Mental Health needs better PR

The very first mental health article I wrote on this blog, back in August 2011, was about Managing Triggers. I get frustrated by the pathologising of so many human experiences in mental health, and all that I have ever heard of triggers is how to work to reduce their impact. By the time we have eliminated everything deemed a problem, there seems to me to not be very much life left to be lived. I think mental health should be a freedom, an opening up rather than a closing down. It saddens me when so much that merely makes us human is seen as something to be fixed. So when talking about triggers, I talk about positive triggers also. In the hands of people without creative vision, mental health is so often spoken of in a way that makes me hate it. There’s something gone terribly wrong when so many people, I’m thinking particularly of people with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, would not want to have their condition taken away from them. The version of mental health these people are thinking of is so abhorrent they would choose mental illness over it.

One of the strategies that can be used to try and reduce chronic incapacitating sensitivity to triggers is desensitisation. It can be surprisingly effective when paced appropriately. Take the idea too far and you end up with the kind of emotional numbing and insensitivity to life that can characterise dissociative disorders. Frequently within the mental health services, mental health is presented as nothing more than an absence of symptoms. No more soaring mania, no more anguish, no more blood, no more voices. Mental health is silence, clipped wings, drugged stupor, numb blankness. So many of us would rather soar and crash like Icarus than crawl the face of the earth like insects. What we crave is the wildness, the depth, the creativity and imagination and dreams without the agony and destruction. What is so often offered is a flatland that feels so empty and meaningless we are filled with a despair it is almost impossible to speak of to the social workers and the shrinks.

I feel deeply ambivalent about the way that disabilities are tangled with so much that is positive. To return to Bipolar for a moment, folks talk about the boundless energy of mania, the incredible creativity of so many people with this condition. On the one hand, I read about how people need to find the positives in their conditions to help maintain self esteem and find a balance, and that makes sense. On the other hand, I think that if we define the condition in terms of deficits, then the creativity and energy belong to the person, not the condition. And then, the reluctance to be free of the condition (assuming such a thing is possible) disappears. If you could keep the ecstasy, the brilliant creativity and quickness of thought and empathy for those incapacitated by depression, and leave behind the relationship destruction, months of inactivity, suicidal distress, reckless spending, then would you still prefer mental illness?

Mental health is so often presented as being ‘normal’. A normal life is such a small, bland, meaningless thing that I can’t see it being worth any kind of effort to obtain. The box of what normal is, is so small that I have never met anyone who actually fits into it. Recovery to this normal can be a kind of insanity, like new cult members suddenly parroting the party line and telling you they’re happy despite something terrifyingly empty in their eyes. Radiohead sing about this kind of life in Fitter Happier.

I see mental health as freedom from the things that stop me being human. I mowed my lawn today and I wanted to be able to smell it, the smell of fresh cut grass is one of my favourite in the whole world. But the dissociation is too high today, I smell nothing. I work to create a life with love and grief and passion, not to merely disconnect from pain. I pursue and create something so much grander than ‘normal’, something that is uniquely me and mine, an expression of my own soul. Mental health for me is still about soaring, still about voices and pain, but where I can smell the grass.

When I came across this idea that many people (not all of course) would not want to have their mental illness magically taken away from them, I wondered about myself and my own experiences. If I could go back to my own childhood and wish away the dissociation, would I?

No. Not unless I could also wish away the things that were causing it. If the trauma remains, then the dissociation needs to remain too. As much as it has cost me, I also feel it has saved me. In a way, becoming highly dissociative has been a mentally healthy response to circumstances.

So, when writing about triggers last year, I wrote about positive triggers too, things that move us in ways we do not consider to be problems. I wanted to illustrate the idea with a lovely poem by Gwen Harwood, but I couldn’t find it at the time. Today I found it, and here it is:

A Gypsy Tune
Gwen Harwood
Szabolcska once in Paris wept
          aloud in public, in the Grand
Cafe, when a gypsy fiddler played
          a folksong of his native land.
When memory seems a field of graves,
          and youth impossibly remote,
some sobbing air will breathe to life
          pulsebeat by pulsebeat, note by note,
landscapes and lovers, fiends and friends
          long lost, long dead.       Their features glow
with light so absolute you think
they could not join the shades below.

Good mental health everyone. For more about information about how to use triggers to support your mental health, go to Using Anchors to Manage Triggers.

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