Homogenous we are not. This post may seem a little contradictory at the outset. On the one hand it is a plea for the mentally ill to be treated as a group, yet on the other hand it is an admonition for the world not to see us as one big group. Rather odd I know, however it can be resolved. Often one will see a group of teenagers, all dressed a certain way and listening to the same music and so on, typical teenage behaviour and it is not unusual to hear adults say something along the lines of ‘they all want to be seen as individuals but they all look the same’ and those adults genuinely think they are being clever in citing the seemingly rather obvious implied paradox of what Stephen Fry refers to as being a part of the crowd and apart from the crowd. Those adults have dead hearts, unable to remember the angst and yearning for self expression and self determination that is often forged in fire and in great pain. In the same way the mentally ill as a group are much maligned and in need of better treatment in every sense, yet also in dire need of understanding and a sense of appreciation for who and what they are as individuals. It is perfectly possible to address a group of people as a whole without diminishing the individuality and dignity of each member of that group. We are a part of the tribe and each one of us is also apart from the tribe.
It can be very difficult to resolve the apparent contradiction of wishing to stand out from and yet be a part of a crowd. To be both a part of society and apart from it presents an arrangement that seems impossible at first, however it is not as absurd as it first seems. Variation within specific parameters is far from unusual. It is not hard to confer respect upon a whole group without having to worry about the group in terms of its differences. All groups possess individuals who delineate themselves from the apparent normative but that does not diminish their individual humanity, their group solidarity and belonging to the group. I know this because the mentally ill must do this themselves. It is no easier for me to comprehend the experience of a schizophrenic than a person who suffers no mental health problems. In that sense, even though I refer to the mentally ill as a group, there is no group of people craving respect and acceptance as such. The secret to understanding this is to learn to how deal with a member of a particular group as though there were no group at all. In short, I did not choose to be in this group but I am, yet I am also a human being and whilst my illness is an aspect of my makeup it does not define me.
I am indebted to my illness for my belonging to the group, but I owe bipolar disorder nothing for the content of my character, my loves, my hates, my passions and so forth. Ask yourself this: to what is a person with a mental illness indebted which makes them who they are? I guarantee you that the answer is not their illness, for identity is often undermined by illness as it surrenders to it rather than being enhanced by it due to it’s non-existent origin within the illness. In that sense we are simultaneously a part of the crowd whilst also being apart from the crowd. The things that a person possesses within themselves that are peculiarly them, their ‘them-ness’ have very little to do with who they are. The philosopher Martin Heidegger often used a German word, wesen to describe the essence of a thing or a person. To him it did not mean the essence per se, it means the thing that a person continues to be and which maintains him or her as what they are as they travel through time. A person’s wesen is the thing by which you measure their existence over the passing weeks, months and years. In that sense, again, I do not think that my illness is anything to do with my wesen. The things to which I am indebted for my continued existence as what I am go beyond the mere aspects of my illness and my responses to it. My substance is my personality and character, of which my illness is not a part. The substance of a manic depressive is not his or her illness any more than the content of a black/Asian/European/white person’s character is a product of his or her skin colour. In short, we are more that the sum of our parts, mentally ill or not.
It is not unusual to hear or see a person with a mental illness have their opinions or feelings dismissed as the illness talking. It is frustrating and downright demeaning to have someone refuse to take me seriously because it is easy to dismiss me because I have bipolar disorder. When you do that you homogenise me. I am compartmentalised and parked in the brain of the person doing it and I will almost certainly never get out of the spot marked ‘nutter’. Humankind would go a long way towards bettering itself if it just realised that when a person is dismissed like that it damages us all. I have previously talked about the remarkable contribution the manic depressives in particular have made in the sphere of human creativity. I do not think that I would like to live in a world where some of our best artists, writers and musicians did not fulfil their potential, instead living lives forever parked in the nutter box.
What is worse is that dismissal leads to lax practice. Can we not just medicate them and shut them up? They should be in a special home right? These are things I have heard routinely. I am willing to bet that you have said them too, no doubt more than once. It has often been expedient to throw the mentally ill outside the city walls, leaving them to wander in the desert alone. We ought not to scapegoat anyone like that, least of all the weak, vulnerable and sick.
You might well ask me: if I am so set on being an individual who is not at all categorised by bipolar disorder, why do I still address the issue as though the existence of a group is so important? Why be a part of the mentally ill crowd too? This question is as susceptible to reason as any and the simple fact of the matter is that the world addresses us as a group, we are seen as a group and we are classified as a group and therefore the world at large is only ever likely to listen to us as a group. For better or worse strength is all too often found in numbers and in a democratic system the individual may be empowered with a voice and a vote, the reality is that an individual has little real power on his or her own. I am convinced that the question of mental illness is one of the great civil rights issues of our time and one need only look back through relatively recent history to see that civil rights questions are always settled by the action of force in numbers. When there are more of ‘us’ than ‘them’ change is effected. The campaign for LGBTQ rights gained strength and brought about change at remarkable speed only when there was a majority and that majority was not comprised of LGBTQ people. They needed the heteronormative majority on their side and the same must happen for the mentally ill. The right of those of all sexual orientations to be taken seriously came about when the generation demonising them had children and those children grew up among gay people who had the courage to come out. The world saw that gay people represent no threat and can do no harm to anyone and as such the prejudice rolled back under the weight of the opinion that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is simply immoral. There remains work to be done of course, however their can be no doubt that the tide has turned.
We, the mentally ill are a quarter of the population and change for the better will only come about when those not defined by the group become a part of the group. Just like the LGBTQ struggle, the walls between Us and Them must come down, and that is why it is so important for us to be seen as more than our illness. The group will bring about change yet the group must be more than the sum total of its members. We need those without mental illness on our side, for so long as we are viewed as pariahs to be feared and scorned we will not possess a sufficient number to bring about our own emancipation.
I am currently reading the Tripods novels, a series about a post-apocalytpic world dominated by alien machines. The machines ‘cap’ humans at the age of fourteen, meaning that a sort of cybernetic helmet is fitted to people and this keeps humanity subjugated. Occasionally the capping goes wrong and the victim of this becomes a wandering vagrant, indulging in odd behaviour and is generally feared and shunned by others. I and others like me have been capped and the wiring has gone wrong somewhere along the way. With the acceptance of humanity and society we can be a part of the world and culture at large. In many ways we are already a part of society, however this is not recognised by successive governments whose response to mental health problems remains woefully inadequate. I suppose at this point I can only make an impassioned plea:
Accept us as a group, love us as individuals, treat us as people.
The ongoing fear that grips me now that I have ‘come out’ and publicly discussed my illness is something that I would much rather live without. I would give a lot to live without the familial rejection I have experienced and to no longer read articles about the horrors inflicted upon people like me and live in constant fear that I might be next against the wall. I and many like me have stepped into the light. It is up to those of you born normal to do the same, both for us and for the future generations like us.