I was a ‘mature student’ when I trained as a psychoanalyst. With a primary degree in economics and law, I had worked for many years in various administrative positions. I had always had a keen interest in psychology and in the human condition, which had brought me many rewarding experiences on helplines and in support groups. Training in Freudian psychoanalysis was challenging, especially during my clinical placements in psychiatric units, a chronic pain clinic and a maternity clinic. The people I saw were not malingerers or actors but, in many cases, chronically ill. I was struck by how long many of these patients had waited to seek help, to admit their inability to cope with life’s stresses. It brought home to me the crippling effect of the social stigma that is associated with mental illness.
There is a deep-seated atavistic fear in all humanity of the non-sense; the fear of madness threatens to overwhelm us all. We humans are thinly-skinned egos, barely holding it together most of the time. Bereavement, a near-miss on the well-travelled road home, a lover’s rejection – loss, fear, guilt, envy – any of these or any other traumatic encounters may trigger that ultimate crack in the facade that we call ego.
Mental disorders, like Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, OCD, and mourning are much more difficult to treat when the condition has become chronic. But many people are discouraged from seeking treatment early because of the stigma associated with having a mental illness. This stigma discourages them from seeking early intervention and treatment. It is difficult to accept that someone would hesitate to seek treatment to alleviate their suffering. For, let us be clear about this, mental health problems do cause suffering and pain.
It is no mere coincidence that there are high rates of mental health disorders in the homeless population. Homelessness, poverty, abuse, abandonment, exclusion, segregation – for the mentally-ill, life is precarious. A mental illness diagnosis is frequently a penalising disability disrupting relationships and careers.
We used to be more tolerant of difference, of people in our neighbourhood who were ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’. Now, difference must be “treated.” Those who are different are diagnosed, labelled, medicated and, like every other product today, homogenised. Increasingly, contemporary society is being governed by a relentless tyranny of homogeneity.
On the grounds of my daughter’s college, there lives a homeless man. He wanders around between that vast campus and the neighbouring campus, wearing an assortment of coats, gap-mouthed shoes and a scraggly beard. He talks to himself as he walks – relentlessly – from morning ‘til night. My daughter’s story about him? The college has several cafe’s, as you’d imagine. She and her friends have chosen to frequent the one that gives him free tea and coffee – and a loyalty card! I love that: a LOYALTY card! It gives me hope. He gets loyalty points for just being there. Isn’t that cool? Now tell me, in a world that defends the un-born so vehemently, why can’t we invest a little more in those born a little different?
“Different”… ay, there’s the rub. I read recently that ‘no-one wants to be different.’ How can that be? How can we accept that, when it is precisely difference that makes us human? Each little point of difference is a GPS co-ordinate in our inter-personal self-mapping; each co-ordinate tells us who we are in relation to a world delineated by our significant others.
There are many coordinates of difference: me/you; male/female; us/them; first-born/middle-child/last; Breaking Bad/Simpsons/Star Trek; …
There are as many differences as there are unique individuals on this planet. There are enough differences to ensure that we are each unique individuals on this planet. Each emerging difference brings separation anxiety as well as separating self-awareness. Some are governable; we can choose whom to be like in our fashion or our accent, for example. Other points of difference cannot be changed so easily, for example age, intelligence and health. Criticising someone based on these contingent limits only reveals our deepest fears and anxieties, our own neurotic hang-ups. Each little difference, whether calculated or casual, is a milestone on the path to autonomy. Some caterpillars might need a little longer in the cocoon but eventually each emerges as a butterfly.
These are the moments we become ‘I’. The tyranny of homogeneity denies the ‘I’ in each one of us; difference defends our unique-ness.
It’s not easy being human. It requires us to be different, to relent, to make and admit mistakes, to abandon the pursuit of perfection, to seek redemption in the affirmation and love of friends and to show forbearance for the pain and suffering of those differently abled.
Forbearance … and forgiveness. Not being perfect, being a little different, is one of the essential qualifications for being human. Making mistakes, asking forgiveness, apologising, seeking redemption, should get you bonus points…. Loyalty points, if you will.