Out of Despair 1 – Language is Powerful

I’ve undergone a massive change in my mental landscape in the past month. Against a background of a bad flare in my chronic pain condition, and severe bouts of my first experiences of depression, I’ve finally found a way through. It’s difficult to communicate but I wanted to share. I’ve tried to put my thoughts in order and broken them up into 6 separate posts to make it easier to read and pick out only the bits you might useful. I hope it might be helpful to someone.

So many of my experiences in life have been so different, so alien and without words, I’ve struggled to even think about them in a coherent way, let alone communicate about them to other people. I’ve found lose frameworks and sketchy lexicons to at least be able to have a dialogue with my selves about my life. They’ve been useful but also limiting – as frameworks tend to be. So for example, as a young person, functioning in a way entirely differently from all my peers, I needed ways to describe and explain this to myself. One of the concepts I came up with is that I was a poet and they were not. This was, generally speaking, true. It also encompassed other ideas – that I was a highly creative person in a non-creative environment where sports was the focus. It spoke to a sensitive, observant nature. It had connotations far beyond that of a wordsmith – poet, and became instead Poet – a term that encompassed someone profoundly out of step with contemporaries, who spent much time up trees, on roofs, and in rivers. Who dressed primarily in velvet when given a choice, wore a knife on a belt when at home, cried most days, was desperately lonely, and carried around a journal like it was her own soul.

It was startling to meet other poets and discover that while most are misfits in some way, they are not necessarily misfits in the same way as I was. I was using the term to encompass ideas that did, and did not fit within it.

When I was first presented with the idea of dissociation it seemed primitive to me. I made no connection at all between the clinical terminology and my own experiences. I had become so accustomed to living a double life – the things we speak of and the things we do not, that starting to dig into my own fractured state in therapy deeply troubled me. I have come to accept that dissociation is the term for what I experience – a division of personality into separate parts, and at times a tenuous connection with ‘reality’. But there’s more to the story than this. Multiplicity is a big part of what makes me different. Being queer is another part. Odd developmental patterns is another – I was far ahead of my peers in some areas as a child/teen, and very behind in others. Being highly creative instantly put me at odds with systems, structures, routines, and traditions. Being highly traumatised changed how I felt, thought, and reacted. What made me feel different, and be identified by my peers as different, is far more complex than a mental illness. And to collapse some of my differences and challenges under the framework of mental illness does them a disservice.

Language is important. It shapes how we think. It provides frameworks, and frameworks are both useful and limiting. They can also be incomplete, unsophisticated, erroneous. The first times as a teenager that I went along to poetry gatherings I was deeply disappointed. I had been hoping to find people like me. People full of yearning and loneliness, who were deeply moved by life and had made the great effort to find words for experiences that defied language. People who craved connection and intensity. I felt instead, lost, lonely, confused. My frameworks were insufficient. ‘Poet’ was part of the picture but not the whole picture.

Dissociation and multiplicity are part of the picture but not the whole picture. The language of social workers and psychologists reminds me of butterfly collectors, who kill what they revere. Who have board of lifeless wings with which they cannot possibly understand the glory of flight. When lost for words, I always return to poetry. There are things you cannot understand without experiencing them as they are. Science turns on the lights and drags up the strange creatures from the deeps. It’s valuable. But it’s also limited.

Some days the single most lethal idea we’ve ever come up with, is that we are normal people, leading ordinary lives. The world is not what we think it is. Our ideas about it are a structure, a framework we’ve laid over it, to make sense of it and understand it. They are not ‘truth’, and they are not ‘reality’. Rejecting the ideas of your own culture does not mean you are rejecting reality. Being able to step outside of the roles you fill in your life can be a terrifying experience. It can also be a way of touching your soul.

Language is precious. I’m frustrated by people who say that language destroys what it seeks to describe, who believe that life cannot be communicated about. It is imperfect, which is why it should not be static. It is fluid, we change it, we add new words, we change the meanings of words, we shift it around. We lose words, we reclaim words – like queer, like mad, like freak.

I’m still partly a child. Literally and metaphorically. I’m hypersensitive, at times profoundly insecure, confused by the world. I lack filters. When I read a book or watch a movie, I live in it. I cry, I love, I feel deeply for the characters. They have been my friends when I didn’t have any. I learn quickly, the way a child does, soaking up information, mimicking instructions. The other day, I switched to a part who’s about 13. I was co conscious and could see and feel what she did. It was like peeling back so many years of my life and tossing them away for a night. Memories of those early years were as strong as a yesterday. The world shifted, shadows deepened, all the words meant something different to me. I was light as air, laughing, I was free in the night, full of mischief and uncertainty. When I’m near the beach, a poet often comes out, full of lonely yearning. She is much younger, she stands by the water at the edge of the world and watches the ships out at sea. I used to spend a lot of time in Salisbury. One of the shopping complexes has been build around an old graveyard. Between council buildings, the library, cinema, grocery store, there is a tiny plot of gravestones. Everyone walks around them as if they are not there. I used to stand among them, memorizing the names. Noticing the babies who lived only hours or days, the women who died after long, long lives. We walk around these things as if they are not there. We get stuck in our frameworks and cannot see beyond them or think beyond them. I love my little yearning girl who lives by the sea. To call her a part of my mental illness is to miss entirely who she is and what she means to me. It is to obscure and deny.

Language can kill you. After being homeless years ago, I moved into a borrowed caravan and a caravan park. It was a time of absolutely disarray in my life, every plan I’d ever made or hope I’d ever had was utterly disrupted. I was chronically physically unwell and in constant pain. My marriage had collapsed, my friendship networks were gone, my life had burned to the ground. I was living among some of the poorest members of our community.

I found myself  in the ‘white trash’ bracket of our culture. People were confused, uncomfortable, curious, weirdly sympathetic. I tried to get involved in life again but found that my address held me back. I offered to help raise a puppy for a local guide dog organisation. I asked at the information session if living in a caravan park – a pet friendly one that allowed small fenced areas around each van – would be an issue. They said of course not! I went through the training and the home inspection and failed. Someone higher up the hierarchy I’d never met had decided that a caravan was ‘not an appropriate environment for our expensive puppies’. I wasn’t really a person anymore.

That could have crushed me. I felt the impact of it, the weight of it, on my spirit. I finally turned it around by tapping into the gypsy culture in my mind. Finding a different way to see my situation, different words to use about it. Now that I’m living in a unit, I miss my van some nights. I like to sleep outdoors, to feel the rain and hear the wind and watch the moon rise. I found new words, ones that didn’t cut into me.

If dissociation is the word we’re using to describe what I feel when I’m walking through the frameworks of our culture and finding my own language instead, then it can’t be only negative, can’t be ‘illness’. It’s also freedom. There is a tremendous power in being able to define ourselves and our own lives in ways that are meaningful to us.

Out of Despair Part 2 – Frameworks Free and Bind