Thursday, September 12, 2013

This is not a fete

I am in a strange place. No I am not sitting in a jail cell or riding a taxi through a new city but it remains true that I am in a strange place. I am in the mental equivalent of a geopolitical no man’s land, or even like being a refugee or someone granted asylum at an embassy having been exiled from my home for crimes unintended.

I don’t want to lay blame anywhere and there is no one to blame. It’s a mental space that I am in and it feels strange. Viola Davis writes in her 1983 thesis cum publication The Creative Use Of Schizophrenia In Caribbean Writing: Caribbean writing might be viewed as the way in which writers deal with their experience of the Caribbean world. The writers themselves were compromisers in the society; they quite often shared the assumptions of the society. Thus some Caribbean writers have been ambivalent about their status. On the one hand their experience of themselves as educated, cultured and sensitive West Indians, contradicted the assumptions of the societies they themselves shared – a society of people of inferior status as colonials and descendants of African slave or indentured labor.

Davis’ text looks at how schizophrenia manifests in the writing of some of the regions best writers: Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, Wilson Harris and Kamau Brathwaithe. She uses a definition of schizophrenia as posited by psychiatrist R.D. Laing: Laing she says “believes that the schizophrenic must be seen in relation to his social context, he felt that the schizophrenic was reacting to the conflicts and stresses in his society, and had to adopt special strategies to live in what he perceived as an unlivable situation.” Her assumption is that the writers she covers are schizophrenic without providing any clinical support for that while analyzing their work from this assumption.

She, however, admits that it was Walcott’s statement on the condition that inspired her thesis. He is quoted as saying “…the only way (for the West Indian writer) to recreate this language was to share in the tortures of the articulation. This did not mean the jettisoning of ‘culture’ but, by the writer’s making creative use of his schizophrenia, an electric fusion of the old and the new.”

In a 2012 contribution to the UWIToday publication Professor Gerard Hutchinson writes, “A mental health problem is no longer labeled as madness and no longer defines the person who experiences it. In fact, it defines all of us. It is an inevitable function and consequence of life. As an experience, it enriches the world because it forces everyone to seek a greater understanding of themselves.”

If we look at things like skin bleaching for example its easy to fault those who do it as hating their black selves but it is the society that has long shown preference to lighter skin. News anchors, models and actors have long been the face of the world and have historically been lighter so can we say that bleachers are alone in the belief that being lighter is a preferred way to be? It doesn’t end there; it can be extended to persons seeking larger breasts and lips too.  I agree with the professor when he says, “A world without prejudice, mindless discrimination and feelings of superiority is fundamental for the development of the mind. Development that would be open and even, mindful and joyful. Development that would truly embody the best of being human.”

Davis in her work almost assumes schizophrenia not to be a psychiatric condition but a psychological or even psycho-social condition and one that has not escaped some of the most brilliant minds of the region. Even though Hutchinson says “One of the greatest challenges is to diminish the associations between mental illness and sexual perversion on one hand and mental illness and violence on the other.” It is worth noting that at least two of Davis’ subjects, Naipaul and Walcott have had very public allegations and admissions of exhibiting both these behaviors and have suffered personally as a result. Naipaul’s biographer chronicles his philandering and abusive past while just a few years ago Walcott was the target of allegations that saw him lose out on a prestigious academic appointment at a leading institution.

It seems though that not only artists are prone to these conditions as especially today I hear repeatedly about politicians who are at worst both promiscuous despite being married and even violent suggesting that while many may not carry the burden of being labeled mentally ill they do exhibit the symptoms. I even one day heard a politician say in parliamentary cross-talk “at least I doh beat my wife”.

Hutchinson says “The real message here is that untreated mental health problems can lead to both of these (sexual perversion and violence), but more open and accessible mental health treatment would likely improve the social fabric in a way that would naturally lead to a reduction in these socially inappropriate behaviors. Restoration and maintenance of personhood in all its dimensions with respect of the right of every other to be, must remain our goal as we seek to improve ourselves individually and socially.”

The premise of Professor Hutchinson’s article is for a reduction of the stigma associated with mental illness and Davis’ thesis suggests that it is more prevalent than is acknowledged but can be used productively. It may be said that while we all relish our difference from the other and value that we are unique none of us wants to be treated as if we are mad. Rudder sang that “we mad we mad we more than mad”. I have a friend that usually rationalizes the sometimes-crazy goings on of the day by quoting the Lewis Carroll line from Alice in Wonderland “we’re all mad here”. 

My mistake may be to try and make sense of the strange place I find myself in and my challenge may be in making sense of my own identity. It's not enough maybe to say that all is not well but I write in the hope that things can get better and that so can I and if applicable so can you.

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