Understanding mental illness: The path to recovery from trauma, and the fight to regain the self

Editor's note: 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)

I’ve always struggled with emotional intelligence and that most important concept of all: Other People. As a child I was hopeless at this, but eventually I began to suspect that other people had feelings too. My emotional intelligence grew a little with the help of friends as a teenager and then took a nosedive when my mood swings began and solipsism took over. Mine is an extreme case of low emotional intelligence. But seeing other people as subjects rather than objects can be a struggle even for the most emotionally intelligent among us sometimes.

On the other hand, in spaces of trauma, oppression and hypervisibility, we are forced to see the other as a subject and ourselves as the object.

Women walk down a street, we are stared at, and if we have not built up the much-needed distress tolerance required for this, we abandon our painfully objectified bodies and leave our own skins as we allow our subjectivity to be hijacked by the male gaze.

 Understanding mental illness: The path to recovery from trauma, and the fight to regain the self

Illustration by Satwick Gade

This is only a simple, small example among many spaces (offices, family, intimate relationships, friendships) in which this happens. The social narratives around our objectification are so strong that it takes a superhuman effort not to view ourselves through patriarchy’s eyes – not least because images and narratives of women as subjects are few and far between, and they often arise in response to patriarchy, rather than truly subvert it, like the unimaginative portrait of women’s empowerment as a young, karate-chopping heroine in a movie – albeit a size zero with shaven legs and armpits.

Similarly, casteism, racism and LGBT-phobia, among other forms of social traumatisation, all coerce the oppressed into viewing themselves through the dehumanising, objectifying eyes of the oppressor. This makes self-concept and self-respect uphill work, often left to be done solely by the oppressed individual and community.

Trauma makes subjectivity precarious for all genders, because trauma makes us abandon ourselves when the subjective pain becomes unbearable. By walling off some of the pain, we are able to continue to function. But we end up walling off some of our selves too. Sometimes, instead of memorable traumatisation, we were simply pressurised as children/adolescents to allow adults to drive every small aspect of our lives. If we were driven too much as children, we may need to be driven as adults too. In either case, driving ourselves and our lives as subjects becomes an exhausting, full-time job. Inhabiting our own skins is so painful and tiring that we’d rather seek oblivion and passivity in any way we can, or surround ourselves with people who are only too happy to control us and perhaps abuse us too.

Sadly, reclaiming one’s subjectivity does not take place in a vacuum. We often have to fight for our right to live life from the inside out, fight others' perceptions of us (both external and internalised) tooth and nail. In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, published after World War I, one of the characters suffers from military PTSD, known back then as “shell shock”:

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?

There are many dimensions to the character of Septimus in the novel, but the one I’m interested in here is how he is dehumanised in different ways by the doctor and psychiatrist who are treating him. The physician Dr Holmes minimises Septimus’ suffering and approaches him with statements like “So you’re in a funk”. In one of the most powerful scenes of the novel, Dr Holmes is coming to visit Septimus, who is in a room upstairs. Woolf tells us what’s going through Septimus mind:

Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say ‘In a funk, eh?’ Holmes would get him.

Just as Dr Holmes comes into the room, Septimus jumps out of a window, killing himself. As the titular character Mrs Dalloway thinks of it later: “...this young man who had killed himself – had he plunged holding his treasure?”
This “treasure” could mean many things here, but for me it means Septimus’ precarious subjectivity.

Subjectivity and self-objectification may be two warring forces within us, but for the sake of practicality I’d like to think of them as two ends of a spectrum rather than two discrete poles. The more we can slough off the oppressor’s gaze, the more we can tune in to what we want (and need!) for ourselves. Needless to say, this is harder to do in oppressive environments.

This concept of the “gaze” has been explored by several philosophers and theorists, both existentially and in power relations. Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness explores this duality of Self and Other through his concept of “the look” of the Other. I find Sartre’s “look” useful in understanding the minutiae of how one internalises the “abyss of the Other's subjectivity” (read more here). He conceptualises the active, conscious subject as “being-for-itself” and the inactive, unconscious object as “being-in-itself”. The transportational effect of the “look” – viewing oneself and the world through the Other’s eyes – results in his notion of “being-for-others”. For me, this begs the question: Are you for yourself?

The “look” also seems to have a lot to do with how shame works, and why shamelessness is one of the paths to subjectivity for those of us who have internalised the shame imposed on us by dominant communities. For instance, incrementally clearing out my own internalised misogyny (my theory is that almost everyone has a little bit) has been helpful in dealing with gender-related shame.

There are many ways of taking back our selves. Paige Vanzant, an American mixed martial arts fighter who survived gender-based violence at a young age, describes how she repatriated her subjectivity, became “for herself” as an adult with the therapeutic help of mixed martial arts:

I inhale the power.

I exhale the bullshit.

One strike at a time.

[…] Something elemental suddenly becomes clear: I will always fight back.

Mixed martial arts work brilliantly as a metaphor for the fight for subjectivity. But any body work, any therapeutic pursuit, including the apparently non-violent meditation or psychotherapy itself, is a fight for oneself, for traumatised people’s right to see out of our own eyes and speak with our own voices. It is an excruciating process, but worth every moment for those who are ready.

Read more from this series here

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2019 10:34:32 IST