On Sunday afternoons I listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Company. Recently she interviewed a Turkish/American writer, Alif Batuman, author of The Idiot, The Possessed, and Either Or. The topic of “mental illness” came up during their discussion, as it does so frequently these days, especially on radio. This has become a buzz phrase. We rarely hear about “depression” now. It has been swallowed by this catchall phrase to which we have become thoroughly accustomed.
Batuman is a passionate and impressive speaker, except for her constant interjections of “like,” which might discredit her were she not so accomplished and articulate.
In my middle years in Toronto a friend said it was too bad that I didn’t have a PhD since I was such an outside-the-box thinker, but without the stamp of academic approval after my name, my ideas would likely be dismissed. If I had continued at University after my Masters degree, I could probably have peppered the communication of my ideas with the “you knows” of the day, and moved on to “likes,” buffered against discredit by my academic qualifications.
Another Wachtel interview I heard recently was with Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong. Their conversation urged me to read his novel, On Earth we’re briefly Gorgeous, which tells vividly of war, grief, inherited trauma, and child abuse, without once mentioning “mental illness.”
The phrase “mental illness” is entirely un-wholistic. The head is part of the body and need not be isolated, but that’s what Western medicine does – it dissects each “patient” (and we’re all patients now in a fully medicalized world), into separate parts, and treats each of them individually, isolated from the whole. The mind (the mental part), does not act independently from the workings and history of the body in which it resides. Everything it does and thinks is in reaction to the experience of the entire body, to its story from birth – its joys and traumas, all of it. The mind’s reactions are not phenomena to be “cured.” They are valid expressions of the entire workings of that particular human body.
When I traveled in India in my youth, I was struck by that culture’s acceptance and integration of the body’s constant changes. And I realized that the Western concept of perfect health was a false ideal. There’s always something going on with the body, and that includes the head.
Mental illness was a taboo when I was growing up. Now it is talked about all the time. A friend commented recently that this is a good thing, to normalize what has always been there, but I suspect more sinister aspects to this phenomenon, such as an expectation that “normal” people are happy all the time. Some are. They are usually medicated, and recognizable by their lack of authenticity.
I’ve been reviving my memories of George Orwell’s 1984 with the graphic novel version; then with the 1983 film starring John Hurt as Winston Smith, and Richard Burton in his final role as O’Brien the interrogator; and most recently with the Audiobook.
Orwell was most certainly prescient. When we look at where we are today, over the threshold into the Great Reset, heading for One World Government by the World Health Organization, Winston’s situation is entirely relatable. His daily work at the Ministry of Truth involves the rewriting of history, bringing it in line with current political thinking, throwing any words that contradict the current government narrative down the garbage chute (or Memory Hole), where they are turned to ash.
Winston’s desk work involves reference to the Newspeak Dictionary, the goal of which is to shrink language in such a way as to eliminate any thought or emotion that might threaten the status quo.
If you cannot name something it ceases to exist.
Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish survivor of WW2, coined the word “genocide.” Without a name for what had happened it was impossible to call the perpetrators of wartime atrocities to account, or even to recognize the full impact of their crimes. See Watchers of the Sky, a film about genocide based on Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell. The film looks at the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the War in Darfur, and the WW2 Holocaust. It features many brave people, including Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1945/6.
Here is a link to a short film about Ferencz and his life’s work. He explains the phrase Sky Watcher at 6.00 in this 9 minute video, when he speaks about 16th century Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe.
George Orwell describes the Newspeak Dictionary of 1984, with examples of the three categories of language it encompasses. Vocabulary A aims to purge ambiguities, and to narrow language down to simple purposive thought. Vocabulary B contains mostly compound words such as goodthink, crimethink, oldthink, doublethink – and acronyms. The overall goal is to encourage abbreviated speech as far as possible, avoiding too much thought. A compliment in the Superstate of Oceana where Winston lives would be – He is a doubleplusgood duckspeaker. Vocabulary C deals with scientific and technical terms, stripping language of undesirable meaning. Like writing in shorthand, one must focus on the task at hand, rather than on the meaning.
What is nameless is unimaginable, Orwell writes. Thought is dependent on words. Language is a medium of expression for a world view and for the formation of mental habits.
Winston’s work involves the daily rewriting of history – perhaps in itself not a bad idea in context of our own global culture, governed by the media; since we have been, and are now more than ever, lied to on a daily basis. But Oceana’s Big Brother culture is abhorrent to Winston, who realizes that language is the last link with the past. He fears that once that link is broken everything will be gone.
As Canadians we know that the destruction of language has been a prime colonial tool, forbidding indigenous children in residential schools to speak their own languages.
And we know about the struggle of the Quebecois to maintain their language, and how politicized that has been, resulting in referenda that have threatened to divide Canada as a nation. Destruction of language has been used in many cultures, including in Ireland, but fortunately languages are constantly being reclaimed by new generations of speakers and writers. All this to say that the phrase “mental health/illness/wellness” as a popularized term is the thin end of the wedge in the language game which is, as Winston recognizes, vitally connected to “a world view and the formation of mental habits.”
“The American Academy of Pediatrics has released its 2022 Bright Futures/AAP recommendations for preventive pediatric health care, also known as the Periodicity Schedule, adding recommendations to screen for depression and suicide risk annually in children, starting at birth and up to 21 years.” From Children’s Health Defense.org 6/24/22
Another buzz phrase that has recently entered media lexicon is “conspiracy theory,” used to describe anything unacceptable to the governing regime. This concept is a companion to and driver of a growing incidence of censorship. As I write, Bill C-10, a Bill to “regulate” (i.e. censor) social media, has passed through the Canadian Parliament and now awaits approval by the Senate.
I listen to the CBC which has had the reputation of linking Canadians across a vast country. It has served us well, but is now used to control and misinform. I still listen because I want to know what the everchanging narrative is; and because there are still some gems in the programming, like Eleanor Wachtel.
I recently attended an operatic performance of UK composer Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing Voices, inspired by “mental illness” in her family. Three generations incarcerated in mental hospitals, eccentric women, embarrassments to their families, locked away, tortured and stigmatized – HEARING voices instead of HAVING a voice. Mental illness? No. Female creativity in a time when there was no place for it. The voices represented were of women from the late 1800s into the 20th century. The music and performance were superb. Indeed, art can transform pain into beauty. But we need to name rather than cosmeticize. Name the pain, root out the source, acknowledge what is really happening.
Women today are in a different and apparently better situation; however, the methods of societal oppression are ever more subtle, and keep on transforming into less recognizable forms.
First it was “depression,” which then became “mental illness.” In fact, “depression” is a vital phase in the creative journey. When you are depressed, you go to the compost pile and root through it – a messy but necessary process – and there you can effect your own transformation if you are supported and understood rather than interfered with.
As a writer, I am well acquainted with the compost pile of creativity. I make cyclical visits there, to turn and delve and discover what emerges. This practice is immensely rewarding and, as a metaphor, is perfectly aligned with the development of a gardener’s rich black earth – moist, fertile, crumbly – from which miraculous beauty grows, alongside an abundance of food.
Tragically we live in a time when access to the compost pile is blocked and we are given instead drugs to cut us off from our creativity. Farmers are forced to sow genetically modified seed and use chemical fertilizers.
But we are inevitably in alignment with the natural world, despite the proposed phenomena of the metaverse and transhumanism.
I’m off to the compost pile now – I have five of them in my garden, and ever expanding.
Happy Summertime everyone!