Mental Illness

Therapy and Neuro Science #

Do we know how the mind works? Can we control how our mind works? This is one of the new frontiers of human research. It is possible that mental illnesses are not illnesses, but points of difference - Neurodiversity.

Today we know so much more about the power of empathetic counselling, emotional support and the incredible healing effect of music and art on sufferers of mental illness. Neurological, psychotherapeutic, and sometimes pharmaceuticals help overcome and survive the trials and assaults of mental disorders.

Mental illness is complex – yet patients are often left to manage their own brain. For all the steps we’ve taken to talk openly and reduce stigma, mental illness is still a bloody awful time. However, we are continuing to make significant progress over the past forty years.

Writing is a relief/release. We all need narratives to understand the identity of others. The World is filled with impossible lives; Fiction reminds us they exist.

Freud claimed:

all Art arose from a diseased mind, trying to make sense of the world.

Jonathan Jones of The Guardian wrote that Art has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience. Modern art has even celebrated mental suffering as a creative adventure. This psychiatric modernism started with the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh and led to work by patients being discovered as a new kind of art. Yet it has much deeper historical roots.

Albrecht Durer portrayed genius as melancholic as early as the Renaissance and Romantic painters identified with the “mad”.

Perhaps it is not hard to see why artists often show empathy for what society calls illness: all creativity is an irrational voyage. The idea of going outside yourself to see things afresh is probably as old as the torchlit visions of cave artists and was expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato when he wrote that poetic ecstasy is the only source of divine truth.

“Madness is a gift from the gods”, as Plato put it.

Philosophers who suffered mental illness. #

Diogenes the Cynic lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues. His sanity sounds shaky at best, yet there is no doubting his importance: he inspired the early Sceptics and thus influenced the whole of Western thought.

Immanuel Kant, most rational of thinkers, ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers, and stopping dead in his tracks whenever he felt warm on a walk because he was afraid that breaking into a sweat would kill him.

Nietzsche wrote some of his most incisive works while in the early stages of the syphilitic dementia that really did kill him.

The Bible #

Saul was a daring military leader, yet he proved to be unstable, subject to deep bouts of depression, impetuous violence, and repeated violations of religious law. David, a young shepherd from Judah, was summoned to soothe Saul’s fits of madness with the music of his lyre.

The Bible’s miracle at Gadara (Mark 5:1-13), wherein Jesus exorcised evil spirits from a man and sent them into a herd of about 2000 swine which then ran violently down a steep bank into the sea and drowned. (How did the owner of the swine feel about that? Any chance of compensation?)

There are many other instances in the Bible of casting out demons.

Classical Literature #

Aristotle claimed Greek tragedy had therapeutic effects.

Literature needs to engage us through identification and wonder. We need to lose ourselves beyond the limits of our horizons to experience the lives of others; sometimes through mind lifting experiences to escape our dreary lives.

Literature as therapy helps our mental health by focussing on the pain of others. The purging of emotions of anxiety, anger and depression through memories of vicarious fear can become therapeutic. Realising we are not alone in our suffering can provide relief. Post traumatic stress has been an unidentified symptom throughout the ages. Playing back the experiences of our trauma in safe, secure and supportable environments can assist us to overcome our fear, helplessness and isolation.

Greek Tragedy presents various instances of mental illnesses. Orestes suffering from the guilt of killing his mother, attributed to the Furies or Eyrinyes .

Medea, when Jason, her husband, claims she is a harlot and their mating, barbarian, abandons her when the King offers him the throne if he marries his daughter. Medea, a mother deeply shocked, murders their two sons.

Herakles, driven insane at the direction of the goddess Hera, slaughters his own family. In a crucial central scene, in which the personified figure of Madness (Lyssa in Greek) infects Herakles’s mind, Euripides’s language suggests that the sound of the aulos—heard no doubt in one of its more frenetic modes—conveyed her malign power. “I will pipe over you with terror,” Lyssa says to Herakles, using a verb coined from the word aulos.

In Ovid’s The Art of Love, The son of Phillyra (Chiron, the chief Centaur) made the boy Achilles skilled at the lyre; and with his soothing art he subdued his ferocious disposition.

In Ancient Greek theater, the chorus initially provides important background information for the audience so that we may understand the context in which the characters find themselves. Once the inciting action of the play is underway, the chorus then also comments on the events taking place, in some cases even speaking directly to the characters. In the original language the cadence and meter could cast a spell on the listener.

The strophe – meaning “turn” – is the first stanza of an ode and is essentially the first half of a debate or argument presented by the chorus. In reciting the strophe, the chorus moves from the right of the stage to the left.

The antistrophe is the other half of the debate or further exploration of the argument initially presented in the strophe. The word itself means “to turn back,” which makes sense given that the chorus moves in the opposite direction of the strophe; for the antistrophe, the movement is left to right. The antistrophe serves as a response to the strophe, but it does not get the last word. The antistrophe only complicates the issue and makes it difficult to see the correct answer or path for characters to take.

The epode, or “after song,” is the third and final section of the ode. In the epode, the chorus comes together in the center of the stage and delivers a final stanza.

A Californian psychologist, Francine Shapiro, discovered that side to side eye movement proved effective in trauma therapy. Individuals suffering Obsessive Complusive Disorders broke their focus. Spectators of the Chorus moving from the right of the stage to the left, back to the centre could stimulate part of the brain involved in our fears. Today modern sports like Tennis or contact sport could help us through the vicarious engagement of catharsis to feel better.

According to Angus Fletcher in Wonderworks tragedy invites us to revisit our trauma by staging suicides, murders and assaults making our own problems pale into insignificance and provide meaning for our suffering. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon has the chorus chant:

“The law of our world is pain
the scar that teaches
the hardness of days
and leaves its mark
in every heart”.

Greek tragedies have been staged by theatre companies for American war veterans who reported a decrease in feelings of isolation, hyper-vigilance, and other symptoms of posttraumatic fears. As Aristotle describes in Poetics, they have been purged by catharsis. Fear robs us of power, so anything that gives us a feeling of self-efficacy is healing.

Milton writes:

“The mind is its own place”, and “of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”.

Gerard Manly Hopkins, an Irish priest expresses both the highs of ecstasy and the lows of bi-polar depression:

Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed.

Stephen Johnson explores the power of Shostakovich’s music during Stalin’s reign of terror, and writes of the incredible healing effect of music on sufferers of mental illness.

Therapy #

We write to express our emotions and ideas. Imran Mohammad’s personal account of his resettlement in Chicago, after spending five years in detention on Manus Island, demonstrates the healing power of expression.

“The setting was so inhumane, it broke me,” Imran wrote of Australia’s detention centre on Manus. “I emerged only through the beauty and gift of writing, which gave me motivation and a purpose to wake up every morning… In my quest for freedom, I lost so many of my growing years. I spent them in jail for a crime that does not exist. I have no remorse for this. I have become a person who can see pain, love and beauty, in life and the environment.”

Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner** gets relief by telling his story over and over again to anyone he can get to listen.

Sylvia Plath used her writing as therapy; by a frank and full admission of her pain she is hoping for some release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunt her.

Emily Dickinson’s poems, intensely emotional, yet never dissolving into sentimentality, reveal a troubled soul searching for understanding and acceptance.

Another writer who used writing as an attempt to address inner turmoil is Zelda, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, commenting on the disintegration of their marriage:

“To right myself, I write myself.” Writing is an escape into the depths of my imagination."

Franz Kafta – describes “Writing should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Kathy Lette claims she writes because “it’s cheaper than therapy”.

Nikki Gemmell: “writing is my ballast through life’s toss.”

Ted Huhges Private Letters indicate his motives and a therapeutic effect:

‘I’m not sure the effect of writing the poems isn’t just too raw’.

at the end of the project

It was so great, I was sorry I hadn’t done it before. Writing released a bizarre dream life, and I realised how much had been locked up inside me.

Freud #

Freud expressed a sense of wonder about the unknown, less rational parts of mind and of society, and to tend this part of life with “love.” This dark part strives to “serve enlightenment”.

“Hate” or fear leaves the hard and dark truths of the past (Frontier Wars) hidden under scabs or “ashes.” Society and its leaders often do the same, hiding truths under make-believe mainstream narratives or picking at the scabs to keep them fresh instead of giving them room to heal.

Freud claimed: “All human behaviour is ultimately motivated by sexuality.” He also he said, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.” Did he mean both genders?

Understanding anger comes from extreme examples. Robert M. Sapolsky cites a Mass murderer:

Charles Whitman, the 1966 ‘Texas Tower’ sniper who, after killing his wife and mother, opened fire atop a tower at the University of Texas in Austin, killing sixteen and wounding thirty­-two, one of the first school massacres. Whitman was literally an Eagle Scout and childhood choirboy, a happily married engineering major with an IQ in the 99th percentile. In the prior year he had seen doctors, complaining of severe headaches and violent impulses (e.g., to shoot people from the campus tower). He left notes by the bodies of his wife and his mother, proclaiming love and puzzlement at his actions: ‘I cannot rationally [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for [killing her],’ and ’let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.’ His suicide note requested an autopsy of his brain, and that any money he had be given to a mental health foundation. The autopsy proved his intuition correct – Whitman had a glioblastoma tumor pressing on his amygdala. Did Whitman’s tumor ‘cause’ his violence? Probably not in a strict ‘amygdaloid tumor = murderer’ sense, as he had risk factors that inter­acted with his neurological issues. Whitman grew up being beaten by his father and watching his mother and siblings experience the same. This choirboy Eagle Scout had repeatedly physically abused his wife and had been court-martialed as a Marine for physically threatening another soldier. And, perhaps indicative of a thread running through the family, his brother was murdered at age twenty-four during a bar fight."

What was refreshing about Carrie Fisher was her honesty. She made no secret of the fact that she was bipolar and had battled addiction. After footage emerged of Carrie frantically pacing around a cruise-ship stage in 2013, she explained what was happening instead of trying to cover it up. She told Daily Mail:

I was in a severely manic state, which bordered on psychosis. Certainly delusional. I wasn’t clear about what was going on. I was just trying to survive.… There are different versions of a manic state, and normally they’re not as extreme as this became. I’ve only had this happen one other time, 15 years ago, so I didn’t have a plan of action.

It is important to note that Fisher made this statement in a Hollywood world where admissions to hospital for mental health issues are frequently explained away as ‘exhaustion and dehydration.’

Virginia Woolf #

Virginia was treated for mental health issues at various times from her teenage years. She openly acknowledges her issues. Septimus Smith, is a shell-shocked soldier, loosely tethered to the world, into whom Woolf had poured many of her own experiences of madness.

Robert Lowell #

Lowell is often considered the doyen of what is called “Confessional Poetry” in the tradition of Gerard Manly Hopkins. Robert Lowell’s acknowledgement of his emotional and psychological fragility is his strength, not his weakness.

Born to a high society family, Robert was an only, unwanted child, to a cold mother and ineffective father, so emotionally deprived. He regularly attended therapy from an early age.

In 1942, 25 years old, Robert Lowell attempted to enlist in the US Army and Navy, but was rejected on medical grounds. Two years later he was drafted but refused to serve due to his objections to the allied bombings of civilians. He was sentenced to a year and a day, of which he served five months in West Street Prison, Manhattan.

In his poetry, Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder), his marital problems, or his stay (one of many) in a mental hospital, or even other people’s private letters, on open display. In recovery, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Lowell began his writing, marked by “images and ironic or amusing particulars.”

Between 1949 and 1964, a period that covers his second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick; the birth of their daughter, Harriet; and the publication of two of the most important books in the history of American poetry, “Life Studies” and “For the Union Dead,” Lowell was hospitalized twelve times, usually for periods of several months.

It is interesting that he became a mentor to a former student, Sylvia Plath, who too refused to become a passive victim, rather a defiant indomitable spirit of resistance; expressing her pain and “her cries from the heart”. Another student, Elizabeth Bishop, with her demons, prefers to objectify her issues behind the protective mask of universal experience and as Freud suggested her repression manifested in other ways such as alcohol abuse, promiscuity and attempted suicides.

Akon Guode #

An account by Helen Garner.

Akon Guode was a 35-year-old South Sudanese refugee, a widow with seven children. Three of them drowned in 2015 when she drove into a lake: four-year-old twins Hanger and Madit, and their 16-month-old brother, Bol. Their five-year-old sister, Alual, escaped the car and survived.

Akon Guode’s story. She married in South Sudan as a teenager. By the time her husband, a soldier in the rebel army of South Sudan, was killed in the civil war she had two children. As a widow in a country where Christian and African traditional customs often blend, she could never remarry. She would remain a member – or perhaps one could say a possession – of her late husband’s family: she was given to one of his brothers. “This is customary once the husband dies,” “You don’t go out. You don’t go anywhere else. You stay with the same tribe because you got married for cows. As a dowry.” Guode’s third child was fathered by a man we would think of as her brother-in-law.

With the three children in tow, she walked to Uganda in 18 days, foraging for food along the way. When they got there, another of her late husband’s brothers, already living in Australia, offered to sponsor her and the children: she was granted a global special humanitarian visa. They arrived in Sydney in 2006 and stayed with the brother-in-law until 2008, then moved to Melbourne, where the cost of living was more manageable, and were given temporary shelter by her late husband’s cousin Joseph Manyang, his wife and their three children.

Manyang helped Guode settle into a rented house of her own. Soon she and Manyang, unknown to his wife, began a relationship resultin in four more children.

Guode was running her household on Centrelink payments and on Manyang’s sporadic contributions. In 2012 she worked for 12 months at a family day-care centre. Like most refugees she was regularly sending back as much money as she could spare to her parents and her extended family in Africa. Then, in 2013, she became pregnant again. Shortly before the child was born, Centrelink, in a contretemps about an overpayment, suspended her benefits. A repayment scheme was eventually put in place, but she was barely squeaking by from week to week.

“In many cases,” said the psychiatrist helplessly, “it can just be the ebb and flow of human suffering, and the person reaching the threshold at which they can … no longer go on.”

No one in a court speaks the language of psychoanalysis, I know, but listening to this description of an ironclad endurance forged in extreme adversity, I remembered a remark by the British analyst Wilfred Bion that had always mystified me but now made sense:

“People exist … in whom pain … is so intolerable that they feel the pain but will not suffer it and so cannot be said to discover it.”

A woman psychiatrist in Melbourne who has worked with many refugees from the Sudanese conflict had described Guode’s experiences to me as “unprocessed – repressed”. Guode was lost in her own numbness. How could she ask for help, or admit – even to herself – how far down she had slid? A woman with seven children to raise, but with no adult companion to love her and help her and hold her together, is not free to let herself go into grieving for her losses.

Call it what you will, this woman had been reduced to little more than a conduit for babies and for money. Is it any wonder that she laid her burden down and turned her face to the wall?

Manchester by the Sea portrays the numbness of a loving couple divorced after the tragedy death of their three children, due to the husband’s carelessness. She remarries but begins to regret leaving him. Here they meet later after she has had a new child: