Our brain is in constant communication with our body - prompting it left or right, backwards or forwards like a captain navigating a ship. We can steer ourselves in certain directions but when a storm hits, we are powerless to quieten the thunder or lessen the strength of the wind. We can become paralysed and let the days wash over us like a relentless tide, bringing with it debris and mayhem before heading back out dragging every thread of strength from our ailing grip until our hands are rubbed raw and all we can do is let go. Or, we can battle down the hatches, patch up every hole and do the best we can with what we’ve got.
Be it mental or physical, chronic illness is rife with pain. We react to our suffering in so many different ways through an exhausting spectrum of emotions; some that are displayed outwardly like anger and frustration, tumultuous flares set alight to alert others of our inner conflict. Other feelings like grief, fear or shame might swallow us whole, nibbling us piece by piece from the inside out like a systemic infection gradually switching off our lights. There is no right or wrong way to respond, our visceral reactions cannot be predetermined nor reasoned with and our conclusion of a situation is not always choice. Ultimately, we have lost control of a body or mind that we cannot escape.
When you tell someone that you are suffering from an illness like depression perhaps, or anxiety, a common reaction is for them to tell you to ‘keep positive’ or say that things ‘could always be worse,’ sometimes accompanying this with anecdotes of success stories or quotes. Despite their best intentions, it is particularly hard for a non-sufferer to empathise with mental illness. This can further increase a sufferer’s loss of control by emphasising feelings of loneliness and despair. As well as you may succeed in maintaining a positive, can-do attitude, the control you once had over the person you once were is imperceptibly stripped of you, melting away drip by drop as the intensity of your illness escalates.
Scientists work tirelessly to research and explore possible causes and routes of illness, but even the brightest minds can stand feeble against nature and its plight of self-expression and evolution. We are all in the shadow of this lingering threat to our wellbeing; a vastly complex network of correspondence that does not ask questions before taking prisoners. Mental illness is akin to atoms around us, impending and impressible, sparking reactions with infinite consequences triggered by unforeseeable conditions and encounters.
Our recovery can feel confined to a hopeless cycle of small gains and bigger losses; in itself an exhausting existence likely to clip the sails of any healthy person let alone those who have weathered storm after turbulent storm. The times when we most need to assemble strength are when we feel like we don’t even have the energy left to reach the end of the day. Each illness can manifest very differently from person to person, meaning that there cannot always be a conventional course of ‘treatment’ from medical professionals. It is hard to offer a prognosis, causing the light at the end of the tunnel to flicker dimly, extinguishable by the smallest gust of wind. Despite the greatest efforts of doctors, psychiatrists, friends and family, it is ultimately we who must gather up the fragile pieces of ourselves to become whole again, albeit with the odd crack.
Acknowledging complex and painful feelings is the first step in working through them. By quashing and masking them, we allow the illness to strengthen its roots and remain intact. Writing our thoughts enables us to communicate emotions with full disclosure in a safe environment, relieving the destructive pressure of suppressed emotion that can cause further long-term damage. It can also provide a way of informing others, with a clear and vivid picture of the various manifestations of mental illness.
Fortunately, research into mental illness has increased in recent years, and there have been many successful campaigns to highlight its prevalence and to bring it further into mainstream discussion. Unfortunately, though it is 2018, mental illness continues to spread rapidly; it is still misunderstood and a subject that continues to make people very uncomfortable. To avoid feelings of awkwardness and discomfort in others, sufferers are often overprescribed uninformed and tedious advice to look on the brighter side of life. In every other illness, you have a license to wallow, show ‘weakness,’ to ask for help and cry. People will commiserate, comfort, and offer all they can to help. When it is mental illness that you’re suffering from, you can feel forced into keeping a confident and ‘happy’ appearance for the sake of everyone but yourself.
On 9 May, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is hosting a workshop called Women Writing For Change at Augustine United Church on George IV Bridge. This is an event for women, writers and non-writers alike, who suffer and have suffered from mental illness, to band together in mutual, even if non-verbalised, support of one another, encouraging self-expression by putting pen to paper. This is an opportunity for women to write the words that we struggle to speak, to lessen the burden of the commotion in our heads by creating something tangible out of the chaos. Sylvia Plath was one of the pioneering women to exhibit and chronicle her own mental illness in her novel The Bell Jar, following in the footsteps of Charlotte Perkins Stetson who wrote the essay The Yellow Wallpaper seventy years earlier. Plath’s work was firstly received with opposition and revulsion by publishers, but in 1982 she was the first person to be awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself…It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”
Both of these women opened up the discussion around women’s psychological misery, presenting it to society by thrusting it into mainstream literature that mental illness was something that ought to be faced head on and not spoken about in whispers behind closed doors.
Every year, one in every four people in the UK will experience mental health issues. That is one person in every average family stricken with an invisible illness that disengages them from their original self. When suffering from mental illness, including prolonged anguish brought on by physical trauma, the smallest actions in our daily lives can seem unconquerable. When there’s no point in showering because you’ll be going straight back to bed, when its preferable to go hungry than make the effort it takes to eat, when the idea of seeing other people makes you feel physically sick with dread. These are feelings we do not choose; when our bodies are taken over by emotions more powerful than our ability to resist them, we must find a way to take back control - of who we are and who we will become. Our guidance comes primarily from acceptance, self-reflection and an ultimate desire to heal - three ingredients that we all have within us. Explore the things you can achieve and notice success in the smallest of actions, ratify your feelings and let them be known, for there is incredible power in accepting your pain.
by Mimi Dickson
Workshop Women Writing For Change takes place at Augustine United Church, Edinburgh on Wed 9 May at 2pm. Glasgow Women's Library are also hosting a series of events in Renfrewshire exploring women in literature and film: Workshop Story Cafe: Changing Stories (Tue 8 May), Workshop Story Cafe: New Beginnings (Tue 15 May) and Tips for Girls (Wed 16 May).