On one condition

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….

4 thoughts on “On one condition

  1. When we watch animals behave aberrantly in a zoo, or while attempting to navigate some horribly denatured corner of the world, say a raccoon trying to cross a divided highway, or a bird trapped in a building, it is horrible to see. It is also easy to see that they might not be in such mental difficulty if they were not in that environment.

    With us, it’s different. We expect that sanity should be easily defined and that one meets those conditions or doesn’t. Yet we are at a point at which it is impossible to disentangle personal sanity from the conditions of living in an insane society. This adds layers of complexity to the questions around the statement, “when they are sane.”

    This isn’t meant to trivialize the limitations and the damage within, and done by, those who are insane. It does add layers of tragedy and doubt to our concerns about them. They are another form of roadkill in this world. Without knowing exactly how else things could be we have the lingering question, what if things were different?

    There is a survivor’s guilt among those of us who’ve escaped serious mental illness while those near us have succumbed.

    A wonderful essay. You’ve captured the sense of what it’s like to live with these questions.

    • Thanks Tony. There were 2 threads of thinking that unravelled in response to this statement that was offered to me, eg ‘your mother loved you when she was sane’. This post followed the first thread (I’ll follow the second thread in another blog post – it needs a little more time to sift and to gel.)

      There’s an awful lot to unpack around definitions of ‘personal sanity’ and ‘insane society’ — what they involve, and who decides which sets of thoughts and behaviours are acceptable (sane) and which ones are not (insane). Leads yet again to questions of voice and power in framing narratives. And the narrative will determine whether insanity is regarded as positive or negative, advantageous or an affliction.

      Just musing about a film I once saw, about women being held in a Japanese POW camp in WWII. It was an American tv movie produced in the 80s, will surely have been on the back of the Tenko series that had been done in the UK. In the tv movie, there was a character whose survival strategy during imprisonment was to fake insanity, as the Japanese guards steered well clear of her because they regarded this as connection to a sort of supernatural state (forgive me if I’m getting this wrong, I don’t have enough knowledge to claim how historically or culturally accurate that plot device was!) And hey, just recalling that it was Kristy McNichol who played this character, that’s sure thrown me into a wee retro reverie – gawd, Kristy McNichol, remember those days? ….

      ANYWAY – yeah, the point was that it’s a wee example of a cultural framework which found/finds value in insanity, shows greater respect to individuals who have moved their thinking outside the box, so to speak. Insanity regarded as access to otherworldly states of being.

      Similarly there’s the link between creativity and insanity – eg, insanity as mental freedom etc. That’s a common issue for those dealing with the mental health system, and in particular in taking medication which ‘stablises’ them: the purchase of mental/social stability being paid for in the currency of creative thinking and spontaneity. Makes it very obvious that categorised definitions of mental health are not always a helpful/useful approach. There is a sliding scale of individual behaviour and social norms within which we operate, just look at the controversy around ritalin being used/abused as a tool to contrain children’s buoyancy.

      I think I’m rambling pretty badly now, better go get coffee… 🙂

      • Looking forward to the second part!

        One thought regarding insanity as creative. In my experience what makes it insane is the extreme brittleness of personality that happens in severe mental illness. This makes it impossible for someone in the throes of this crisis to act creatively.

        It could be said that the broken patterns released might inspire creativity in another or in that same person after they have recovered, but I’ve found that the patterns of “difference” exhibited in acute illness are quite fixed and stereotypical. This is not creative by any stretch.

        The twist might lie in how those same people might have acted if they had been within a different culture. It’s not clear that their “madness” would then have the same characteristics. It might be that in a more viable society those who are fragile in this way would have a different course in life. Another twist on “when…”

  2. Your posts are coming thick and fast just now. After a period of going to ground, lying fallow, you are again prolific. During the silence I stayed tuned, privately urging you to write again. You write so well. Now the words come in quick succession and I am anxious for you. It has unnerving resonances of other writers who could not tamp the flow of words. Be gentle with yourself and remember how much you are loved.

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