There is a scene in the film, Stardust Memories, in which Woody Allen sits alone in a train carriage, populated by people whose faces reveal angst and despair. He looks through a window and sees into the carriage of another train, positioned parallel. In the other carriage, the passengers party, their faces alive with joy and pleasure.
For me, this scene is a perfect visual metaphor of the life experience. Its meaning transcends the image of Allen as the outsider, looking at life from the inside out; it embraces the duality of the human experience. Joy and despair are presented as polar opposites, the associated behaviour codes are mere coping strategies for reacting to the madness that is existence.
Allen’s existential angst reflects a universal truth; life is a glorified coping mechanism. When we watch the scene, we realise that we are not alone.
A few days ago I finished editing my first poetry collection. This somewhat daunting experience has prompted me to evaluate my relationship with the form.
For many years my mental health and writing were interconnected; my moods and states of mind dictating the nature of the poems I produced. Frequently, distressing thoughts would drive me to lift a pen and pour onto paper the contents of my tormented psyche. I wrote for myself, as a means of expression and never contemplated sharing my pain. Thus, the content of my poems was paramount and form as irrelevant, to my world, as the pursuit of happiness.
Years later, I summoned the courage to submit a poem to a poetry competition. Having studied poetry at degree level and for my own pleasure, I was only too aware of my own literary ineptitude. My submission, however, seemed worthy in its employment of alliteration and metaphor and existed as a signifier of my state of being, at that time. Although I did not win the competition, my poem was published in an anthology and I was to see my name in print for the first time.
At that time, my poems acceptance for publication affirmed that I had some form of literary ability; maybe I was not the mental elf that my lack of self-confidence had betrayed me into believing.
When editing my poetry collection, I once again experienced nags of self-doubt. I can write…but…so what…half the world believe themselves potential writers or celebrities. The world is deluded, am I? A publisher had accepted my collection for publication. Nevertheless, publishers make mistakes!
Now that my poetry exists beyond the confines of my laptop, I can tell myself, with a reasonable level of conviction, that reactions to literature are subjective. Undoubtedly, some readers will dislike and criticise my work. However, there will be others for whom it is meaningful. Like the individual, a poem can be pulled apart, but will always remain a unity in-itself.
My recent preoccupation with thoughts of how I have wasted the last 20 years of my life, has led me to consider the plight of those who have been unable to pull themselves out of the abyss of despair. Like approximately 1 in 4 people, I am affected by mental health issues. I would argue that principally I am not a survivor of illness but a mental health system which, from its inception, has consciously appropriated and promoted misogynistic ideas and practices. Whilst men are equally oppressed by the tools pf psychiatry, differential narratives about sex and gender have determined differences in the nature and outcome of the treatment of women and men psychiatric patients.
Any discussion about women and mental health should be framed in a historical context. The concept of “mental illness” is the historically specific conceptualization of the notion formerly known as madness; lack of reason is re-defined by science. Men prescribe, whilst women eat the pills of their labour.
Hippocrates, the Father of medicine, first associated the notion of hysteria with female psychology. Women were perceived in relation to our biology, we were beyond the pale and out of our minds. Ironically, the first practitioner to extend the definition of hysteria into the male domain, was Freud. The founder of psychoanalysis who, correlated female hysteria with sexual dysfunction, also differentiated between neurotic and psychotic disorders, establishing the prototype for the contemporary diagnostic model of mental ill health. Whilst history indicates that features of psychotic illness have always existed, the nature of neuroses has changed in relation to socio-historic and cultural changes.
In 2013, studies in Britain and America indicate that mental health issues are more prevalent among women than men. Do wombs dictate moods? Is anxiety the product of menstruation? Why, if this is the case, do cross-cultural studies reveal that there are many societies in which mental health conditions, like anxiety and anxiety, affecting so many in western capitalist society are virtually non-existent.
I would argue that, although gender roles and expectations may nowadays appear more fluid, the contradictions and complexities of life in the western world have complicated both our social roles and the way in which we perceive ourselves. Anxiety is a reaction to life in the 21st century, the metamorphosis of hysteria and counter-point to self actualization. Thus, it is fear, that gnawing worm in the mind, that impedes our will to become. Realizing that we all have the ability to re-define, not only our own reality, but the entire social realm is the first step to recovery. No one is mere body, we are possessed of the consciousness to discover and appropriate our own hidden power.