Mad Reflections In The Time Of Covid 19 …

I’ve recently been preoccupied with some images and experiences from my past and from culture in general, and how they relate to my own and some other Mad people’s response to the Covid 19 crisis. Below is an attempt to put words to these thoughts. I initially describe some very personal experiences that have stuck with me, then go on to describe a story of Mad strength I see in some of the networks around me as they find ways to navigate the international situation, offering what insights, help and support they can. I want to explore the importance of society entering into proper dialogue with Madness and Mad people, and encourage anyone who wants to start a dialogue in response to do so.

 

… Often when I try and think of images that match my experiences of Madness, I am drawn to ones that sprung into my consciousness in the times where I was most Mad. One such enduring image is that of a single leaf on a tree that caught the wind just so. Unlike its companions which whispered gently as the breeze shook them – swaying with the bigger limbs and finally the trunk in a orchestra of unifying movements – this single leaf rasped so fast it become a resonant tone for a split second, before alighting from the tree and being whisked far above the farthest stretch of its birthplace. Caught by this on my daily walk from the ward to the cornershop to buy cheap sweets and cans of Coke – the only available, if sickly, consumables to punctuate the days – I felt time paused for an age, and the reflections stretched from then to this now, a decade later…

 

… So much of Madness, at least for me, involves the blinkers coming off, this leap from homeliness and comfort into a dizzying heightened perspective, not one more right or more wrong, more enlightened or more disordered, but one inexorably detached from the status quo. To suddenly be carried across planes of thinking and seeing and hearing – like that leaf suddenly pitched into the wind – unanchored by the physical attachment to the body that previously contained you, carries a sense of sickening vertigo but also a thrill. It can open you up to new intimations on subjects as banal as the flight of a crisp packet alongside you, or as profound as the meaning of community, society, morality, attachment. Dulled back then by stacks of benzos and neuroleptics, my head still grasped some significance in these flows of thought traversing my brain, though my self seemed strangely diminished …

 

… this diminishment of self, and the strange contents of this thinking, were abhorrent aberrations to my psychiatrist, their very presence the evidence of my diseased mind. Yet from my new perspective so many things seemed redundant or without value, things which society valued so highly. And nothing more highly valued than the clear bounded sense of self and others that seemed to be dissolving as my leaf reached ever further skywards in heliotropic spirals. Doubts formed about so many things we’ve reified into reality: the workings of money, the independent self, the nation, the nature of sanity/insanity, the reflective and constructive power of the Word, of the image, the conception of nature as natural …

 

… Yet the further I spun away from the tree, the harder it was to have any meaningful dialogue with my fellow leaves. No others would meet the meaning I was making of the world from these new strands of life, which included now voices and visions I knew they couldn’t see or hear as yet, with any proper response. The response was to deny my reality. If others were to meet me in my worlds, they would most likely also be those outcast as unwell by the rest of society, companions in the smoking rooms of psychiatric wards or groups set up for service users, others robbed of the power to be properly heard. The sky which had come to represent a kind of freedom became an endless prison, a no mans land where no equal dialogue could be established. The branches from which my mind had sprung became walls denying me and my thoughts entry to consensus reality. It was a devastatingly lonely experience, though thanks to the solidarity of the Mad community, friends, allies and my wonderful partner, it’s one that feels less so these days…

 

… So why think of this now? It’s hard to put a precise finger on it, but a gut feeling, one shared with other Mad friends I’ve  spoken with or seen doing great stuff in the online world, is that, with the arrival of an unavoidable change of perspective in the form of Covid -19, the rest of society feels cast adrift from its branches, unsure of where its anchored, what it values (or what its values are), where it is going. We’re surrounded by people feeling, some for the first time, the erosion of the constructs that until crisis seem so certain It’s terrifying for many, sometimes including us Mad folk. But something positive is also occurring, not due to but in spite of the horrors of the current world situation. There are people who have spent years developing the skills to deal with isolation, loneliness, sadness or anxiety who now have the skills to weather this and to share these strengths with others. There are people already used to having to rely on the support of peers to get them through when wider society lets them down. There are people who have felt the worlds imminent undoing once or several times before but had to sit alone with that feeling, or risk expressing it to derision, diagnosis or even confinement, but now sense that society as a whole is experiencing a glimpse into their mental worlds. These friends and fellow Mad people are helping others to understand how to live with such feelings. There is a general closing of the gap between the stable or sane and the chaotic or mad, or spiritual, or artistic, or autistic that makes clear that these distinctions are not as concrete as society would have you believe. It’s becoming clearer that society and its refusal to meet or make room for Mad thought is sometimes what makes those living in Mad worlds disempowered, not the existence of Mad thinking in itself …

 

… Society hasn’t suddenly got fair, and there are many whose struggles with mental health, and societies lack of proper response to them, will have put them at such disadvantage, before this even started, that they need our compassion and support more than ever right now. But even many of those people seem to be coming out of shells that social isolation due to stigma and sanism has constructed around them, often offering up what help they can, even as society becomes physically isolating in the extreme. Other people in need of support suddenly become less fussy about who it is who supports them, and the way that person thinks about the world. Those Mad neighbours might now be your lifeline, or just a empathic set of ears who can offer support. I hope those who these Mad friends support don’t return to seeing them as ‘disordered’ or ‘loony’ when this passes.  Something other than a virus is in the air; the strength of the Mad and their ability to sometimes cope with extreme pressures,  and to construct alternative realities that, properly discussed can help them and us through traumas; a sense that sanity is only as strong as the systems its built upon, systems that we see shivering like underpowered holograms or mirages fading as the day to day heat dies away, shifting into something quite different…

 

…Much emotional, physical, economical and spiritual suffering is happening all around the world and we should not shy away from the horror of it. Some of us are not coping, and that is completely understandable. Everyone’s narratives that lead them to the point we are at now are different, as are their ability to draw on social, financial or embodied capital to ease some of the difficulties.  But the fact that some are struggling doesn’t mean that we should shy away from the Madnesses that rise in the human spirit to meet these struggles, and the ability of many of those well acquainted with these states to hold our hands and help us through, if we let them back onto our branches when they need a helping hand themselves. If we let the Mad (of which I count myself as one…) re-enter our dialogical worlds instead of holding them outside, keeping the meanings of their Madness at a comfortable distance, refusing to engage with their pain, their worries, their realities…we will all be stronger for it …

 

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… Another image that has recurred often in the past few weeks has been from Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia. The lead character, Justine, is seen as weak, broken and neurotic by her family, friends and the high society they represent. Her failure to cope with, align with or tolerate the societal customs and conventions that those surrounding her abide by is seen as sickness. She almost comically embodies so many of the tropes of the Mad neurotic woman that are embedded in western literature and culture, and she is evidently paired to Ophelia, the archetypal Mad woman in the literary canon, through images of her drowning in her wedding dress. None of the characters around her engage with the reality of her sadness, or at least with its meaning, though some try their best to support her through its consequences. Yet as the film progresses, two worlds threaten to crash together, and it turns out that Justine, who already knows of the existence of other mental worlds, of the fear they bring, and perhaps the potential for understanding our existential situation, is the strongest and best placed to cope. She is prescient – the first one to notice a new star in the sky, the star which will become the apocalyptic planet that collides with earth. In the final scene she builds a shelter, a symbol, something imaginative and protective to calm those whose world is breaking down around her. It looks like a tent, or a tree. And she gains a calmness and dignity, while not shying away from the magnitude of the unfolding situation, as if this is an event her often painful life has been a rehearsal for, holding the others hands and carrying their fears as the world where they’ve been comfortable comes to an abrupt end …

 

*          *          *

 

… Romanticising Madness is something we are told not to do as it is dangerous, and I agree that much romanticising of the conditions of existing – which we label Madness or illness – denies the huge impact on people’s lives that living in states of total hopelessness or terror or despair can cause, for both the person and those close to them. But this idea that being sensitive to the damage Mad episodes can cause means not talking about the learning that comes from them in a positive light also impedes societies ability to gain from Mad thinking. It paints a negative picture of madness that leads to stigma and sanism, which add to the often already heavy burdens carried by those struggling with these experiences. Breakdowns are often also breakthroughs, and people who’ve been through them, the pain and stuggle of the experiences themselves and also their sometimes demeaning and sometimes cruel treatment at the hands of systems that are supposedly there to help them, do often have resources and insights to draw upon which are not just helpful for them but for the wider social body. But that’s only if we are willing to allow them in, listen with empathy, let them play their part in the conversations that construct who we are, let madness be a part of what it is to be human…

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