I am not I; not always a radical articulation

14Nov10

In discussing apparent shifts in public attitudes towards mental illness, the resource points out that although people are likely to take a sympathetic view of mental illness they still report that they would keep their own illness secret (NHS 2010). This feeds into why the law may be anti-discriminatory but other social practices do not embody it. I believe that this dissonance is partially due to the split between ‘mental illness’ as a category and ‘being mentally ill’ as an imagined lived experience.

The recognition that 1 in 4 Scots ( a figure that remains the same throughout Britain) will experience mental distress does little to alleviate stigma as I feel that such statistics do not take account of people’s subjectivity. It is one thing to be aware of abstract names and figures attached to them and another to think of oneself as mad. In part this is due to the otherness associated with mental illness. It is incredibly difficult to empathise with psychotic experiences for most people, and this may even be the case with depression which may be something that many people have experienced or have felt close to. The weirdness, unknowability, mental illness and the dangerous images surrounding it all play a role in the build up of stigma. We can walk down the street and know intuitively, as if some unconscious alarm has been triggered, when someone who is acutely ill is close to us. They may talk strangely, hold themselves differently, make odd gestures or sounds. In extreme instance, we will often simply report knowing that ‘something isn’t right’.

Yet at the same time, I feel that this stigma is secondary to something else. It is the fear that one could become mentally ill. It is fine to say ‘people with mental illness are like me’, that they deserve care and so forth, as long as this remains a detached game. If I am forced to consider ‘being mad’ then I myself become this weird, unknowable and dangerous other. I would contend that this othering of self is radically disturbing. For me, this means that all the statistics in the world can be shown to people and they will still not necessarily connect the reality of mental distress with themselves. In fact, stigma may not simply be the simple application of false and violent beliefs but a mechanism which prevents the consciousness of the precarity of the mind and self.

Think of Ballard’s drained swimming pools; they hold a fascination for us precisely because we don’t live them. The collapse of civilisation can be invested with libidinous desire precisely because we don’t think it possible. Indeed, the empty swimming pool, so haunting in its evocation of our own spectral possibilities, reminds us of the precarity of civilisation precisely in order to prevent our integration of those possibilities into our relationship to the real. Images of collapse preclude collapse itself. In terms of madness we couldn’t allow such a close proximity, it is as if it is (through the various psychopathologies of everyday life) too familiar.

Stigma is not then the direct result of fear; stigma is a weapon against that fear. In this way, the treatment of the mentally ill becomes even more abject insofar as they, as real, embodied subjects, as people with lives as rich and nuanced as anyone else’s, are reduced in the order of things to a secondary or merely activating phenomena. The madman who is beaten to death is not a man who is beaten to death but merely the activating avatar of a more primordial fear. This condition is only redoubled in the fact that there is no effective delineation between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’. I don’t mean by this the banal point that we’re all subjects of psychopathological processes. More directly, I mean that any member of this ‘we’ might become that ‘they’. Even more terrifying is the frequency with which someone who occupies this ‘they’ already simultaneously occupies the ‘we’; the person who experiences mental distress may lash out against someone else whom they percieve as mad.

What this doesn’t take account of is those people who do not experience this fear. I myself have never felt fearful around the mentally ill. In some senses it could be said, and has been pointed out, that I am someone who seems to prefer the company of the mad. Is this simply my own defence mechanism? To expunge the reality of the illness of the person before me so that I do not risk exposure? Or is it some identification with madness based on a deeper recognition of the fault lines of my own psyche? Perhaps there is even the possibility of a seduction having taken place.

Sanity becomes an amivalent idea- something that is attracted to and terrified by madness; that at once knows madness as the necessary accident of its existence and which must expunge itself of any such knowledge. Sanity, mental health or psychiatric wellbeing. They become names for that form of psychopathology that organises all others as its own impossible condition. In Lacanian psychoanalytic terms, it is almost as if sanity is the big Other which, in one formulation, ‘does not exist’.

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