It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides?
But rather than assuming, as we normally do, that our mental illnesses are just a problem for us, we can dare to ask in a spirit of open-minded exploration: What are my illnesses doing for me? Whatever their costs, what are their secret upsides? What are their unexpected benefits? Why might I be covertly siding with them against the possibility of health?
We often develop psychological illnesses because the alternative to them is in some way worse. The illness protects us —- at huge and tragic — cost from a confrontation with something that threatens to be yet more painful and psychologically difficult: the truth about what has happened to us, what we need to do next and the true nature of certain people we are close to.
Think of the person who repeatedly fails her exams, despite being very intelligent and driven. What could possibly be the benefit of an illness as awful as self-sabotage? But if we examine this person’s life, we might find the presence of a hugely competitive and jealous mother who could be extremely displeased by her daughter’s success — and might respond by cutting off her love and becoming highly aggressive. The daughter hence chooses the illness of self-sabotage over the yet more awful realisation that her mother was damaged and damaging and never loved her properly. It can feel ‘better’ to be ill than realise one was always unloved.
Behind a great many psychological illnesses, we uncover “benefits” — if we can put it that way:
— Failing can be a protection against being envied
— Worrying about our appearance can distract us from the fact we were made to feel horribly unworthy as a child.
— Being manically busy can block out uncomfortable news of our true sexual desires
— Being paranoid can prevent us from acknowledging who we are really annoyed with.
— An addiction can keep us ignorant of our early abuse
In certain circumstances, getting ill is — to our unconscious minds at least — the easier route. It might not be in any way nice or simple to be always impotent, or worried, or a failure or paranoid, but these options might nevertheless be better than realising that one has an altogether different sexuality or was furious with a supposedly beloved parent or is jealous of a sibling or should be changing jobs or leaving a partner. Behind a great many psychological illnesses, is a highly distressing truth we’ve exchanged for a neurotic symptom.
Once we realise the overall mechanism, we should — whenever an illness comes into view — repeat the naive enquiry: what is the peculiar and particular advantage of this illness for me? What does it prevent me from knowing about myself? What would I need to do if I wasn’t ill? What is the upside of feeling depressed, or of blowing up a relationship or of being impotent or friendless? We may generally complain about these problems — but, if we can put it this way, what purpose are they serving for us?
We can then dare to think that there is something worse — something truly difficult to swallow — that we are protecting ourselves from via being unwell. The way to overcome a mental affliction is to cease to look at it merely as an explanation-less nuisance. It may be a shield protecting us from what we deep down suspect — mistakenly — would hurt us more.
One of the most useful realisations we might come to about ourselves is that we are ‘paranoid.’ The word is easy to laugh off as impossibly eccentric, evoking people who insist that they are being tailed by the secret service or watched over by an alien species. But the reality is lot more normal-looking and far less comedic-feeling. To be paranoid in the true sense is to suffer from a repeated feeling that most people hate us, that most situations are extremely dangerous and that some kind of catastrophe is likely to befall us soon.
It may not be immediately obvious what connects up — for example — our impression that a colleague is taking us for a fool, with our fear of being talked about unkindly by our friends, with our impression that the waiter has deliberately placed us at the worst table and our dread that we’re about to be caught up in a scandal.
But our sense that the world is permanently and imminently conspiring to belittle, attack and humiliate us is most likely the outcome of a very particular string of experiences of belittlement, attack and humiliation that will have occurred at the hands of just one or two people in our formative years — and yet that will have been carefully submerged and overlooked. And this will have been done because we have implicitly preferred to fear the world rather than acknowledge the reality of the torment we underwent at the hands of characters — who might also be our mother or father — whom we would have liked so much to trust and to love.
It’s unfortunate that our minds need to discharge their toxins somewhere and that if they have been blocked from doing so in the appropriate location, they will seek to do so anywhere that feels remotely relevant: the office or the restaurant, the party or the newspaper article. The hatred and viciousness we fear from colleagues, friends or social media is only a proxy for what we once received from sources close to home — and which we have lacked the support required to return back to their senders.
Understanding who has crushed and scarred us constitutes a critical part of adult self-knowledge. It is also — we should recognise — an insight we may be deeply reluctant to secure, opting to be forever terrified rather than raise arguments against our treatment by care-givers whom we have chosen to believe are innocent. It may one day feel as though far fewer people are actually laughing at us and that there is far less risk of a scandal soon — once we understand that the mockery and shaming we anticipate for tomorrow already unfolded in our heartrendingly anguished and unexplored yesterdays.
It’s an embarrassing confession, but for a certain group among us, it’s fair to say that a great deal of our lives is spent asking essentially the same question, week after week, always with the same blend of frustration, despair and puzzlement: Why am I so lonely?
Why, in other words, do I so often find myself at odds in social groups, why can’t I more easily connect with people, why do I not have more friends worthy of the name?
It’s tempting to jump to the darkest conclusion: because I am awful, because there is something wrong with me, because I deserve to be hated.
But the real answer is likely to be far less punitive and in its way far more logical: we, the isolated members of the tribe, are lonely for a very firm and forgivable reason: because we are interested in introspection, and they – the others — for all their intelligence and wit and strength of mind, are not.
They may have many hobbies and passions and lots to say about a host of things, but they are simply not interested in looking deeply inside themselves. It is not their idea of fun to go into their childhoods, to trace the links between their emotions and their actions or to lie for a long time in a bath or a bed processing events in their interior lives. Introspection is not their thing. They haven’t told us this in so many words — and they never will; they don’t even realise it perhaps. We simply have to surmise that this is the case on the basis of external evidence: that we never feel we have much to say to them, even though – objectively – there might be so much to share.
It’s the lack of introspection that explains why conversation with them so often gets stuck in odd places: discussing the price of train tickets or the best way to prepare muffins or what so-and-so from university (whom we never really knew or liked) is now doing. It explains why, when we try to nudge the conversation onto something more intimate and vulnerable, we seem somehow never to manage and end up in yet more rounds of discussion about the sports results or the new political scandal.
They aren’t necessarily cold, but it can certainly seem that way because they aren’t interested in communicating what is really going on in their hearts. Sometimes we can be surprised when, out of the blue, they tell us that they consider us to be a close friend.
We should accept that most of our acquaintances – however much they might in theory want to be friendly – do not want to do so at the cost of looking inside their own minds.
And we for our part are lonely because we are operating with a notion of intimacy that is far less common than we torture ourselves by imagining. We will be blessed if we meet just one or two people in a lifetime who want to play as we do. The rest of the time, we shouldn’t compound our problems by feeling lonely that we’re lonely. It’s painful but utterly understandable; our favourite pastime, however noble it might be, is a very unusual one indeed.
Early on in every life, a child will look up and — implicitly — ask the world: Am I OK? Do I deserve goodwill and sympathy? Am I on track?
And, most commonly, the person who first answers these questions is a parent. Perhaps this parent happens to be generous and sympathetic, they are warm and understanding of the challenges of being alive — in which case the child develops an easy conscience. In the years to come, they appraise themselves with benignancy, they don’t continuously have to wonder whether they have a right to exist. They are comfortably on their own side.
But if the parent is more punitive, the picture grows darker: approval is always uncertain, there is a constant fear of being called arrogant or of being upbraided for something one hadn’t thought about.
What’s tricky is that consciences don’t stay neatly identified with those who kickstarted them. It’s rare to find an adult who actively still wonders what their parents think. But that isn’t to say that we aren’t wondering about our value in more general terms. It’s just that we may, without noticing, have taken the question somewhere else — and very often, to particularly harsh modern figure of authority: media and social media.
To this pitiless arena, the self-doubting person now directs all their fears of unworthiness and panicked desire for reassurance. To a system set up to reward sadism and malice, they constantly raise their phones and implicitly ask: Do I deserve to exist? Am I OK? Am I beautiful or respectable enough?
And, because social media is built on the troubles of the individual soul, the verdict is never a reliable yes. One is never done with cycles of fear and reassurance-seeking. Every time their spirits sink (which is often), the self-doubting sufferer picks up their phone and begs to know whether they have permission to go on.
If this might be us, we should grow curious about (and jealous of) people who are free. They are so because someone long ago settled the question of what they were worth and the answer has seemed solid ever since. Social media is a roar in the next valley, not a mob in their own mind.
Learning from these calm souls won’t just involve deleting a few apps, we will have to go further upstream, back to the baby self, whose alarmed enquiries we must quiet once and for all with ample doses of soothing, and till-now absent kindness.
When we are very concerned about certain of our physical features — a nose that is stubbornly a bit too large, eyes that are slightly too far apart, hair that is not as lustrous as it should be — we miss an overall point about our relationship to our appearance: how beautiful we feel has nothing to do with the objective structure of our face or body; it isn’t what we look like that counts. It’s how we feel inside. Our self-assessments are in the end solely based on our relative degrees of self-love and self-contempt.
There are people of ideal proportions and exceptional beauty who cannot bear what they see in the mirror and others who can contemplate a less than svelte stomach or a no longer so supple kind of skin with indifference and defiant good humour. And at a tragic extreme, there are heart-breakingly fine-looking people who starve themselves to ill-health and eventually die out of a certainty, immune to every logical argument, of their own unsightliness.
We are surrounded by industries that seek to help us to improve how we look: dieticians who are on hand to reduce our waistlines, aerobic teachers who offer to tone us, beauticians who will equip us with foundation and mascara. But however well meaning their efforts, they fail completely to grasp the sources of a healthy regard for one’s own appearance.
The issue is not whether we look extraordinary today, but whether or not we were once upon a time, when we were small and defenceless before the judgements of those who cared for us, sufficiently loved for our essence. This will decide whether our appearance can later on be a subject of negligible concern to us or not. The truly blessed among us are not those with perfect symmetry; they are those whose past affords them the luxury not to give too much of a damn whatever the mirror happens to say.
The way to help someone feel beautiful is not to compliment them on their looks, it is to take an interest in and delight in their psychological essence. We know that the more comfortable we feel around someone, the less effort we will make about how we appear and conversely, the more anxious we are about the judgement of others, the more our reflection has the power to horrify us. The issue is never that of our appearance, it is about our sense of our vulnerability to humiliation.
When we meet people who are perpetually sick with worry that they are not attractive enough, we should not rush in with physical compliments; this is only to foster and unwittingly reward an aggravating criterion of judgement. We should learn to spot the wound in their early relationships that have made it so hard for them to trust that they could matter to others in their basic state and that therefore perpetually evokes in them an unflattering self-image. They are not ‘ugly’ per se, they were – when it mattered – left painfully unloved and ignored to an extent that they are liable never to have recognised or mourned adequately; their arrival in the world did not delight a few people as it should have done, and they therefore need compassion, sympathy and emotional validation far more than they will ever require the tools of outward beautification.
Feeling ugly stems from a deficit of love, never of beauty.
If there is one generalisation we can hazard of those who end up mentally unwell, we could say that they are masters at being very nasty to themselves without noticing they are even being so.
Release from the grip of self-loathing therefore has to start with a growing awareness of what we are doing to ourselves – and what the alternatives might be. For example, we might start to notice that no sooner has something nice happened to us that we set about wondering when something awful will strike in revenge; that every success has to be ruined by a feeling of foreboding and guilt; that every potentially pleasant day ends up marred by panic or a sense of loss; and that we spontaneously imagine that everyone must hate us and that the worst things are being said about us the moment we leave any room.
None of this looks – on the surface – like ‘self-hatred.’ We could just say that we have a ‘worried mind’, or a ‘regretful temperament’. But it is useful to group these ideas under a singular title in order fully to identify the direction in which they point: towards the systematic destruction of any pleasure in being ourselves – which is, when we think about it, a very nasty thing indeed to do to someone. Without realising it, we are committed to throttling all our chances of contentment at the earliest possible opportunity.
We might imagine – as an experiment – trying to be as kind as possible towards our own minds. Rather than dragging in every last deformed and mean idea into the theatre of consciousness, we could dare to be vigilant about only presenting our minds with the very kindest and most reassuring ideas. The moment we left a room, we might be ruthless in preventing thoughts about our unacceptability from manifesting themselves in the usual way; they might be begging to be let in (and claiming all sorts of reasons why they should be so), but – for once – we could give them a firm ‘no’. If they kept trying to make their way into our minds, we might put on a piece of music or do some gardening, anything other than allow destructive concepts to have their normal rule over us.
Where does this unconscious impulse to be unkind to ourselves come from? How is the choice to torture ourselves made? We can hazard another generalization. The way we treat ourselves is an internalisation of the way others once treated us, either directly in the sense of how they spoke to us or indirectly, in the sense of how they behaved around us, which could have included ignoring us or openly displaying a preference for someone else.
To get a measure of where we stand on the spectrum of self-love, we need only ask ourselves a very simple question (that we have nevertheless ignored for far too long): How much do I like myself? If the answer immediately and intuitively comes back that we feel loathsome, there is a history that we urgently need to consider and are – conveniently for our self-torturing minds – choosing to ignore. The contempt we habitually show ourselves is neither way fair nor right; we should spot the oddity and partiality of treating ourselves with a viciousness we wouldn’t accord to our worst enemies.
People who commit suicide aren’t those for whom a few things have gone very wrong; they are people who have encountered some otherwise survivable reversals against a background of fierce self-hatred. It is the self-hatred that will end up killing them, not the apparent subjects of their panic and sorrow.
As ever, salvation comes through self-awareness. There is nothing inevitable about self-hatred. We are treating ourselves unkindly because people were in the past not especially kind to us – and we are being touchingly yet dangerously loyal to their philosophies of derision.
But if we’re to stay alive, we need radically to redraw our moral code and return to kindness the prestige that it should always have had. We have learnt far too much about a lack of mercy, about panic, about self-suspicion and finding oneself pitiful. Now we need to rediscover the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, calm and gentleness. And when we panic and feel intensely anxious about the future, we need to remember that we are in essence worrying about our fundamental legitimacy and loveability. Our survival depends on a swift mastery of the art of self-compassion.
The one ingredient on which any recovery from serious mental illness depends is also one which, curiously and grievously, never makes an appearance in any medical handbook or psychiatric diagnostic, namely love. The word is so fatefully associated with romance and sentimentality that we overlook its critical role in helping us to keep faith with life at times of overwhelming psychological confusion and sorrow. Love – whether from a friend, a partner, an offspring, a parent – has an indomitable power to rescue us from mental illness.
We might go so far as to say that anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness and who recovers will do so – whether they consciously realise it or not – because of an experience of love. And, by extension, no one has ever fallen gravely mentally ill without – somewhere along the line – having suffered from a severe deficit of love. Love turns out to be the guiding strand running through the onset of, and recovery from, our worst episodes of mental unwellness.
What then do we mean by love, in its life-giving, mind-healing, sense?
– Unconditional Approval
What frequently assails and derails us when we are sick in our minds is a continuous punishing sense of how terrible we are. We are lacerated by self-hatred. Without any external prompting, we think of ourselves as some of the worst people around, even the worst person on earth. Our own charge sheet against us is definitive: we are ‘awful’, ‘terrible, ‘nasty’, ‘bad’. We can’t really say much more – and efforts to get us to expand in rational terms may run aground. We often can’t even point to a specific crime or if we do, it doesn’t seem to onlookers to merit quite the pitiless opprobrium we devote to it. In our illness, a primal self-suspicion bursts through our defences and overtakes our faculties, leaving no room for the slightest kindness or gentleness. We are implacably appalled by, and unforgiving of, who we are.
In such agony, a loving companion can make the difference between suicide and keeping going. Such companions do not try to persuade us of our worth head on and with cold reason; nor do they go in for any showy displays of affection. They demonstrate that we matter to them in a thousand surreptitious yet fundamental ways. They keep showing up by our bed day after day, they make pleasant conversation about something that won’t in any way make us anxious, they’ve remembered a favourite blanket or a drink, they know how to make a few jokes when these help and suggest a nap when they feel us drifting away. They have a good handle on the sources of our pain, but they aren’t pushing us for a big conversation or confession. They can tolerate how ill we are and will stick by us however long it takes. We don’t have to impress them, they won’t worry too much about how scary we are looking and the weird things we might say. They’re not going to give up on us; the disease might take a month or six years or sixty. They’re going nowhere. We can call them at strange hours. We can sob or we can sound very adult and reasonable. They seem – remarkably – to love us in and of ourselves, for who we are rather than anything we do. They hold a loving mirror to us and help us to tolerate the reflection. It’s pretty much the most beautiful thing in the universe.
Part of what can make the attentions of others oppressive is the note of patronising pity we detect beneath their apparent kindness. They – the well-ones – have come to see us in order to help, but we sense how much they cling to a fundamental difference between the mess we are in and who they think they are. We are the insane ones and they will always fly the flags of health, rationality and balance. They feel sorry for us from afar, as if we were the proverbial drowning man and they the observer on dry land.
Loving companions bear no such hints of superiority. They do not judge us as beneath them when we lie crumpled in our pyjamas at midday because they do not fundamentally see themselves as ‘above’ someone who is mentally unwell. We may happen to be very ill at the moment, but it might as well have been them, were it not for the accidents of psychology and of neuro-chemistry. They don’t oppress us by covertly clinging to their belief in their own solidity and competence. All of us are potentially ill enough to be in the asylum, and those of us who are actually there there may not be the most afflicted.
Our companions throw in little sentences that indicate that they too find life very taxing, that they too are a bit mad, that they too might one day be in our place. They don’t shed crocodile tears from an impregnable spot, they are down at our level, holding our hand, suffering with and for us.
At the heart of many mental traumas is an early experience of abandonment. Someone, when we badly needed them, was not present – and their neglect has thrown us off balance ever since. We may find it hard to depend on others in grown up life and lack faith that someone won’t run away, or take advantage of us, in turn.
A loving companion intuits this about us – and is ready to fight to earn our trust. They know that they cannot blithely assert their loyalty, they will have to prove it, which means not deserting us at moments when others would be tempted to give up. We may try to incite despair and frustration in those who offer kindness – as a way of testing the relationship. We may say some awful things to a carer we love and pretend to be indifferent to them. But if the companion is wise, they will listen and remain unruffled – not because they are weak, but because they understand that they are being tested – and that a basic piece of repair work around trust is underway.
We have to be given a chance – which we may have missed out on in childhood – to be a bit more demanding than usual in order to witness conclusively that this isn’t enough to destroy love. We can be ill and still acceptable to another. How much more real love will feel once it has been shaken by our disease – and survived.
The future for a mentally ill person is a source of ongoing and limitless torment. A thousand questions hover: what if someone gets very angry with them? What if someone wants to take them away? What if someone tries to kill them? What if the voices in their head never go away?
The loving companion does their best to quieten the panic, by presenting the future as unknowable in its precise details but fundamentally safe and bearable. They hold open options: it will always be possible to leave town, to live very quietly in a small cottage, to be at home and lead a domestic existence. No one expects them to perform great feats any more, just being is enough. There doesn’t have to be pressure to earn money, to impress strangers or to be heroic. Surviving is all that matters.
More importantly, the loving companion insists that they will be there to personally ensure that the future will be manageable. When it gets terrible, they can be in each other’s presence and hold each other’s spirits.
The loving companion doesn’t get bored of instilling the same fundamental message: I am here for you and it will be OK. Even if this OK isn’t what one would ideally want, still it will be OK, better than death – which usually remains the alternative in the sufferer’s mind. Quite how the years ahead are going to pan out can’t be determined yet, details will have to be examined later, but what is known already now is that the future won’t need to be unendurable, because there is love.
We are, when mentally ill, often extremely tedious in relation to the number of anxieties we desperately need to go through with others. We may want to return again and again to the subject of whether or not we said something terrible to someone at a party hosted by our workplace seven years ago. Or whether we might have unwittingly upset a sexual companion five years before. Or if we might go bankrupt because we didn’t warn our accountant of a small move in our tax affairs.
Loving parents know that the minds of little children are comparably filled with anxiety-inducing and sometimes peculiar questions: is there a tiger under the bed? What happens if one of the trees comes into the room and takes me away? What if someone laughs at me at school?
The temptation can be to rush and give an answer full of blustering, impatient confidence. Of course it will be fine! Nonsense there’s no tiger! And so on. But the properly loving response is to take the worry as seriously as its progenitor does – and address it head on, without scoffing or denying the scale of the concern. We might get out a pad of paper and a pen and run through all the many anxieties about work. It doesn’t matter if this is the first or the fifteenth time we have done so. Love gives us the patience to enter imaginatively into the other’s worried mind and to try to settle it by sensible examination of what there might be to fear.
We may be called upon to kill imaginary tigers night after night – and, on the floor with a torch, should always be ready to go through the many reasons why these big cats have – after all – decided to leave us completely in peace.
– Just the way you are
Many mentally ill patients have suffered all their lives from a feeling that they are not, in and of themselves good enough. They are likely to have become extremely high achievers, and have worked hard for decades, in order to prove to someone who was sceptical about them at the outset that they are respectable and worthy after all. They may have craved money and status and power to shore up a ghastly feeling of not being able to matter to people unless they had first attracted society’s baubles and prizes.
When they break down, what remains unbelievable to these exhausted warriors is that they could ever be loved outside of their performance in the worldly race. Surely it is only their earning potential that counts? Surely it has to be their popularity that matters?
But now that they are ill and without any of the usual tools to impress, the mentally unwell stand to discover a more complex and salutary lesson. According to the values they have been subsisting on, they are a disgrace and should kill themselves. But with any luck, in the presence of a loving companion, they can start to believe in something far more nuanced and miraculous: that they could be loved without prizes, that true love isn’t about impressing or intimidating someone, that an adult can love another adult a little like a good parent loves their child: not because of anything they have done, but simply and poignantly just because they exist.
– Independence of Mind
A good loving companion looking after a mentally sick friend heals through their power not to care very much about ‘what other people think.’ Of course, out there, some people are sniggering. Of course, out there, some people judge and say that the illness isn’t legitimate or that it’s deserved and that the sufferer was awful to begin with. The good companion knows enough about the perversities of the human mind not to mind in the least when they encounter everyday prejudice and meanness; daftness is to be expected. The hasty judgements of thousands of people will, of course, be askew and lacking proper understanding. But that is no reason to panic or give up one’s original analysis. Let them laugh, let them be superior, let the idiots be idiots; such are the consoling messages of love that we need to hear when we are defenceless before the judgements of a cruel world. Our loving companion know where their loyalties lie, they aren’t going to give up on us because a mob is jeering. They aren’t democrats when it comes to love. They don’t care if they are in a minority of one in loving us. And that is why we will stay alive.
– Parental Repair
Both we and our carer may be deep into adulthood, but if their tenderness heals us, it is likely to be because – in covert ways – what they are doing through their ministration is repairing a deficit of early love. They will be reparenting our broken child selves.
It’s one of the eternally paradoxical things about babies and small children that they need love as much as they need milk and warmth in order to develop properly. They need to be cuddled, spoken and sung to, played with, held close and looked at with enthusiasm – and will as good as die inside without such care. Every child needs to experience what one could term ‘Primary Parental Delight,’ a basic feeling that they are limitlessly wanted by those who put them on the earth and are capable of generating intense pleasure through their very being. Without this, a child might survive, but it can never thrive. Their right to walk the earth will always be somewhat in doubt, they will grow up with a sense of being superfluous, disruptive and, at core, unappealing and shameful.
Such emotions feed directly into a broad range of mental illnesses – chronic anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression – all have roots in a sense of not mattering enough to anyone over long childhood years.
This defines the challenge for the carer in adulthood. Some of the work will have to involve making good an appalling failure of early provision; they will need to convince the wounded inner ill child that what they didn’t receive decades ago could still be available today; that there might still be joy, reassurance, play and kindness.
It could seem highly patronising to tell an adult that they need above all to be reparented. It’s in fact the height of maturity to recognise that the small version of us must – if we’re ever to get better – allow ourselves another chance to experience what it could feel like to matter limitlessly to a kindly and thoughtful companion.
– The Night
Way back, the night was the time when we were especially afraid, and especially needed love and reassurance. The same will be true in our periods of acute mental illness. The night will terrify us, stretching out as a vast and threatening space in which our worst fears and most critical voices will have unlimited dominion.
We need someone who can help us during these tortuous hours, perhaps by remaining awake next to us, or by sleeping in an adjoining bed or room or by giving us permission to call them whenever panic descends.
We will know we are properly loved when we can wake up at 3.30am and have the right no longer to be completely alone with our racing hearts and fearsome anxieties.
We shouldn’t be so surprised at the enormous levels of mental illness at large in society; we need only get clear how bad we collectively are at love, how poor we are lending sympathy, at listening, at offering reassurance, at feeling compassion and at forgiving – and conversely how good we are at hating, and shaming and neglecting. We consider ourselves civilised but display levels of love that would shock a primitive tribe or a den of thieves.
Furthermore, we’ve opted to wash our hands of the issue and handed responsibility for it wholesale to the scientists, as though they could culture a complete solution to mental illness through their pills. We ignore that the cure largely lies in the emotional realm: in getting better at appeasing each other’s fears, at being generous about our transgressions, at no longer tormenting and maltreating one another for our failures and at sitting together through the darkness of night in a spirit of infinite care and kindly forebearance.
Some of the reason why we are far more fearful, inhibited and sad than we should be is that we are – unbeknownst to ourselves – wandering through our lives with a huge burden of unresolved and unobserved trauma.
A trauma is not merely a terrible event, though it is very much that too. It is a terrible event that has not been adequately processed, understood and unpicked and that has – through neglect – been able to cast a very long and unwarranted shadow over huge areas of experience. Many of our greatest fears have nothing at all to do with actual dangers in the here and now; they are the legacy of traumas that we have lacked the wherewithal to be able to trace back to their origins, localise and neutralise.
The concept of trauma was first observed in military contexts. Let us imagine that in bed one night, in a country torn apart by civil war, we hear a car alarm followed, a few seconds later, by a huge explosion. Our neighbourhood is destroyed and several members of our family are killed. We are devastated but, under pressure to continue with our lives, are unable to reflect adequately or properly to mourn what has happened; we are forced to move on from a dreadful experience with fateful haste and lack of emotional assimilation. And yet the unattended memory of bloodshed, chaos and loss doesn’t disappear, instead it curdles into an unknown interior presence we call trauma – which means that in the years and decades ahead, even in the most peaceful circumstances, whenever we hear a car alarm or indeed any high pitched sound (that of an elevator’s ping for example) we are mysteriously, for reasons we don’t really understand, thrown back into our original panic, as if a thousand tons of TNT were about to explode once again.
However appalling this can be, psychologists have learnt that trauma can as easily be acquired in ostensibly peaceful circumstances. We don’t need to have been through a war to be traumatised in multiple ways. Imagine a six year old child who makes an error in a maths exam and takes the news home; suddenly, her father – who drinks too much and might be battling depression and paranoia – flies into a rage, shouts at her, smashes a household object and slams multiple doors. From the perspective of a six year old, it feels like the world is ending. There is no way to make sense of the moment – beyond taking responsibility for it and as a result feeling like a terrible human being. And from this, a trauma develops, this one centered around making mistakes. Every slip on this person’s part threatens to unleash an explosion in others. Far into adulthood, every time there is a risk of an error, there is a terror that someone else will get dementedly furious. Everyone becomes terrifying because one person in particular who was spin-chilling hasn’t been thought about and reckoned with in memory. Or we can imagine a little boy looked after by a very loving but very fragile single mother who is prudish and scared of masculinity. The boy feels her disapproval and grows acutely guilty about his own more boisterous, vital dimensions. From this, he eventually develops a trauma around his sexual feelings; to be sexual is to upset women, a part of him believes in adulthood – and therefore, even when he is with women who are keen on intimacy with him, he finds himself unable to feel excited or potent and always, for reasons he doesn’t understand, moves to end the relationship. Every woman is imagined as disgusted with sex because one important woman in his formative years was thought to have been.
The solution, in all such cases, is to get a better sense of the specific incidents in the past that have generated difficulties in order to unhook the mind from its expectations. The clue that we are dealing with a trauma – rather than any sort of justified fear – lies in the scale and intensity of feelings that descend in conditions when there is no objective rationale for them: it’s peacetime, a man is kind, a woman is full of desire… and yet still there is terror, still there is self-disgust, still there is shame. We know then that we are dealing not with ‘silliness’ or madness or indeed genuine danger, but with an unprocessed incident from the past casting a debilitating shadow on a more innocent present.
As traumatised people, the memory of the founding incident is within us, but our conscious minds swerve away from the possibility of engaging with it and neutralising it through rational examination. Unable to mourn or decipher the event, much of life becomes mournful and not worth living. At the same time, the trauma breeds symptoms and neuroses which we cannot trace back to their founding moment; we forget why we are so scared, we just know that there are risks everywhere. A trauma is an agony that the conscious mind has lacked the support and resources to process – at the cost of our ability to love, to be free and to think creatively.
Yet if we can finally feel comfortable and safe enough to dare to look back, we’ll be able to see the traumatising moment for it was, outside of our original panic and our youthful or illogical conclusions (that it was our fault, that we did something wrong, that we are sinful). Liberating ourselves will mean understanding the specific, local and relatively unique features of what has traumatised us; and then growing aware of how our minds have multiplied and universalised the difficulty, in part to protect us from an encounter which was once too difficult to grapple with.
We will realise that it was one bomb that exploded and destroyed the neighbourhood – and that however dreadful this might have been, there is no reason for all high pitched noises to terrify us. Similarly, it was one father who screamed at us for making a mistake when we were tiny, yet not everyone who is in authority threatens to annihilate us in adulthood. It was one particular woman who made us feel that our sexuality was unacceptable, and so it should not be all women whom we assume are revolted by us.
Our challenge is to make sense of a specific agonising hitherto obscure problem or event so as to strip it of its all-embracing impact. Countless situations will be problematic and frightening so long as individual incidents have not been understood and thought through with kindness and inventiveness. By properly gripping an original event in the claws of a rational adult mind, and stripping it of its mystery, we will be able to repatriate fearful emotions – and render the world less unnerving than it presently seems. Life as a whole won’t have to be so terrifying once we understand the bits of it that truly once were.
It may sound strange to locate the problem here, but some of our most despairing moods are caused by failures of the imagination. We are not merely ‘sad’; we cannot picture any better life than the agonised one we currently have.
What we really mean by imagination is the power to summon up alternatives. When we are sad, we can’t imagine finding another job; we can’t imagine retraining or shifting profession. We can’t imagine not minding what the gossip says about us. We can’t imagine finding another partner and letting ourselves trust someone again. We can’t imagine getting by in a wheelchair. We can’t imagine living on a very modest budget or relocating to another country. We can’t imagine having to make a completely new set of friends.
It is therefore key to assert a theoretical truth from the outset: with sufficient imagination, almost any problem can be worked around. If one door has closed, the imagination should in time be able to find another. Every life can be rendered bearable, however unpromising the initial material. If two hundred doors have closed, there will be a two-hundred-and-first one to locate. If Plan A has fallen, we can land on a plan B or C or Z.
There are other cities we can go to, there are completely new sorts of work we could try. There are places we can travel where no one knows who we are. There are lovers who will have a very different approach to intimacy than those we have known to date. The oceans are so large and beautifully unconcerned with us. We are grown-ups, that is, people with choices. We are not the small children we once were who had to depend on their parents for everything and were imprisoned by narrow circumstances. We would be able to build ourselves a small hut on the edge of the desert. We could work as a postman or retrain as a psychotherapist, find employment as a bus conductor or as a carer in a hospice. We could help staff a suicide line (we have a lot of experience already) or volunteer in an emergency shelter (it’ll put a lot of things in perspective). We can change our names. If we’re feeling shy and defeated, we don’t have to go out and see anyone ever again. We can live by ourselves, mind our own business, read the classics and go to the movies all day. We can go mad for a while and then recover; a lot of people do. We could throw ourselves into learning a new language or take a university degree in Sanskrit by correspondence course. We can find the love we need; we only require two friends, or even just one, to get by. Many people might be cruel, but a few are infinitely compassionate and kind and we can go out and find them and not let them go. We could make a new circle of friends among recently released convicts (they tend to be very bright and very free of social snobbery). We could go to a monastery or a nunnery. We could become a gardener. We could go and look up a few old and trusted friends and suggest that we all live together in an unconventional small and supportive commune. We can rid ourselves of the toxic values we grew up with and become – in the best way – outcasts and eccentrics.
We don’t have to stick by the script we thought we’d be following all our lives. We might have wanted to do so – but we are profoundly flexible creatures. When we arrived on the earth, our mental wiring was loose enough that we could have developed into excellent foragers in the Kalahari desert, Latin scholars in a university or accountants in the logistics industry. Our biology is elastic. We may have lost a little of that primordial flexibility and latitude, it might no longer be so easy to pick up new languages or physical moves, but we remain eminently equipped to acquire new tricks. Other people – noble and interesting other people – have been here before us. There have been exiled Russian princes who learnt how to become tennis teachers, émigré South Vietnamese army generals who started kindergartens; divorcees who remarried; shamed executives who opened corner shops.
In order to increase our chances of fulfilment, we need to feed and massage our imaginations; we need to provide them with countless examples of alternative narratives, so that they can grow more skilled at throwing out plan Bs when fate commands. Whatever way we happen to be living, we should constantly force ourselves to picture different, more arduous but still bearable ways to be. We should go through our lives like a pilot who is at all times wondering what alternative runway they might head to in order to crash-land the plane if a crisis demanded it. We could think about how we might survive without any friends, without a reputation, without health, without any love, without much money. As part of their creative writing classes, adolescents should be asked to produce narratives titled: If I lost everything and had to start up again, I might… They could be tasked with producing four page essays about how one might survive if one was abandoned in love at 41 with two small children in tow, or forced to retrain after a scandal at 52. They could be asked to make a list of the 20 things that currently make life meaningful; then have to cross them all off and find 10 more. Only a few of us will ever need to write short stories for a living, very many of us will be called upon by fate to rewrite the stories of our lives. That is the true destiny and function of the imagination.
When we are very sad, we should be provoked by the intellectual puzzle before us: How else might we get by, given how many possibilities have been closed to us? How could we fertilise the dung heap we are on? Our challenge is to learn to rebuild our futures intelligently and creatively on the ruins of our old lives.
Every day, especially in the era of social media (from the mental health perspective, probably the single worst invention of modern times), we are likely to face enemies. People who disagree with us, people who tell us we’re ‘bad’, people who say we should be ashamed of ourselves – or even be destroyed.
The common-sense advice, from well-meaning friends, is not to listen, to shrug it off, to assert that no one cares, that the bully is ‘mad’ or mentally unwell – and to suggest a change of scene. It’s very kind – and, sadly, usually, for many of us, entirely ineffective.
The question then emerges: why is it that some people find it extremely hard to defend themselves, either in the sense of practically answering back to an enemy or simply of not caving in internally in the face of an attack? Why is it that, when they are being bullied at work, some people are able to mount a polite, calm fightback, while others melt into self-loathing and despair? Why is it that if they are criticised unfairly in a romantic context, some people are able to point out that the criticism is not right and get their side of the story across and feel steady and solid, while others descend at once into paranoia?
We might put it like this: in order to be able to defend oneself against an external foe, one has to be on one’s own side. And this is not – for some of us – as easy as it sounds. Without us necessarily even quite realising the fact, our entire personalities may be geared towards interpreting ourselves as bad, wrong, a mistake, shameful and a piece of shit. This may sound dramatic and we know, in our intellectual adult selves, that this can’t be entirely right. Nevertheless, deep down, this isn’t only slightly right, it’s the fundamental truth about us.
A first step towards dealing with an external enemy is realising that our personalities are built up in such a way that we’re going to have a big problem on our hands whenever we face opposition. We should expect to find this hard and we do. We are, and there is no pejorative association around this whatsoever, a bit mentally fragile or unwell in this area. We therefore need to call for help, extend a lot of compassion to ourselves and devote all the critical care we’re going to need to get through the crisis. We then need to take on board that – unfortunately – the real enemy we’re harbouring is not so much currently outside of us (though they are there too) as inside of us.
We need to ask ourselves: why does the accusation feel so true? Our conscious minds give us access to only a fraction of the information about us. Just as we can’t intuitively understand how a cell operates in our very own body, so the make up of most of our emotional brain is sunk in darkness. However, there will be a history to our self-loathing. We hate ourselves because somewhere along the line, we were not properly loved. Somewhere in the past, we heard a story – you are a piece of shit, you don’t deserve to be, f*** off… – and the story has stuck.
How could someone facing an accusation that they are an idiot but who inside has a voice saying that they’re a moron ever get the strength to defend themselves? They know in the adult part of the mind that they should be fighting back, but they can’t, because inside all they hear is: you are everything your enemy is saying you are. They identify entirely with their aggressor.
This can get pretty dangerous pretty fast. If the external enemy is vicious enough, and joins artfully enough with the internal enemy, there can be suicidal thoughts – and perhaps suicide itself. The defenceless are the opposite of self-righteous. To their enemies, they are implicitly saying: I hate myself more than you ever could. I want to kill myself more than you want to kill me.
The solution to this is a large naive word we’ll have heard before but which we need to grasp in its life-saving dimension: love. We need to hear often enough and clearly enough from other human beings – and they don’t need to be romantic partners – that contrary to what the internal enemy is saying, we are decent enough, not perfect but that isn’t the criterion for deserving to exist. We need to fix ourselves by absorbing, properly absorbing, the kindness of others.
The problem is that people who feel they are pieces of shit aren’t very good at letting others take care of them. They don’t know how to ask for help, and when help is given, they may initially push it away, accusing the kind friend of being weird or inadequate (why would they be seeking to help a freak?).
We know from the condition known as body dysmorphia that it’s no use telling someone who feels they are disgusting that they are in fact very nice looking. We need to help them understand how they grew to hate themselves so much and show them, via a friendship, that there could be another way of relating to who they are. We have some hints about how our minds work from the way we acquire language: children fluently pick up incredibly complex patterns of speech from listening to those around them in the early years. A parallel emotional process is going on. If someone when we were little was speaking hate, and shame and guilt to us, we will have started to speak like that to ourselves – and it won’t be easy, in adulthood, to learn a new language, let alone to come to speak it fluently to ourselves. Telling someone mired in self-hatred to ‘cheer up’ or ‘like themselves a bit more’ is going to be as impatient as telling someone from England to ‘just speak Bulgarian’. It’s going to take time and a lot of training.
Nevertheless, if we want to think about what an ambitious project for humanity would look like, it would be a giant programme of learning to replace the internalised languages of hate and enmity with those of love and compassion. We’ve trying to do this for a couple of millenia at least. But we’ve done a pretty poor job of it so far – and the project feels more urgent than ever. We might start today, by speaking a few stumbling phrases of love to the self-hating part of ourselves and to someone we know near us who is perhaps right now mired in shame and inadequacy.