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Self-Knowledge: Growth & Maturity


On Falling Mentally Ill

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For a long time, we may cope well enough. We make it to work every morning, we give pleasant summaries of our lives to friends, we smile over dinner. We aren’t totally balanced, but there’s little way of knowing how difficult things might be for other people, and what we have a right to expect in terms of contentment and peace of mind. We probably tell ourselves to stop being self-indulgent and redouble our efforts to feel worthy through achievement. We are probably world experts in not feeling sorry for ourselves.

Decades may pass. It’s not uncommon for the most serious mental conditions to remain undiagnosed for half a life time. We simply don’t notice that we are, beneath the surface, chronically anxious, filled with self-loathing and close to overwhelming despair and rage. This too simply ends up feeling normal.

Until one day, finally, something triggers a collapse. It might be a crisis at work, a reversal in our career plans or a mistake we’ve made over a task. It might be a romantic failure, someone leaving us or a realisation that we are profoundly unhappy with a partner we had thought might be our long-term future. Alternatively, we feel mysteriously exhausted and sad, to the extent that we can’t face anything any more, even a family meal or a conversation with a friend. Or we are struck by unmanageable anxiety around everyday challenges, like addressing our colleagues or going into a shop. We’re swamped by a sense of doom and imminent catastrophe. We sob uncontrollably.

We are in a mental crisis and, if we are lucky, we will know to put up the white flag at once. There is nothing shameful or rare in our condition; we have fallen ill, as so many before us have. We need not compound our sickness with a sense of embarrassment. This is what happens when one is a delicate human facing the hurtful, alarming and always uncertain conditions of existence. Recovery can start the moment one admits one no longer has a clue how to cope.

The roots of the crisis almost certainly go a long way back. Things will not have been right in certain areas for an age, possibly forever. There will have been grave inadequacies in the early days, things that were said and done to us that should never have occurred and bits of reassurance and care that were ominously missed out on. On top of this, adult life will have layered on difficulties which we were not well equipped to know how to endure. It will have applied pressure along our most tender, invisible faultlines. 

Our illness is trying to draw attention to our problems, but it can only do so inarticulately, by throwing up coarse and vague symptoms. It knows how to declare that we are worried and sad, but it can’t tell us what about and why. That will be the work of patient investigation, over months and years, probably in the company of experts. The illness contains the cure, but it has to be teased out and its original inarticulacy interpreted. Something from the past is crying out to be recognised – and will not leave us alone until we have given it its due.

It may seem – at points – like a death sentence but we are, beneath the crisis, being given an opportunity to restart our lives on a more generous, kind and realistic footing. There is an art to being ill – and to daring at last to listen to what our pain is trying to tell us.

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