For a long time, we may cope well enough.
We make it to work e very morning, we give
pleasant summaries of our lives to friends,
we smile over dinner. We aren’t totally
balanced, but there’s little way of knowing
how difficult things might be for other people,
and what we have a right to expect in terms
of contentment and peace of mind. We probably
tell ourselves to stop being self-indulgent
and redouble our efforts to feel worthy through
achievement. We are probably world experts
in not feeling sorry for ourselves.
Decades may pass. It’s not uncommon for
the most serious mental conditions to remain
undiagnosed for half a lifetime. We simply
don’t notice that we are, beneath the surface,
chronically anxious, filled with self-loathing
and close to overwhelming despair and rage.
This too simply ends up feeling normal.
Until one day, finally, something triggers
a collapse. It might be a crisis at work,
a reversal in our career plans or a mistake
we’ve made over a task. It might be a romantic
failure, someone leaving us or a realisation
that we are profoundly unhappy with a partner
we had thought might be our long-term future.
Alternatively, we feel mysteriously exhausted
and sad, to the extent that we can’t face
anything any more, even a family meal or a
conversation with a friend. Or we are struck
by unmanageable anxiety around everyday challenges,
like addressing our colleagues or going into
a shop. We’re swamped by a sense of doom
and imminent catastrophe. We sob uncontrollably.
We are in a mental crisis and, if we are lucky,
we will know to put up the white flag at once.
There is nothing shameful or rare in our condition;
we have fallen ill, as so many before us have.
We need not compound our sickness with a sense
of embarrassment. This is what happens when
one is a delicate human facing the hurtful,
alarming and always uncertain conditions of
existence. Recovery can start the moment one
admits one no longer has a clue how to cope.
The roots of the crisis almost certainly go
a long way back. Things will not have been
right in certain areas for an age, possibly
forever. There will have been grave inadequacies
in the early days, things that were said and
done to us that should never have occurred
and bits of reassurance and care that were
ominously missed out on. On top of this, adult
life will have layered on difficulties which
we were not well equipped to know how to endure.
It will have applied pressure along our most
tender, invisible faultlines.
Our illness is trying to draw attention to
our problems, but it can only do so inarticulately,
by throwing up coarse and vague symptoms.
It knows how to declare that we are worried
and sad, but it can’t tell us what about
and why. That will be the work of patient
investigation, over months and years, probably
in the company of experts. The illness contains
the cure, but it has to be teased out and
its original inarticulacy interpreted. Something
from the past is crying out to be recognised
- and will not leave us alone until we have
given it its due.
It may seem – at points – like a death sentence
but we are, beneath the crisis, being given
an opportunity to restart our lives on a more
generous, kind and realistic footing. There
is an art to being ill – and to daring, at
last, to listen to what our pain is trying