The Power of Art

Today I read a beautiful book called Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech. It made me weep, it was so beautiful.

We, the 30 or so of us who make up Sarah, do not share our personal names. Now, we’re pretty relaxed about the whole multiplicity thing. Open and out! But, we never give a fixed number for how many parts there are in my system, because I never assume that our system map is completely accurate and finished, and I’m comfortable with that.

We have never been happy about openly identifying as individuals – on many blogs by multiples there will be a page where you can read about their system members – and I’ve always admired that, but it makes me feel incredibly exposed. Because we are highly co-conscious and switch many times a day, there’s a degree of fluidity, of somewhat ‘integrated’ functioning. In arguments a whole bunch of us may switch through, speak our piece, finish each other’s sentences, drop back inside. There’s a sort of unconscious dance between us, a façade of unity, and a lot of largely unconscious and instinctive effort to prevent anyone from noticing switching or the differences between parts.

Some of us would love to identify ourselves openly and use our real names, but for others this is an unthinkable violation. The degree of exposure stress is intense – far worse than stripping in public, for some of us this is more akin to taking off clothes, then skin and bone, pulling out organs and uncurling brain matter for people to play with. It violates a deeply held need to pretend not to be multiple. Because multiplicity has worked brilliantly for us as a way of navigating horrible situations, but revealed it can actually make you more vulnerable rather than less. Every time someone not incredibly close to me has noticed or had their attention drawn to an obvious switch, very bad things have resulted. People are positively phobic about switching, and scared people do not react well.

For us, our names are also triggers that often cue a switch. Talking about a part and using their truename will frequently bring them out – or at least to the surface to hear what is being said about them!

Names and identifying ourselves individually are highly personal, private, intimate things. Only my lover, my very closest people, at this point are granted that information. I do not even permit my shrinks to know this or know me like this. This may change later, it may not.

Our feelings on this matter are almost certainly informed by our background in sci/fi and fantasy. Anyone who has loved works such as the Chronicles of Morgan, Prince of Hed, or the Earthsea cycle will recognise the idea that names have power, and that truenames are intimate. Does this mean I’ve imagined my multiplicity to fit with wild fantasy ideas? Snort. It means that my experience of my self and the world has been informed in many ways, by many people, and for me writers have often been better guides than shrinks. I’m grateful to have books like these in my life. I’m grateful to be a writer. And it’s not just writers – theatre, songwriters, painters – all the arts. They tell us so much about what it is so be human. They are so real and so raw and so essential to my life. Without Cave, or Bradbury, I would not be here. I would have broken, broken far beyond repair. I needed others who saw the world the way I saw it, who hurt, or hoped, or learned, and shared in such ways that I felt what they felt, lived their lives with them. I have written often about my love of the arts, how much they have given, how they are the foundation of my ‘mental health’.

Before language about multiplicity, there was just the noise inside. Just the kaleidoscope shifting as switching changed everything about the world. We wrote to each other. We wrote hate. We wrote terror. We wrote love poems. We wrote to see ourselves, and re-read what we had written, and slowly learned about ourselves.

Hate that Cat is a book in poems. It reminded me of that process – instinctive, inarticulate, confused, driven, full of pain and bewilderment. Not done as a ‘therapy’ as ‘obedience’ to some grant recovery plan. Done, in fact, in opposition to those who accused me of wallowing. But somehow my lifeline to my self, my mirror of the world. I understand understanding yourself and your world through poems. They are our first language, our first connection, our home. Other people have other first languages.

How blessed I have been in this. We who write ourselves into being at the edge of the night, how fortunate we are. There is so much richness in the works of those I love. They have been my friends, mentors, parents, companions, ghosts. They have held my heart when it was too broken to live in my body any more. They have kept alive a dream that one day I would have a place in the world, a tribe, a sense of connection. That one day there would be love, there would be intimacy, closeness, people who could hear my soul, those who knew how to listen. Or at least – that there had been others like me, even if they were now long dead. I might be the last of my species, ruined and broken and hopeless, but I had a species. Other people also had breakable hearts, had bled in poems. I might be alone but I was not alone through all time and space. Not the only one ever.

That was, and is, deeply precious to me. Isn’t this what we all need? Isn’t being human finding a way to sing the song I’ve sung to Tamlorn, and finding people who will sing it back to us? To be loved that deeply. What does that have to do with art? Everything. What does art have to do with pain, madness, grief, suffering, mental illness? Absolutely everything.

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