Understanding mental illness: How to embrace and drop the 'storylines' we create for our disorders

What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering)

We all go through hard times – whether we’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness (as I have) or not. And hard times often involve dealing with an intense emotion (or two, or five). In these circumstances, the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron advises us to “drop the storyline and feel the underlying energy” – to stop focussing on the story we’re telling ourselves at that moment and just feel what we’re feeling. To me, this – and Buddhism’s general disinterest in our personal narratives and meaning-making endeavours – has always seemed terrifying. “Without stories I am no one,” I would say. “Exactly!” Buddhism would reply. It would seem, to my crude understanding of Buddhist teachings, that if one wants to give up suffering, one must give up one’s self too.

Since I first encountered the concept of no-self in Buddhism 15 years ago, I’ve gradually come to regard both story-weaving and story-dropping as important. This is why I’ve been trying, off and on, to take a step back and examine the stories we tell ourselves around mental illness and suffering, as people and as a society. And believe me, there is no end to these. Those of us who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness spend a lot of our time processing them, losing ourselves in them, emerging from them. An exploration of the mental illness story factory seems to be called for, and that's precisely what I’d like to undertake here.

Illustration by Satwick Gade

Illustration by Satwick Gade

The first of these stories is, of course, mental illness itself. Mental illness as a ‘thing’ has been around for millennia in different forms. Symptoms that we would pathologise today – hallucinations and visions, for instance – have been regarded differently in the past. Every culture has had to develop techniques to heal emotional trauma – from exorcism to soul retrieval. And, of course, mentally ill people have been misunderstood, demonised, stigmatised, tortured and killed. As one psychiatrist said to me, “A few centuries earlier you’d have been burnt at stake. Now you can pop a goli and get on with your life.”

“Is that a thing?” is a colloquial formulation that I’ve only begun hearing in the last few years, and it seems to have enriched our conversation exponentially. We’re acknowledging the process of conceptualising our experiences – forming those concepts that Buddhism tells us not to identify with. A rather fancy word I learned from a friend recently is ‘reification’, from the German Verdinglichung (literally, ‘thingification’). Although I believe it’s used formally in a Marxist context, it seems like a neat shorthand to describe what’s happening to those of us who are shunted between diagnoses, therapy, medication, dysfunction, loved ones’ reactions, social and internalised stigma, long hours of solipsistic thought and social media. Not to mention the sea of information on the internet, which can sometimes amount to “Water, water, everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink.”

I fear that the more I am surrounded by the world’s (and my own) ideas about my feelings, the more I start putting two and two together to make five. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s pretty hard to unlearn. Between saying “I have bipolar” and “I am bipolar”, I’ve usually chosen the latter because mental illness as an identity has served me well in the past. It has helped me reject stigma and reclaim and re-form the concept of mental illness for myself. But every story that is woven must be dropped someday when it has outlived its usefulness. And the usual crucible for both story-weaving and story-dropping is suffering. If identifying primarily as a mentally ill person relieved my suffering a decade ago, it was worth it. If today, softening that identity relieves my suffering, I must get ready to “drop the storyline”.

Mental illness itself is a story that we tell ourselves. It sometimes serves us and sometimes doesn’t. Psychiatry as a discipline dominates this narrative, and each of us must decide how much we allow it to do so in our lives. The social ideas and stigma around mental illness have themselves been changing over the years, so the concept itself is constantly in flux. And one of the directions it has been moving in is universality. More and more of us are coming out of the woodwork, talking about our issues – diagnosed or undiagnosed. It seems that depression and anxiety, especially, are the rule rather than the exception. (Whether neoliberalism is causing this is another story currently being explored.)

Ironically, in the 13 years since I started thinking about mental illness, I’ve been unable to find words for that one, definitive difference between mentally ill and non-mentally ill people, even though I see it. It seems we both suffer equally, yet in different ways – or perhaps we are respectively ill-equipped and well-equipped to deal with our suffering. Perhaps the mentally ill are disadvantaged due to genes, physical factors (hormones, for instance), social oppression, or the age at which they first encounter trauma. One thing is for sure – none of us can escape emotional trauma. The ubiquitous nature of suffering is an even more fundamental Buddhist teaching than no-self. This is why it’s so important to wonder about mental illness itself as a ‘thing’ – to identify when to “drop the storyline” and when not to. And for each of us – mentally ill and mentally healthy – to reach out to the other.


Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 14:32 PM

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