Understanding mental illness: Vulnerability is essential for the mind's well-being and a sense of community

We underestimate the role of being in touch with more invisible sources of strength and renewal that connect us to something larger than ourselves — art, sport and our connection with each other. Without the ability to turn to each other for succour, we are hamstrung, cut off from ourselves.

Sneha Rajaram May 30, 2019 09:12:16 IST
Understanding mental illness: Vulnerability is essential for the mind's well-being and a sense of community
  • We underestimate the role of being in touch with more invisible, medial sources of strength and renewal that connect us to something larger than ourselves — art, sport and our connection with each other.

  • Without the ability to turn to each other for succour, we are hamstrung, cut off from ourselves.

  • Self-sufficiency must always dance with need, otherwise both concepts become meaningless.

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 sometimes think mental illness is just a term used to describe those of us who feel, feel, feel – feel so much that we can't contain it or feel it quietly or “reasonably”, else we would burst. We cry and cry. We rave, we rant. We scream. And I wonder if this serves as catharsis for smug onlookers who see our lack of control, because they’re too inhibited to let go themselves. But isn’t control an illusion? Must we play the exorcist for all those whose demons are locked up in subterranean bunkers?

Much as I am hesitant to romanticise emotional suffering, a metaphor or two can sometimes come in handy. The concept of the psychopomp is occasionally helpful if taken with a grain of salt. The word 'psychopomp' was originally used in Greek mythology to denote guides who escorted the dead to the underworld. Later the psychologist Carl Jung used the concept to mean a messenger between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. The psychologist, storyteller, author and healer Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who uses Jungian concepts in her work, refers to our “medial” nature — the age-old ability of humans to be mediums between our apparent and invisible worlds. Sometimes there is a connection between mental illness and the medial nature, most obvious in cases of divine possession, but by no means limited to them.

Understanding mental illness Vulnerability is essential for the minds wellbeing and a sense of community

Without the ability to turn to each other for succour, we are hamstrung, cut off from ourselves. Illustration by Satwick Gade

I am a firm believer in the individual doing whatever feels right to alleviate suffering. Medication, therapy, exercise, activism for institutional and social compassion rather than judgement – these have all earned their place among the elements of convalescence. But we underestimate the role of being in touch with more invisible, “medial” sources of strength and renewal that connect us to something larger than ourselves – storytelling and myths, poetry, nature, beauty in art, spirituality, religion, creativity, dance, music, theatre, sport, and our connection with each other.

Ultimately, our most precious resource is each other. Without the ability to turn to each other for succour, to play the psychopomp for each other, we are hamstrung, cut off from ourselves.

The most socially acceptable way to make this connection is in romantic love. It is the one place where we are all allowed to be “deewana” – “mad”. But not everyone has access to this a hundred percent of the time, not even those in happy relationships. Our ability to rely on friends and community, to ask for help, to be vulnerable, is a major yardstick for everyone’s mental health.

Most mentally ill persons are forced to learn to ask for help, even at the cost of being held in contempt by ourselves and others. Our ability to be vulnerable is seen as weakness and dependence. Instead of reciprocating our vulnerability and request for support, “functional” people often set themselves up in opposition to us, as a unidirectional source of support. They fail to tell us about their equally valid struggles and we fail to ask. Some of us, too, are guilty of denying support to those who support us – perhaps when we are in crisis, it is impossible to think of others, but surely when we are calmer, other people can come back into focus. But each side needs to put its hand out. Self-sufficiency must always dance with need, otherwise both concepts become meaningless.

This is the true meaning of interdependence in my book – to generalise, a more Asian concept than a European one. To generalise further, Asian communities tend to suppress the individual’s will and autonomy too much, while European/American communities tend to emphasise it too much. The 19th-century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who could be interpreted as an advocate for individual autonomy, said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Yet one hears stories of Thoreau taking help from his mother in the nearby town to do his laundry and prepare some of his meals. Instead of focusing on the gendered aspect of this story at this particular moment, or criticising him for hypocrisy, perhaps we can put on blinkers for a minute and see Thoreau as demonstrating that dance between self-sufficiency and needing others.

The US Texan Republican senator Ted Cruz, on the other hand, says, “The ethos of our state is, ‘Give me a horse and a gun and an open plain and we can conquer the world.’” This romanticised figure of the “lone cowboy/pioneer on the Western front” represents precisely the kind of individualism (and dare I say toxic masculinity) that drives wedges between “self-sufficient individuals” as units defined by hyper-capitalism. (I also suspect that this philosophy leads to high levels of self-loathing, because if everything is your responsibility alone, everything is your fault alone.)

None of us made our lives, relationships or careers all by ourselves, least of all the privileged among us who were boosted by our social capital. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises what he calls our “interbeing” strongly:

We do not exist independently. We inter-are. Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me.

The late scholar Rohith Vemula mentions this in his heartbreaking suicide note: He refers to a person as “a glorious thing made up of stardust”. Context and interbeing go hand in hand. Genuine context is everything.

Vulnerability, of course, is terrifying. Needing others and asking for help are terrifying. And not just because vulnerability is seen as weakness in our society (whereas it is actually courage and strength). Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. This sounds like no picnic, even if it was highly valued in society. It also sounds like something that is impossible in all situations all of the time, even in a utopia. Sometimes we need our armour in order to function. But that’s not all Brene Brown has to say: Vulnerability, she says, is the “birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity”. Our ability to be in touch with our vulnerability is in fact a source of life. Without it, our medial nature, our inner fount, dries up.

Let’s look for our vulnerable spots. That's where the heart of our lives lies.

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