Companionship and Mental Health
One of the cruellest aspects of mental illness is that it strips us of any ability to believe that other people might be suffering in the way we are. We aren’t being wilfully egocentric or arrogant; we are condemned by our illness to a feeling that we are uniquely pitiful, uniquely unacceptable, uniquely awful. The central legacy of mental illness, and a major contributor to our suicidal impulses, is a feeling of exceptionalism. Our mental troubles coat us in appalling degrees of shame.
Ill, we start to run away from other people. Gatherings become impossible – for we grow preemptively terrified of the presumed invulnerability and judgmentalness of those we might meet. We can’t possibly make small talk or concentrate on what someone else is saying when our heads are filled with catastrophic scenarios and an intrusive voice is telling us that we should die. There seems no compact or acceptable way to share with old friends what we have been going through: they knew us as chatty and optimistic. What would they make of the tortured characters we have become? We start to assume that no one on earth could possibly know – let alone accept – what it is like to be us.
This is especially tragic because the central cure for mental illness is company. Our disease denies us access to precisely what we most need in order to get better.
In 1891, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler exhibited The Disappointed Souls. Five figures are pictured in varied states of dejection. We don’t know quite what has gone wrong in their lives, but Hodler’s talent invites us to imagine possibilities: a marriage here, a social disgrace there, an unbudgeable depression, a feeling of overwhelming anxiety… However awful the individual stories might be, the true horror of the painting emerges from elsewhere, from the way each crisis is unfolding in complete isolation from its neighbours. The disconsolate figures are only millimetres away from one another, but they might as well be on alternative planets. It should be so easy to reach out, to share the burden, to lend a comforting hand, to swap stories – and it would be so life-giving. But no fellowship seems possible in this depiction of hell. Sadness has wrapped each sufferer up in a pitiless sense of their own singularity.
Ferdinand Hodler, The Disappointed Souls, 1891
A further horror is that Hodler wasn’t painting any one scene, he intended his work as an allegory of modern society as a whole, with its absence of community, its lonely cities and its alienating technologies. But in this very depiction lies the possibility of redemption. We will start to heal when we realise that we are in fact always extremely close to someone who is as wretched as we are. We should hence always be able to reach out to a similarly broken neighbour and lament in unison. We should learn to come together for a very particular kind of social occasion – a crying party – whose whole focus would be an exchange of notes on the misery and lacerations of existence.
In an ideal gathering of the unwell, in a comfortable safe-seeming room, we would take it in turns to reveal to one another the torments in our minds. Each of us would detail the latest challenges. We’d hear of how others were going through sleepless nights, were unable to eat, were too terrified to go outside, were hearing voices and had to fight against constant impulses to kill themselves. The material would be dark no doubt, but to hear it would be like a balm for our stricken lonely souls.
Ideally, we would keep meeting the same people, week after week – so that our lives would grow entwined with theirs and we could exchange mutual support as we travelled through the valley of sickness. We would know who was in particular difficulty, who needed tenderness and who might benefit from an ordinary-sounding chat about the garden or the weather.
It isn’t possible that we are as alone we currently feel. Biology doesn’t produce complete one-offs. There are fellow creatures among the seven billion of our species. They are there – but we have lost all confidence in our right to find them. We feel isolated not because we are so but because we are unwell. We should dare to believe that a fellow disappointed soul is right now sitting next to us on the bench, waiting for us to make a sign.