We were talking about Ezra Pound in my writing group the other week – about how he revolutionized poetry and writing in general by his idea that it’s all about the image rather than storytelling. I’d read that he’d spent thirteen years in a mental hospital so I said, “Of course, he could see things differently – he was mentally ill.”
The others in the group recoiled. They thought I was making a value judgment and being mean, but I’m around mental illness all day when I’m working as a therapist so it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me. Also, for twelve years I worked in mental hospitals so I don’t have any beef with mental illness. Sometimes it’s not wrong at all.
Here’s a shortlist of people who suffered from severe mental illness and still made significant contributions to humanity:
Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda
Vincent Van Gogh
These folks gave great gifts to the world with their significantly different ways of perceiving. They were able to step outside the mainstream long enough to nurture their own uniqueness.
In this culture, we are sold an image of what constitutes sanity that is extremely superficial and soul-less. The healthy person is supposed to be robotically “happy” all the time, constantly productive and striving toward material success – outwardly focused, extroverted, socially slick, and looking the way we’re all aware we’re supposed to look. If your nature is different than this, something is wrong with you that needs to be fixed.
People who are, say, sensitive, isolative, and introspective, are often are led to believe they are defective in some way. I meet people all the time who think there is something wrong with them when the only thing wrong is not accepting their own humanity.
I’m not trying to suggest that having a mental illness is not a painful way to live, nor am I of the school that romanticizes it, like the filmmakers of the 60’s who tried to convince us that the people inside the asylum were sane and those outside were crazy – that’s just not true. There are states of consciousness that do not allow one to adequately care for oneself, have loving relationships, or enjoy one’s life, and if that is the case, psychotherapy can help.
Why stigmatize people who have mental illness as any worse than people with physical illness? I say embrace the unique emanation that is you, and reject the constant pressure to be like Tony Robbins or Cameron Diaz. Plenty of people have already got that down. Maybe we need another introspective soulful poet, or a wildly flamboyant fiction writer. We need people with out-of-the-mainstream views. If the pain of the way you are is too much, get help. But we surely wouldn’t want to make you sane.
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth