Chapter 4.Self: Mood


Small Triumphs of the Mentally Unwell

Perhaps today, you managed a key work meeting, and gave a small presentation that usefully focused the discussion. Maybe you went to a party and held out for a couple of hours, chatting amiably to some total strangers as if nothing much was up. Or you might have been alone with the children for the entire afternoon, taken them to the park, prepared them a meal, bathed them and read them a story before bed – and made sure they didn’t notice a thing.

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These don’t sound like particularly heroic feats. Most of us do them all the time and wouldn’t expect to be in any way congratulated for pulling them off. In fact, we might think of someone who made too much of a fuss here as absurdly self-indulgent and spoilt.

Then again, the bravery of an act depends more on the resources we can bring to bear on it than anything inherent in the act itself. Accomplishing a so-called ordinary activity can be counted as a proper triumph when there are squalls in our minds. 

For the mentally unwell person, it isn’t just a work meeting, it’s a one and half hour marathon between one’s competent self and a voice that is somewhere in the mind insisting in the most aggressive and debilitating tone that we are a disgusting being and a fraud, that we must fail, that we have no right trying to impress colleagues and that we will probably imminently throw up and be forced to run to the bathroom.

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Similarly, for the unwell person, it isn’t just a party, it’s a terrifying wrestle with a sense that every well-meaning stranger is in fact out to mock us, can see right through us and knows the deepest truth about us: which is that we are a disgusting piece of excrement with no legitimate claim on existence.

As for an afternoon of childcare, it is simultaneously a battle waged against a nameless dread that hints, even as we prepare the pasta or read the adventures of Pingu in a tender and reassuring voice, that we might be better off dead.

We are prepared to accord special dispensation to small children and old people when they struggle to do things that come easily to us: climbing the stairs or opening a yogurt. It seems counter-intuitive to suppose that, though we are physically able, some of us may deserve equal congratulations for negotiating the apparently minor hurdles of domestic and professional life. Mental unwellness is no less of a burden than age or physical illness – though, because it is not visible, it has the added disadvantage of appearing tantalisingly close to laziness or decadence. It would – in a way –  help immensely if the mentally unwell could look as sick as they are.

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The well among us are understandably inclined not to want to fathom too much about how fragile the mind can be and how upended the world appears when one or two latent weak links give way. Mental illness isn’t just hard to understand, it is – primarily – scary and icky to do so.

But justice requires that we grasp at least intellectually how different the lives of the mentally unwell are from those of the rest of us. At the end of every day, without their outward form bearing any of the scars, it is as if they have returned from battle – and these modest exhausted veterans deserve as much praise as if they had vanquished monsters.

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