One of the cruellest aspects of mental illness
is that it strips us of any ability to believe
that other people might be suffering in the
way we are. We aren’t being wilfully egocentric
or arrogant; we are condemned by our illness
to a feeling that we are uniquely pitiful,
uniquely unacceptable, uniquely awful. The
central legacy of mental illness, and a major
contributor to our suicidal impulses, is a
feeling of exceptionalism.
We start to run away from other people. Gatherings
become impossible – for we grow preemptively
terrified of the presumed invulnerability
and judgmentalness of those we might meet.
We can’t possibly make small talk or concentrate
on what someone else is saying when our heads
are filled with catastrophic scenarios and
an intrusive voice is telling us that we should
There seems no compact or acceptable way to
share with old friends what we have been going
through: they knew us as chatty and optimistic.
What would they make of the tortured characters
we have become?
We start to assume that no one on earth could
possibly know – let alone accept – what it
is like to be us.
This is especially tragic because the central
cure for mental illness is company. Our disease
denies us access to precisely what we most
need in order to get better.
In 1891, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler
exhibited The Disappointed Souls. Five figures
are pictured in varied states of dejection.
We don’t know quite what has gone wrong
in their lives, but Hodler’s talent invites
us to imagine possibilities: a marriage here,
a social disgrace there, a depression, a feeling
of overwhelming anxiety… However awful the
individual stories might be, the true horror
of the painting emerges from the way each
crisis is unfolding in complete isolation
from its neighbours. The disconsolate figures
are only millimetres away from one another,
but they might as well be in other countries.
It should be so easy to reach out, to share
the burden, to lend a comforting hand, to
swap stories – and it would be so life-giving.
But no fellowship seems possible in this insular
hell. Sadness has wrapped each sufferer up
in a pitiless sense of their own singularity.
Ferdinand Hodler, The Disappointed Souls,
Hodler wasn’t painting any one scene, he
intended his work as an allegory of modern
society as a whole, with its absence of community,
its lonely cities and its alienating technologies.
But in this very depiction lies the possibility
We will start to heal when we realise that
we are in fact always extremely close to someone
who is as wretched as we are. We should hence
be able to reach out to a similarly broken
neighbour and lament in unison. We should
learn to come together for a very particular
kind of social occasion whose whole focus
would be an exchange of notes on the misery
and lacerations of existence.
In an ideal gathering of the unwell, in a
comfortable safe room, we would take it in
turns to reveal to one another the torments
in our minds. Each of us would detail the
latest challenges. We’d hear of how others
were going through sleepless nights, were
unable to eat, were too terrified to go outside,
were hearing voices and had to fight against
constant impulses to kill themselves. The
material would be dark no doubt, but to hear
it would be a balm for our stricken lonely
Ideally, we would keep meeting the same people,
week after week – so that our lives would
grow entwined with theirs and we could exchange
mutual support as we travelled through the
valleys of sickness. We would know who was
in particular difficulty, who needed tenderness
and who might benefit from an ordinary-sounding
chat about the garden or the weather.
It isn’t possible that we are as alone as
we currently feel. Biology doesn’t produce
complete one-offs. There are fellow creatures
among the seven billion of our species. They
are there – but we have lost all confidence
in our right to find them. We feel isolated
not because we are so but because we are unwell.
We should dare to believe that a fellow disappointed
soul is right now sitting next to us on the
bench, waiting for us to
make a sign.