It seems to me now that my whole childhood was mapped out and shaped by the significant adults around me. Somehow that process managed to suppress any sense of self determination I might have had. So I ended up ill equipped to navigate my way through life. I don’t want to give the impression that I blame them in any way. They always had my best interests at heart. I just feel rather sad that they were in so much pain themselves but also somewhat blind to that pain. I’m reminded of a poem by Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”. The first two lines of which are, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” Of course, it isn’t just our parents that do the damage. They are ably assisted by all the other adults in our lives.
In the 1960s there was something of a revolution in the treatment of people who were deemed to be mentally ill. Several radical thinkers were prepared to challenge the accepted medical and psychiatric models. There was a flowering of new therapeutic ideas; many of which came from the United States. Most of them seemed to be group based with a leader, (some would say Guru), who was knowledgeable in the therapeutic model that the group were engaged in. Purely coincidentally, this melting pot of ideas was bubbling away at a time when I was struggling with my own demons. I probably wasn’t best placed at the time to make an informed decision about which particular model to explore. So I count myself lucky that I didn’t end up drawn into any of the more extreme groups of that time. The model I took to was based on peer to peer attention. There was an initial class where basic skills and practice were taught over a couple of weekends. The skills were very simple counselling techniques that have come to form the basis of many therapeutic models today; the giving of attention without interruption, listening, not judging, not offering advice but simply permitting the individual to think and work their way through whatever they wished. The key difference for me was the absence of any expert or professional in the counselling relationship. In this respect, it was about as radical as it could get. The individual was considered to be their own expert. This peer to peer way of working has been part of my life, off and on, since that time. It has enabled me to look back over my life, particularly the early years, and see how much of my thinking and personality were predetermined by individuals who held authority over me. It has enabled me to begin and continue a process of questioning the beliefs and goals I adopted and came to accept as my own.
Way back in the 1970s, I found that whenever the subject of counselling or therapy was raised, the reaction was always similar. People would say things like, “oh, it’s for people with problems” or, “it’s for people with mental illness”. Which always seemed to me to be a rather glib dismissal. I guessed in the end that people were simply frightened. It was easier and more comfortable to create an us and them scenario in their heads; which effectively just stigmatised people. Something else that was said was, “surely you don’t need to”, or, “but you look fine to me”. Again simply an expression of surprise that I was somehow ill. Occasionally someone would castigate me for being self indulgent or navel gazing or even emotionally masturbating. I realise now, that all of these responses were simply symptoms of people getting things the wrong way round. I wasn’t doing what I was doing because I was ill in some way. I wasn’t trying to get better. I certainly wasn’t trying to become more like everyone else in what everyone seemed to see as normal society. Rather, I saw myself as working towards a clearer view of reality; of recovering that rational part of myself that had become buried under some of the twisted thinking around me.
I’ve never been happy with the term, Mental Illness. As it seems to me that if it exists at all, then it must exist, to some degree or another, in the entire human population of the planet. Surely any mentally healthy species would take far better care of itself and the environment it needs to survive in? I prefer to take the view that humans as a species are on an evolutionary continuum, just like any other species. We didn’t suddenly just become human; rather, we are continually ‘becoming’ human.