Not so long ago, I was on the phone with someone dear to me, hearing an anecdote about her friend who had been raised in difficult circumstances by a mother whose mental health had been diagnosed as problematic. This daughter now suffered from anxiety and various issues of poor physical health, and it all went back to her upbringing, to the relationship between mother and daughter. The suffering inherent in these consequences, I was told, had been abated somewhat by a therapist with the following reassurance: “your mother loved you when she was sane.”
My heart constricted at this comment, slipped into our conversation so casually and offered so unquestioningly as a prescription with which to treat the sore perplexity of relationships and behaviour and challenging circumstances. I’m intrigued by what lies beneath this assumed connection between love and sanity, curious indeed about how much can be explored therein, but at the same time I am horrified by the message that hinges on a single word: when.
When says it all: sanity is a condition that must be met, in order for love to be possible.
I have some experience myself with the dilemmas involved. My husband too had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, long before I’d met him. I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine in the lead-up to the wedding, her acute discomfort on hearing about my fiance’s acquaintance with a psychiatric unit.
Do you realise what you’re getting into? she’d asked me. Maybe you should reconsider…
What do you mean? I’d replied. Are you saying that he can’t be loved?
That’s not what she meant, I know; she was concerned for me and what I might be taking on board in my own life. She was a good friend. I think back ruefully to this conversation, because of course his situation brought with it heavy challenges for both of us, and our marriage did eventually buckle under the pressure and break into pieces.
Many years on, I have my own experiences with which to inform my views on mental health. I grapple with my own bouts of depression and understand even more how debilitating and subversive it can be. I’m aware of my shadow: sometimes I look straight at it, other times I avoid its gaze; sometimes I fight with it, other times dance. Sometimes I pass it onto other people with a tap of the shoulder and then run away, like the cheese touch; other times I drink it up like water.
But I’m digressing: this is about when.
When I was born in circumstances of dire illness, the condition that my mother set upon me was baptism, and by hook or by crook or by pure damn luck in that instance – with her help and the doctor’s too – I was able to meet that condition and avoid the unsavoury potential of consignment to limbo. In her storytelling, she held this up to me as a moral lesson, and raised me to understand that life’s meaning was established by setting conditions, and love then expressed by meeting those conditions.
I don’t understand any longer what I was taught. In my own moral composition, when is an unnecessary line drawn into the infinite universe. When decrees that the human creature is the sole bearer of intelligence and consciousness. When decrees that asphalt and tarmac trump soil and grass. When decrees that good spelling counts. When decrees that father knows best, and that daughter should be seen and not heard.
When is the one word in that statement of belief which changes everything for everyone: it allows for one condition – any condition, take your pick – to stand between oneself and one’s rightful place in the circle. Do you realise what you’re getting into? Maybe you should reconsider….