. When he is connected, he asks if the nurse can call Milton Goldfarb to the phone. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the nurse says, “but Milton Goldfarb escaped from our home three hours ago.” “Thank God,” the man replies. “Then I’m out.”

Dr. Farblondget went on to list the many differences between the Mishegas Manual and the DSM-5: “Instead of a section they misleadingly call ‘Personality Disorders’—which creates needless embarrassment about conditions that for most of us just come with our ordinary meshuggenah ways of being—I included a section I call ‘Cockamamie Conditions of Character.’ ”

Could he give us an example?

Dr. Farblondget brushed some crumbs from his beard and smiled broadly. He then read out loud the following two categories:

Schlemiel. An essentially stupid, inept, submissive, and ineffectual man to whom unlucky things happen. “The schlemiel falls on his back,” clinical studies demonstrate, “and breaks his nose.” A schlemiel is pathologically incapable of doing things right and should not be confused with his close cousin, the nebbish. (A schlemiel knocks a glass of prune juice off a table; the nebbish wipes it up.)

Schlemazel. A chronically unlucky human being. Physicians throughout the ages have drawn on traditional folk sayings, many collected by the great scholar of Yiddish lexicology, Leo Rosten, to explain the schlemazel’s haplessness: “When a schlemazel winds a clock, it stops; when he kills a chicken, it walks; when he sells umbrellas, the sun comes out; and when he manufactures shrouds, people stop dying.”

The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas, Dr. Farblondget explained, also offers something found nowhere in the DSM—treatment modalities that enable readers to learn to live at peace with their inner mishegas, and to treasure its precious, absurd and life-giving madness. For virtually all cockamamie conditions of character, and for most categories of mishegas, some matzoh ball soup, a spa day, a sitz bath, a favorite libation imbibed while watching a movie featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Oscar Levant, or the Marx Brothers, a walk in a sylvan setting with your sweetheart (or someone else’s), or playing hooky from work in the afternoon and going to a movie—but not telling anyone you did—can do wonders.

And what of the darker episodes of life, when one, say, loses a friend or a relative?

“People have the right to be depressed, and sad, and to grieve when they lose a loved one,” Dr. Farblondget said, “and to do so without being told by the APA that they have a ‘prolonged grief disorder.’ ”

Could Dr. Farblondget elaborate?

“You want I should maybe be more blunt?” he said, and he put a strawberry and some honey into his tea and ours. “Look—in my experience, tsuris comes to everyone, and sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it doesn’t go away, and although Jews like to claim a monopoly on it, the truth is that this condition—troubles, aggravation, worries, suffering, loss—befalls everyone, even the mishegoyim—but the good news is that most of what passes for mishegas is simply—simply?!—ha!—a natural reaction to life’s vagaries and pitfalls.”

At this point, Dr. Farblondget set down his tea, and poured us each a small glass of schnapps.

By mishegas minor, I’m talking about everyone else—for instance, a young woman who is upset because the young man she is engaged to is more excited by a New York Knicks victory than oral sex.

“Now when it comes to tsuris-addiction—a major personal and social affliction whose existence is not even acknowledged by the DSM—that’s a whole other story because tsuris-addiction is a condition that, by cutting people off from their innate capacity for resiliency and pleasure, enables them to spread shpilkes-laden gloom and doom everywhere. The point isn’t to moan and groan and carry on about the tsuris that has befallen you, but to do something about it. When the Children of Israel came to the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, and they complained to Moses that they’d been delivered from slavery into something worse than slavery, and Moses, without even asking for a retainer, went to God on their behalf and transmitted their complaints, God laughed. ‘Wherefore criest thou unto me?’ He said. ‘Go forward!’ And it was only when the Children of Israel stopped kvetching —which you can read about in Section 2.2 of ‘Cockamamie Conditions of Character,’ and about which major condition the DSM says bupkis—and plunged forward that the waters parted.”

Dr. Farblondget went on. “What I got in my little book is an ingenious alternative to all the farfolen therapies that flow from the DSM and its unfathomable run-on sentences. Because let’s face it—we’re all a little meshuga—so what I do is simplify the whole schmeer by dividing all of us into two groups—those who suffer from mishegas major and those who suffer from mishegas minor.”

We asked Dr. Farblondget to explain the difference.

“When I use the term mishegas major,” he said, “I’m talking about people who are really, really meshuga—for example, a person who talks with God without first getting permission from his rabbi, priest, or health insurance provider. Or a man who, convinced by his physician that he’s not a chicken, continues to lay eggs. And by mishegas minor, I’m talking about everyone else—for instance, a young woman who is upset because the young man she is engaged to is more excited by a New York Knicks victory than oral sex.

“The way I see it, we’re all a little bit meshuga, and that’s just fine,” Dr. Farblondget continued, “because most kinds of mishegas—like love!—make the world go round, which is why, as Mister Shakespeare wrote in the original, unexpurgated version of A Midsummer Night’s Driml, ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination and mishegas all compact.’ ”

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Jay Neugeboren is the author of 23 books. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The New York Times and have been reprinted in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His latest novel, After Camus, was published earlier this year.


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