A Life Apart by Henrietta Ross

A guest article by Henrietta Ross, a writer and blogger with bipolar disorder. Henrietta explores a variety of topics through her blog, including issues of mental health, and writes monthly for the International Bipolar Foundation, as well as for Black Dog Tribe – Ruby Wax’s mental health organisation. She also writes for online magazine Blirt, and is working on her first novel. In the below piece, she shares her perspective on how her mental illness – and society’s treatment of her – makes her feel free:

It was a beautiful, hot, bright day. The sort of scorching day when one excitedly searches through their wardrobe for vests and shorts and flip-flops, whilst packing large colourful bags with flasks of diluted orange cordial, cheese or chicken sandwiches wrapped tightly in foil, chocolate bars already beginning to melt, crisps, fruit, sun tan lotion, bats, balls, Frisbees. Hurrying to the local park, envisaging a day spent watching the little ones playing on the swings, hanging precariously from climbing frames, whizzing down slides. Later maybe doing some fishing in the lake, shorts pulled up around the tops of bare legs, nets in hand, waiting patiently…

If I had been interested in the scene, then maybe I would have taken time to watch and observe but I was more interested in finding a quieter part of the lake where I would surely not be disturbed in following in the devastating footsteps of Virginia Woolf.

It’s always rather refreshing to realise that once people have long since passed away, let’s say around a hundred years or more, then finally the fact that they suffered from mental illness becomes almost more palatable and acceptable. Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, John Clare, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemmingway, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats to name a few, are all now perceived in a very different manner than when they were still alive scribbling away furiously at their desks. Their creations are now regarded as glowing works of genius, their fine prose perhaps now considered to be borne from their creativity inducing mental illnesses. Maybe it is easier for society to experience depressions and manias in literary form or through watching films and documentaries, than it is to see perplexing madness close up.

Stigma is abundant in society. Those with mental illness are viewed as defying the given norms, failing to conform to the rigid ideas of normalcy. Ultimately, normality is a social construct, described in the Oxford English Dictionary as being ‘the condition of being normal; the state of being usual, typical, or expected’. Just like the control based social institutions of family, education and employment that are designed and structured by the bourgeoisie, wrapped up in sociological ideologies such as functionalism, utilitarianism and capitalism. Society expects and demands that people conform, therefore stigmatising those that simply cannot.

In some ways, humanity hasn’t come very far forward from the poor laws and the workhouse. Those who cannot ‘contribute’ are seen and treated as less than those who are more able bodied and sound of mind. Seen and viewed through the lens of normalcy, we (the mentally ill) are not considered to be capable of contributing to society, and even more so, we are perceived to be so outside the given idea of what constitutes normal with our eccentric and unconventional behaviours, that we are practically written off.

As the memory of the ‘The Idiots Act 1886’ wafts into our minds, followed by images of the monolithic asylums that many great people have spent time in – Fredrick Nietzsche, John Forbes Nash Jr., Sabina Spielrein as examples – we wonder just how much greater they could have been if they hadn’t been ostracised through society’s practice of normality. The devastation that can be caused in many peoples lives by ‘Care in the Community’, which in itself was and still is monolithic, still allows us to smile knowingly that society has so much to learn. That it has always had much to learn, confined as it is in its stagnant, inflexible and unenlightened ways, and we also smile knowing that expectations or the lack of, have more positive rewards than any ‘normal person’ would ever expect.

Expectations, rather than being stigmatising, can have a very different impact when one realises that they no longer have a set of expectations to live by because they are considered abnormal by society’s standards. Treated differently by everyone – work colleagues, friends, family and even strangers; and most importantly, always as ‘less than’ – conversely, it is this lowering of expectations and ostracism that actually leaves one wonderfully and refreshingly free!

No longer part of society and without the disability of having to accommodate any ludicrous concepts, we are left to our own devices to delve further into our own minds. Society essentially has freed us and in doing so has taken away all the absurdity and nonsense that others live by, leaving us to focus on the fundamentals in life. Whether found through studying philosophy, psychology, theology or any other topic, we find our way towards understanding the complexity of the human condition. Discovering who we are at our very core, we find that we have a voracious appetite to understand self, to understand others and to find greater meaning within our very existence. Through our own learning we not only can come to manage our mental health in a healthier and more disciplined way, but we also have a greater and more nuanced understanding of ourselves and in turn others.

Mental illness gives us a different set of burdens to live with. However much we are saddened and humiliated by society turning its gaze so as not to be touched by our madness, we can come to realise that these burdens are actually precious gifts that have led us away from the constraints others are bound by. Society’s derogatory stance towards us has been, and always will be, our greatest freedom!

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