These days we talk about mental illness, a lot. But are we using the right words?
My generation has grown up in a world where the language of mental illness has permeated every level of culture: it is common to label someone a ‘bit OCD’ if they like things to be kept neat and tidy, and people regularly self-diagnose as ‘depressed’ whenever they are feeling a bit low. But are we talking about mental illness in the right way, with the right vocabulary? Movies, books, even the media, are eager to depict mental illness in the most engaging way possible, often using shock tactics. Films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream have made addiction real and personal, artist Damien Hirst has tackled our dependence on prescription drugs in his New Religion exhibition, which shines a spotlight on how pills have become the new idol which the masses worship, plus innumerable art works have not only looked at mental illness but tapped into the narrative that links creativity with mental instability. There’s one thing that nearly all depictions of mental illness in the media or in art share, whether they represent depression, anxiety, OCD, or anything else, and that is that mental illness is traumatic; it’s dramatic. Images of manic highs and crushing lows are turned, almost, into a form of emotional-porn, with barely anyone deviating from the idea that the experience of mental illness is tempestuously cinematic. But here’s the thing: as someone who’s been around mental illness for longer than I’d like to admit, you know which word I’d use to describe it? Boring.
Actually, you know what; fucking boring. Tedious as hell. Because mental illness isn’t like the movies, there is no manic episode followed by a crushing low or a redemptive high, there is only life, day after day, trying to keep your illness in equilibrium, trying to live a halfway ‘normal’ life. Because, as much as we like to write a narrative for our own stories, the truth is life with mental illness doesn’t follow a neat arc towards salvation or destruction – every moment of suffering or worry is just that: a moment, which will be followed by another and another. Tomorrow you’ll go through the same things all over again, and the day after, and so on. You’ll be full of self-doubt – about whether you’re actually ill, whether you can ever get back to being ‘normal’ and whether you want to anyway – you’ll slowly learn how to deal with your mental illness and what things you need to do to manage it. If you’re lucky, day by day you’ll see an improvement but you know what, containing yourself, controlling your emotions, making sure you avoid negative stimuli or dealing with bad experiences in the healthiest way possible is boring. It’s like carrying a bowl of marbles around on your head all day long (a strange analogy, I know, go with me here): if you stop concentrating on the bowl of marbles for even a short amount of time, they’ll come tumbling down and go spinning off in all directions. It will take you ages to pick them all up again. Sometimes it’ll be easy, other times the marbles will run right away from you, or hide, and returning them all to your bowl will take ages. If you let it, concentrating on that bowl will become your whole life. The world is big, but your mental illness can reduce the vastness of existence to a few problems that will narrow your world until it is claustrophobically small. You’ll run over the same thoughts again and again, hit the same problems again and again, and it will feel tedious.
People around you might not have time for that kind of tedium. Friends and loved ones might start pushing you away, not interested in getting locked into the same repetitive cycle with you, and that makes you isolated, and more prone to making your mental illness the biggest thing in your life. That sucks. And you know what, you probably won’t even get the glamourous moments that art has promised you as compensation: you won’t have drug-fuelled benders, you won’t meet that therapist who’ll see right to the core of your mind and help you untangle those complicated feelings, you won’t get that wild, passionate love that unites two broken hearts – what you will get is the day-by-day struggle to get by. Life won’t be a whirling trip of fevered emotions: dizzying highs, desperate lows. Put simply, mental illness isn’t black and white – it’s beige, for the most part anyway.
So why do we insist on representing mental illness in art at the extremes: why do we feel it impossible to portray a character with depression who doesn’t get to the point where they have to slit their wrists or try to top themselves, and why do we fetishize the idea of the troubled loner? Why does drug-, sex-, or any other kind of addiction always lead to a dramatic breakdown of cataclysmic scale? And while we’re at it, why is the root of mental illness in art so often clear as crystal (at least, clear enough that a maverick psychiatrist can normally prize it out given half the chance and around ninety minutes of screen-time)? Mental illness isn’t neat; it’s messy. Like life. So why do art and the media try to simplify or even glamorise it? And why do we all buy into it – why does the Byronic hero have perpetual appeal (a fitting reference, not least because Byron’s own tangle of neuroses were largely spun into something much more romantic than their reality)? What does it say about me that when Phil Daniels is hurtling towards the cliff face to The Who’s ‘I’ve Had Enough’ in the closing scene of Quadrophenia, I am willing him to follow his scooter into oblivion, simultaneously completing the film’s narrative neatly and becoming everything we want a tortured soul to be? Is this what I want mental illness to be: dramatic?
The truth is, I suppose, we love a good story. We don’t want life to be boring, we want it to be elevated to the sublime, even when it hurts. Besides which, everything is easier to deal with if we can stuff it into a recognisable narrative, whether that’s one of redemption (Winston Churchill, Russell Brand, etc.) or ultimate downfall (Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, etc.). I’m as guilty of this as anyone – in my first novel, ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy, I deal with depression as a theme amongst other things and guess what, there’s self-harm and there’s suicidal ideation.
But what are we – and by ‘we’ I here mean anyone who creates art or spins media stories – doing to the public face of mental illness? Yes, art and the media demands extremes to help locate the visceral emotion within us, but at what cost? Some artists are not afraid to deal with mental illness as it is ‘on the ground’. J. K. Rowling (she did this series about wizards, you might have heard of her – it was quite big) had one of her characters in The Casual Vacancy (more death, abuse, and small-town life than jolly old expelliarmus) suffer from OCD. He wasn’t the central character (perhaps allowing a degree of freedom) but boy was his life boring. You could hear the patience of his wife cracking under the burden of conversations that had been repeated day after day, year after year, as they were repeated once again – desperate fears turned to commonplace conversation. This is mental illness. This is real.
It is possible to balance the two views of mental illness in art: the extreme and the mundane. Miriam Toews does this beautifully in her novel All My Puny Sorrows, where she manages to contrast the suffering and eventual suicide of one sister with the commonplace daily routine of the other who simply cares for someone who has decided to die. Suffering comes in many forms. Mental illness can be dramatic, it can be all the things it is in art: it can be Millais’s ‘Ophelia’, Ewan McGregor’s hallucination of a baby crawling across the ceiling in Trainspotting, Cathy’s anorexic self-denial in Wuthering Heights – it can be a multitude of things, and every experience is different (important), but it can also be boring, and that needs to be part of the collective picture we paint of mental illness because stories are stories, but life is too important to conform to a neat or glamourous narrative. As Russell Brand put it after the death of Amy Winehouse, we need to stop treating mental illness as “a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill.”
If you had to describe mental illness in one word, which would you choose?