I know a lot of sad people. If you’re one of the leftist mutants, shambling and unsightly creatures roaming the capitalist wastelands, born of the constant background radiation of Vast Injustice, chances are you do too. Chances are if you think you don’t, you’ve just been lucky enough to never have to learn to recognize well-concealed sadness.
When I say sadness, what I actually mean is “depression”, sort of. “Depression” only comes into being when a certified professional, in the process of diagnosis, declares it to be present. This curious speech act, “I pronounce you depressed”, reminds me of “I pronounce you man and wife”, in how it legitimizes a previously existing state and announces it to the public sphere. Prior to that, well-meaning people will urge you to finally tie the knot and make it official, while assholes are completely free to deny and disregard your relationship or your mental state.
So when I say “sad”, I’m trying not to exclude those unwilling or unable to get a diagnosis, maybe because they can’t afford it, maybe because of the risk of social stigma, maybe because they’re not in line with the standard performance of a Depressed Person, or maybe because they dislike the way in which mental illness is usually constructed.
This last point probably requires a bit of explanation. Since mediaeval times, mental illness in the West — madness, if you will, or insanity — has been intricately linked with a rather ambiguous sort of social exclusion — partly contempt, partly fetishization of “the beautiful mind”. Consider the Ship of Fools: a physical removal of the odd folks, the misfits, the strange and the queer from “normal” society, coupled with a peculiar half-mocking, half-reverent attitude. Or check out the dude on the right: the particular image is modern, but the Fool is a character probably older than the printing press. He hangs out with a dog; animals are lesser, soulless creatures, aren’t they? And is he stumbling into the chasm, or does he see something beyond it that we do not? What is that expression — fear, or rapturous awe?
(I really should write that Tarot post someday. In the meantime, consider this: what if we read the Fool as the subject of history?)
The Romantic poets did this a lot. The holy madman (always a man), the prophet, the visionary. Spurned by society, he receives in exchange miraculous insights into the Ultimate Reality, but the fire of his genius always threatens to consume him.
While this notion is, I would argue, dehumanizing and disrespectful to actual people with actual mental issues in how it glamorizes and elevates very base, simple, unspectacular, shitty suffering, it still manages to grasp, in a very inept and roundabout way, a certain truth about the relationship between them — us — and society. I should repeat at this point that I’m talking about “our” “community”, whatever the hell that is — the ragtag bunch of fringe leftists that I hang out with. I should not like any of this to be construed as sweeping pronouncements about mental illness in general (although I do suspect that some parts of it are more broadly applicable).
The Fool suggests that there is a link between mental illness, grasping the truth of the world and alienation. Without overspecifying this link, to avoid crude inaccuracies like “the present social conditions are solely responsible for driving everyone crazy”, I believe this is exactly right.
You wake up and smell the injustice, and get angry at yourself for not doing more about it. You get a little twinge of residual guilt for not living up to society’s expectations, closely followed by a raging torrent of shame for not being completely free of that guilt. You’re overcome by paralyzing fear at the thought of being a fake, a fraud, an uneducated idiot, nothing like those smart and amazing people who somehow tolerate your presence. You get into an argument, the fifth one this week, and end up pissed off and exhausted. For a few hours, you’re convinced that every sideways look and derisive laugh and whispered comment must be about you. You go to school, or to work, or try to look for work, or blame yourself for not being better at looking for work, even if there isn’t any to be found. You sleep too much, or too little, or not at all. You keep going, but every day is another needle, and every needle draws a drop of blood.
You care and you care and you care until you’re blue in the face, and at the end of the day, all you’re left with is a mug full of tea and a head full of suicidal ideation.
What is to be done?
Here’s an idea: care more.
What I mean is the things that we’ve already been doing for a while, kind of half-consciously, because if we hadn’t, well, we’d be dead. We sought each other out, and learned to recognize which people were toxic, and which you had to hold on to for dear life. We talked each other through tiny breakdowns and huge tragedies and the ongoing catastrophe of our continued existence. We gave each other shit for doing stupid and hurtful things.
Our survival depends on our ability to care for each other, and for ourselves. The latter I’ve found tremendously difficult at first — what the fuck do you mean I’m supposed to like myself, when I’ve done Horrible Things A through X, and am probably unwittingly working on Y as we speak? — but there’s just no way around it. If you don’t enjoy your own company, even somewhat grudgingly, you’re hurting not only yourself, but everyone who cares about you. We can’t fight your self-hating and self-destructive beliefs for you, but we can help. Just so long as you admit that maybe, possibly, ardently wishing for your own death is something you need help with.
I firmly believe we can do this; not tell each other, smugly, to “get help” from a “professional”, but give help right here and now, and receive it too. Growing up, I was horrified by what I perceived to be the erosion of the institution of “friendship”: I marvelled at how people in these old books could talk to each other about anything, and the people I knew in real life would only venture into certain subjects, especially emotional ones, with a sneer and a four-inch-thick armour of ironic distance. I don’t know if that’s just me or not; I do know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that a psych degree ain’t shit compared to someone who wants you to get better, just so they can get drunk with you or humiliatingly beat you at videogames again.
So hang on. Hang on, to each other.