Thankfully issues around mental health are bubbling up across the popular discourse. It’s still a stigma for too many, but we are inching towards new understandings. I follow along with a keen interest because I, too, have suffered periods of terrible darkness. Many times in my life, I have hovered near the brink of the abyss—often enough to realise that, as I often heard growing up, “it could happen a bishop.”
In fact, I’m coming to the point where I become suspicious of anyone who does not suffer real depression from time to time. And no, I’m not being sarcastic, or cynical. We live in an awful mess of a place and most of the things we do just make it worse—like aspiring to be well-adjusted to the unmanageability we have created. And suppressing all efforts to be really honest about it.
You know, sometimes, no matter what marketing would have us believe, the glass is half-empty and, sometimes, we lack the where-with-all to replenish it. (In these times, I have always found it best to linger over the glass in the hope that something would show up before I reach the bottom. It always does, even if sometimes it is only the insistence that I buy another or leave. Other times, a friendly face would arrive and sit down beside me and buy me another.)
I speak, of course, about the days when I was a debauched alcoholic around the town—or, as I now like to call it, when my mental health issues were on steroids. And for the record, it’s been a very long time since my last drink, decades in fact, but the rest of it stays with me and affords me enough insight to relate. You see, drunks are among the most despised of the mentally/emotionally challenged and with very good cause. Drunken manifestations of all that is wrong inside are usually horrendous and often involve the terrorising of all who are close to the sufferer. Efforts to help are rarely rewarded with anything other than utter frustration. Drunks thrive on denial and become incomprehensible to those who don’t. I know all this because, as a child, I suffered the alcoholism of others and, as a young adult, still became all that I loathed. (Predestination: you’re a heartless old hag!) I used to feel a bit sorry for myself but that was just stacking fuel for future fires so I avoid that now.
But what has this to do with the Mental Health discussion? Well, I’ll tell you. Alcoholism is on the cutting edge of mental disorder in a number of ways. It’s where depression is jagged and quilt and remorse wait by the bedside every morning—or afternoon. It’s where paranoia becomes so real that you shake and shiver. It’s the awful essence of chronic disorder with bells and whistles that guarantees all kinds of unwanted attention. It’s like preforming a bad play naked on a very unforgiving stage.
But in so many ways, it’s not the worst of it. It has made its way into modern culture and the problem, and solutions, are now widely known and accepted. In fact one can now be admired for admitting to it, and dealing with it.
All fine and dandy unto itself, but what about the rest? What about all those people whose disorders are not so easy to diagnose. You know, all those people who get told to ‘snap out of it.’ People who cannot go along with all of the little white lies of existence and spend their lives staring into dark mirrors; people who sit beside you on subways and buses with their hearts bleeding; people we fear because we don’t want to catch whatever is bothering them. Depression is still seen as contagious, especially by those who run around trying to distract themselves.
And the solution? Well, beyond making the world a better place where everyone, regardless of colour, creed, and cult, can live freely and not be imposed upon by other people’s tyranny, I would suggest that we embrace disorder—or as we used to call it, madness.
All of the best people used to be mad and were considered ‘the best’ because they had learned to celebrate it. They learned to turn all that churned in side of them into gripping and provoking views of the real madness we are supposed to conform to. Writers, musicianers, and especially painters—and poets I suppose, if we have to be inclusive—have crafted ‘madness’ into some of the best expressions about life; far and away better than the spin of politicos and business-y types; far and away better than trying to conform to lies and distortions.
You see, I have come to believe that Art is a key to unlock so many doors. Good or bad (Art), it is the greatest outlet. Emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, (enough of the time), it lets us comment on the three-ringed circuses we live in. It has a proven track record in helping victims of trauma come to terms with unimaginable horror and it has allowed those who have fallen from the path, find their way to a better place.
It will not solve everything and for those who subsist in the shadows beyond my tongue-in-cheek generalisations, let’s get real about getting a little closer to a better understanding. Let’s do what we did with alcoholism and recognise it for what it is—a very common and costly problem that robs from us all. Let’s spend money, time, and energy trying to manage it a little better.
Let’s start making a little more room in the world for the wackos and winos, as we have done with all the other things that make us different. And for the love of live, let’s steer some resources towards those who have lost the struggle to cope with this mad, mad, mad, world.
And you know, if we tear down a few more curtains, and see how shabby we have made the world, we might start to fix it up a bit. Anything else would be insanity.
Peter Murphy is the author of Lagan Love. He is hard at work on his next book, the first in a trilogy, which will be out in 2014. You can learn more about Peter at our website.