(Note: All underlined words/sentences are links which can, and indeed should, be clicked on.)
Shortly after it was released in October last year my friend Anna introduced me to Brandy Clark’s debut album, 12 Stories. Up to that point I had been at most a dabbler in country music- with a fairly healthy collection of Johnny Cash and not much else- but it was 12 Stories which got me hooked. To be specific it was track Number 8 which actually got me hooked; ‘Take a little Pill’.
“Mama got depressed, when daddy was a -dying, so the doctor gave her something, to help her with the crying” she begins in a voice like powdered milk, and then you’re in, wound into her story of miserable, broken people addicted to psychiatric medication because they can’t fix their miserable, broken lives. When I listened to it first, by the time she got to “What you can’t cure, you can medicate” I was half in love with her, and wholly convinced that there is yet to be a better statement of the aims of the anti-psychiatry movement. Not because she talks about being addicted to medication, which other musicians frequently do and have been doing since at least the 1960s but because what she’s implicitly criticizing is the pathologization and medication of valid human experiences such as grief and loss. Because sometimes the appropriate response to an unbearable situation just is that special brand of human suffering which lamentably gets carved up and and labelled by psychiatrists as depression or catatonia or schizophrenia and the like. Because people who respond in this way are not “infirm” or “sick”, but gloriously human.
(Continued from here https://thebeetlebox.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/two-genealogies-of-madness-part-one/)
If our concepts of ‘madness” are socially constructed and as such don’t latch onto to an independent reality, it does indeed seem like a death knell for them. They are just fantasies, and worse than that, fantasies which were created to serve a malign social purpose- that of separation, ostracisation and false-reassurance.
This is where the above discussion of Nietzsche becomes important. The genealogy of morals succeeds in undermining the value of the “value-judgements good and evil” at least partly because Christianity cares about truth, and it cares about it’s value system being tied to some external truth about the world. But we do not need to see the conceptual framework behind the practice of psychiatry in this problematic way, as descriptive of a purely scientific phenomenon which is distinct from us and our own mode of life and flourishing .
In my experience people tend to mean one of two very different things when they claim that mental illness is socially constructed.
The first of these is that broader social, economic and historical conditions make people mentally unwell in certain ways. This idea arguably found its most famous express in the work of the philosopher/psychoanalyst pairing Deleuze and Guattari; the rough summary of their work being that the contradictions of capitalism cause people to become schizophrenic.
This kind thought is interesting, complex and something which I obviously have a lot of time for. However it is the second meaning which I want to focus on in the remainder of this post. This meaning is perhaps better expressed as the claim that “mental illness” is socially constructed; that our concepts and understandings of mental illness are ones created through our social history and as such do not tie onto any objective external reality. The conclusion drawn from this often ends up being that we should recognize them as fraudulent and rid ourselves of them. Continue reading
The psychiatric term for it is experiencing intrusive thoughts (or obsessive thinking,) but most of us know it simply as the inability to stop turning something over and over in your mind, to worry at it like a dog even as you desperately try and drive it from your consciousness.
I get it worst when I’m trying and failing to sleep. Sometimes, in those miserable minutes or hours, my chain of thought becomes so involuntary that it almost seems those thought processes have a serpentine life of their own, writhing and turning back in and over each other. Pulling up thought after awful thought until what is happening no longer feels like something I am doing, but something that is done to me.
Before I started taking psychiatric patients on ‘escorted leave’, I’d never felt like I was being looked at so much by strangers.
(That’s not to say I was never looked at. Sadly I’ve had my fair share of everything from odd looks to homophobic abuse for being physically affectionate to members of the same sex in public. But for me it was nothing as isolating or pervasive as this.)
Oh I wanna walk with Christ my savior For he’s the one that’ll guide me on All through my life I’ve been a sinner Now I’m right with God so I’m travelling home.” Bill Monroe, River of Death
In the early 1970s the psychologist David Rosenhan carried out an experiment to determine the validity of contemporary psychiatric diagnoses and practices. He and seven associates gained “secret admission to 12 different hospitals” (Rosenhan, 1973) complaining of the single (and fabricated) symptom that they had been hearing a voice which seemed to pronounce the words ‘empty’, ‘hollow’ and ‘thud’.
However being discharged proved much harder; despite the fact that after admission they were instructed to say that the voice had disappeared, length of hospital stay ranged from 7 to 52 days. His ‘patients’ soon found that the only way to be released was to agree with the psychiatrists’ judgement: to admit that they were in fact ill, and agree to co-operate with them in order to get “better”. Continue reading
A week or so before I got a job as a support worker on a psychiatric ward, Lou Reed died of liver cancer at his home in Southampton, New York.
From my own narrow perspective, it was a sad, strange thing to experience the loss and very public mourning of someone who had got me through so much loss, mourning and general misery of my own. In terms of managing to find words (and more) which just got whatever psychological wreckage I was attempting to untangle, there was no-one who had even come close to Lou. Even at his more upbeat points he’d still hit you with a lyric like “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good.” And of course this post couldn’t be without a mention of the exquisitely depressing “Sunday Morning”; full of these restless, miserable feelings that sink and tumble down on top of each other, and pull you into half-believing you’ve wasted your entire life and everything is over, and then that bass lazily bumps back up again to the beginning of the riff, and things roll on and on and you can’t help smiling at the beauty and artistry of it all.
The strange ability of words and music (and indeed other art forms) to transfigure and alleviate human suffering is hardly a neglected topic (though I still think Nietzsche does it best.) However the person I want to spend the remainder of this post talking about- the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein- isn’t someone really known for his writings on aesthetics, and in fact the paragraph quoted below doesn’t purport to be about art at all. What it does do, though, is attempt to undermine a heap of misconceptions about language and misery, misconceptions which make explaining the effect of the former on the latter much harder to suss out. Continue reading