Turn Down the Flame

This web site is called the Hot Stove Project. Why? The hot stove metaphor refers to situations in which different perspectives appear equally valid and worthy of respect, but are not easily reconcilable. These are situations which are also rendered more problematic by the stigmatizing of those whose thinking and behavior do not conform to societal norms. What follows are some examples. We invite you to consider them and join the discussion on Facebook.

Situation 1

Someone with friends, family, employers, and colleagues who become aware of this individual’s intensifying emotions or disruptive behavior wish him or her to seek professional treatment. That suggestion is met with anger and hurt at the thought of being perceived as “mentally ill” and any such treatment is categorically refused. The flames of that hot stove are fueled and the individual isolates.

Situation 2

You just came out of a psych facility with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Voices were telling you that you were the source of evil in the world and you needed to kill yourself. The meds help, sort of, but now you’re having trouble organizing your thoughts and your life. When you’re not spacing out and dwelling on the 40 lbs you gained with the medication, you are feeling horrible about yourself and terrified that it might happen again. You try calling your old roommate but she just says, “hi,” and gets off the phone quickly.

Situation 3

Your new roommate has a medication bottle in the medicine cabinet. You Google it and discover that olanzapine is a powerful antipsychotic usually used to treat schizophrenia. She does seem a bit strange and hard to relate to, but you assumed it was just shyness. You worry whether you should ask her about it and how concerned you should be.

Situation 4

You were diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college, after a period of drug use following your mother’s death. Ten years and many psychiatric bills later, your doctor tells you that your kidney function tests are abnormal and so is your blood sugar. You decide to stop the medications, against your family and doctor’s advice.

Situation 5

You trained as a psychiatrist and learned to diagnose and treat mental disorders with medication. You believe that the most effective treatment is to consider these disorders as “illnesses,” as problems in brain chemistry. You attend a conference with colleagues who have been increasingly successful treating without medication. Patients are asking you if they need to stay on medication.

Situation 6

Your spouse has OCD and needs your apartment to be clean and neat at all times. You have recently been laid off from work and between job interviews are watching television in bed and eating potato chips. Your spouse is unable to be supportive because of his preoccupations with money and his terror of roaches and bedbugs. His symptoms are worsening and you find yourself overwhelmed by them while trying to cope with the job hunt. You are increasingly fighting with him.

Situation 7

Your daughter, once a friendly, outgoing, motivated student, is having trouble getting up to go to school. Sometimes you wonder if she’s using drugs or drinking, but she usually stays in her room and appears hypersensitive and angry at everyone and everything. Her teacher is “stupid,” her friend is a “loser,” you’re a “bitch.” She stays up all night and sleeps all day, and she’s losing weight because “your food sucks.” You suggest that she talk to a mental health professional and she tells you you’re the one who needs it.

Situation 8

You finally got a terrific new job, one with a lot of responsibility. You go for your pre-employment physical and wonder if you should tell the doctors about the medication you’re taking. The lengthy form asks for a detailed medical history. Do you lie about your psychotic episode in college and the medications that keep you from relapsing? Will you lose the position if they discover it? You were once, long ago, considered a danger to yourself or others. Do they have a right to be concerned that you may be again?

Situation 9

After his pre-employment physical, you discover that the new person you hired for that very responsible job has a history of psychosis. You can’t take it back, but now have to follow him like a hawk to make sure he’s not behaving inappropriately. You know from personal experience that a lot of people with mental health problems may appear fine on the surface, but have residual emotional or cognitive problems that interfere with thinking clearly and relating to others.

Situation 10

You got fired from a half dozen jobs because you make too many mistakes and have trouble getting along with co-workers so they don’t give you the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong. You tried starting your own business but gave up after making some mistakes in judgment and getting bad reviews. Is it time to apply for disability or public assistance? You’re young, and you’re not crazy or unmotivated. Are you really disabled for life?

Situation 11

Your classmate, who seemed smart but a bit isolated and odd, has been increasingly angry lately, and sometimes mumbles to himself. He just had a bad argument with the teacher. Is he just going through a hard time, or will he come into the classroom with a gun one of these days?

Situation 12

You’ve been told by his school and his doctors that your son has a relatively mild difficulty reading and responding appropriately to the emotional cues of other students. He’s smart and does well academically, but his behavior makes him subject to ridicule and bullying. The well-intentioned teacher is obviously doing the best she can to prevent it, but you realize that some children – adults too – will pick on those who are different. The school offers you two options: He can stay in his regular class and learn to cope with the responses of the other students or he can be transferred to a special class for children on the autistic spectrum.

Situation 13

You’re a teacher with a large and difficult classroom. One of your students began to have trouble finishing her homework. You ask her about it and she tells you about her sick mother and how painful and distracting it is for her at home. You express interest and concern and volunteer to tutor her after school. She improves significantly, but during that time she becomes preoccupied with you. She hangs around after class, asks you personal questions, and tells you details about her life. It’s as if you’ve become a good mother for her. She’s happy now and you don’t want to reject her, but the attention is starting to feel unhealthy.

Situation 14

Your boyfriend is a wonderful person. He graduated from a good school and has a decent job, but he was passed up for promotion yet again and seems to have difficulty working up to his potential. You love him and he loves you, but you’re concerned about his work history. One day he tells you that he’s been seeing a psychiatrist and taking a mood stabilizer because he has some trouble thinking clearly at times. You’re not sure what that means, but he’s clearly uncomfortable talking about it and you don’t want to pry too much. You were hoping for an engagement ring on your next birthday, but now you wonder, is this a deal breaker?

Situation 15

Your father just came out of prison for drugs and aggressive behavior, the result of mental illness accompanied by lack of insight and motivation for treatment. He talks incessantly, fights with everyone, and drives really fast sometimes. At other times he stays in bed and doesn’t answer his boss’s phone calls. You worry he’s going to kill himself or someone else, or lose his job and not be able to take care of his family. You don’t want to talk about it with your friends or invite them to your house. You want to go away to school, but you worry about the cost and about leaving your mother and sister who are both miserably unhappy.

Situation 16

The young man who reports to you at work is becoming more irritable. He blames other people for his lapses, and when you try to help him improve he says, “Yeah, sure, right” in an odd and provocative way. You’re nervous about telling your supervisor because you just got the promotion and don’t want to appear to be bad at managing. Co-workers are put off by him, and when he senses their laughter or discomfort he says, “You been talking about me!?”