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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

The Pessimist’s Guide to Mental Illness

It may be hard to imagine that the word ‘pessimism’ could have any role to play in mitigating the effects of mental illness. But that would be to underestimate the covert persecutory aspects of its opposite, optimism. The expectation that our lives should be well, that we should be forever free of anxiety and despair, paranoia and loneliness is both understandable in its ambition and confidence — and quietly tormenting.

J. M. W. Turner, Paestum, 1823-6

Those of us who have been visited by severe mental illness need to cling to darker counsel. We, members of a not insubstantial minority, have been stricken by a fragility that will not lightly ever leave us alone again — and so need to be ready henceforth always to greet life with particular care: grateful for whichever days go well, serene in the face of those that don’t, appreciative of the small gains we are capable of and permanently vigilant as to the possibility of relapse. We have been denied the easygoing lives we would have loved to lead and should not add insult to injury by continuing to regret them; they should be mourned rather than lamented.

We should accept with grace that things are — naturally — not as we would wish them to be. We will have to hobble when we would have loved to gamble freely. We’ll need to be creative about exploring how life could be bearable in circumstances far less rosy than anyone would have wished. We will have to give up our pride — that is, our assurance in our own competence and automatic right to dignity. We have been humbled and ridiculed by our own minds.

At the same time, we should take steps to make ourselves at home in the darkness. We should willingly expose our reason to our worst, nastiest and most invalid thoughts, rather than let them steal up to us at a time of their choosing. We should practice thought exercises that strip our fears of their unexamined hold on us.

The anxious should defiantly accept that they can never eradicate certain risks but that these can be shouldered — and a habitable life made among the ruins. Our relationships may never go right, certain family members will always resent us, particular enemies will never come over to our side, we cannot correct mistakes in our career, there will invariably be doubters and outright sadists — but none of this should surprise us, we should no let undue innocence aggravate our mood, we should explore the unbudgeable sadness on sunny mornings when our reasoning faculties are lively and calming instead of letting matters unnerve us in 3am confrontations when we are too groggy and worn down to know what to answer our demons.

We should take heed from the knowledge that it has already been very bad and if it were to be so again, we would cope as we have already done. We should take comfort from the thought that we have suffered what some would consider to be the worst scenario — we have actually gone ‘mad’ — and yet we are still here, more or less coherent, still able to enjoy one or two things, still capable of gratitude and occasional appreciation. We should — simply on the basis of what we have survived — not be very scared of anything much at all again.

We must accept with grim cheer that it wasn’t to be our fate to belong to the mentally robust cohort. When the angels were distributing brains in the upper atmosphere, we were accorded one of the more sensitive, erratic, brilliant, tumultuous ones, which we will have to continue to watch like anxious nurses for the first signs of fracture till the day we die.

J. M. W. Turner, Buttermere Lake, 1797-8

But the troubles we feel so personally are not in reality ours alone. We are a community of the ailing and the more we can discover and connect with its other fascinating consoling members, the less our troubles will weigh on us as singular punishments. The mood of society as a whole may tend remorselessly towards cheeriness. We have access to a dark cheerfulness of our own, shared among fellow sufferers, who are equally resolute in meeting a fate they never asked for, do not deserve, but will refuse to be cowed by.

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