Saturday, 16 November 2013

A ‘mad’ ramble about Mental Health


Thankfully issues around mental health are bubbling up across the popular discourse. It’s still a stigma for too many, but we are inching towards new understandings. I follow along with a keen interest because I, too, have suffered periods of terrible darkness. Many times in my life, I have hovered near the brink of the abyss—often enough to realise that, as I often heard growing up, “it could happen a bishop.”

In fact, I’m coming to the point where I become suspicious of anyone who does not suffer real depression from time to time. And no, I’m not being sarcastic, or cynical. We live in an awful mess of a place and most of the things we do just make it worse—like aspiring to be well-adjusted to the unmanageability we have created. And suppressing all efforts to be really honest about it.

You know, sometimes, no matter what marketing would have us believe, the glass is half-empty and, sometimes, we lack the where-with-all to replenish it. (In these times, I have always found it best to linger over the glass in the hope that something would show up before I reach the bottom. It always does, even if sometimes it is only the insistence that I buy another or leave. Other times, a friendly face would arrive and sit down beside me and buy me another.)

I speak, of course, about the days when I was a debauched alcoholic around the town—or, as I now like to call it, when my mental health issues were on steroids. And for the record, it’s been a very long time since my last drink, decades in fact, but the rest of it stays with me and affords me enough insight to relate. You see, drunks are among the most despised of the mentally/emotionally challenged and with very good cause. Drunken manifestations of all that is wrong inside are usually horrendous and often involve the terrorising of all who are close to the sufferer. Efforts to help are rarely rewarded with anything other than utter frustration. Drunks thrive on denial and become incomprehensible to those who don’t. I know all this because, as a child, I suffered the alcoholism of others and, as a young adult, still became all that I loathed. (Predestination: you’re a heartless old hag!) I used to feel a bit sorry for myself but that was just stacking fuel for future fires so I avoid that now.

But what has this to do with the Mental Health discussion? Well, I’ll tell you. Alcoholism is on the cutting edge of mental disorder in a number of ways. It’s where depression is jagged and quilt and remorse wait by the bedside every morning—or afternoon. It’s where paranoia becomes so real that you shake and shiver. It’s the awful essence of chronic disorder with bells and whistles that guarantees all kinds of unwanted attention. It’s like preforming a bad play naked on a very unforgiving stage.

But in so many ways, it’s not the worst of it. It has made its way into modern culture and the problem, and solutions, are now widely known and accepted. In fact one can now be admired for admitting to it, and dealing with it.

All fine and dandy unto itself, but what about the rest? What about all those people whose disorders are not so easy to diagnose. You know, all those people who get told to ‘snap out of it.’ People who cannot go along with all of the little white lies of existence and spend their lives staring into dark mirrors; people who sit beside you on subways and buses with their hearts bleeding; people we fear because we don’t want to catch whatever is bothering them. Depression is still seen as contagious, especially by those who run around trying to distract themselves.

And the solution? Well, beyond making the world a better place where everyone, regardless of colour, creed, and cult, can live freely and not be imposed upon by other people’s tyranny, I would suggest that we embrace disorder—or as we used to call it, madness.

All of the best people used to be mad and were considered ‘the best’ because they had learned to celebrate it. They learned to turn all that churned in side of them into gripping and provoking views of the real madness we are supposed to conform to. Writers, musicianers, and especially painters—and poets I suppose, if we have to be inclusive—have crafted ‘madness’ into some of the best expressions about life; far and away better than the spin of politicos and business-y types; far and away better than trying to conform to lies and distortions.

You see, I have come to believe that Art is a key to unlock so many doors. Good or bad (Art), it is the greatest outlet. Emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, (enough of the time), it lets us comment on the three-ringed circuses we live in. It has a proven track record in helping victims of trauma come to terms with unimaginable horror and it has allowed those who have fallen from the path, find their way to a better place.

It will not solve everything and for those who subsist in the shadows beyond my tongue-in-cheek generalisations, let’s get real about getting a little closer to a better understanding. Let’s do what we did with alcoholism and recognise it for what it is—a very common and costly problem that robs from us all. Let’s spend money, time, and energy trying to manage it a little better.

Let’s start making a little more room in the world for the wackos and winos, as we have done with all the other things that make us different. And for the love of live, let’s steer some resources towards those who have lost the struggle to cope with this mad, mad, mad, world.

And you know, if we tear down a few more curtains, and see how shabby we have made the world, we might start to fix it up a bit. Anything else would be insanity.


First appeared on The Story Plant Blog, for more please see:

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Novelist as the Advocatus Diaboli


In my humble and distorted view, there is one role that a novelist is best suited too; the role of Devil’s Advocate.
And for anyone who might be thinking Satanism, the Devil’s Advocate was the popular term for the Promoter of the Faith, Promotor Fidei, a Canon lawyer appointed by the Catholic Church to argue with God's Advocate, the Promoter of the Cause, Advocatus Dei, in the matter of canonizing saints.
Skepticism and the ability to poke holes in what passed for conventional wisdom were the key characteristics of a good Devil’s Advocate and, I believe, a good novelist. And in both cases, the more successful risked having their arguments confused with their real and private views.
In the case of writers, it’s understandable when you consider how many books are nothing more than thinly veiled prolongations of the writer’s agenda, be it political, cultural, social or religious.
In this, non-fiction often leads the way. Books that claim to be factual are often little more than the carefully selected arguments that support only one point of view. To my mind, that is an absurd way of looking at things and calls to mind the words of Jules H. Poincare: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”
There is, was, and always will be, two sides to every story and even the devil himself must be afforded his say. As does the novelists who presents a view that is, at the same time, encouraging and despondent, insightful and vague . . . you get the picture.
And good novels will always leave their authors open to misinterpretation. Was Jane Austin really a misandrist? Was James Joyce anti-Semitic? Was Kafka just a bored bureaucrat? Does any of it really matter? These are points for the Devil’s Advocate in all of us.
What does matter is that throughout the history of novels, and indeed story-telling itself, the writer/teller can present an ‘argument’ that sets conventional wisdom on its proverbial ass. That so many of these ‘tellings’ have been banned, burned, shunned and derided is but the testament to their effect.
Most people that read novels have had that moment when a book spoke to them so loudly and clearly that it changed their lives. For me, there were a few but then again I am a bit of a gypsy at heart—with a pagan soul.
One novel that stands among the greats for me, was 1984 which I first read at the outset of adolescence. It confirmed everything I was beginning to feel about the world around me and now, 40 years later, has been proven. (And those of you who still accept the idea that it was Orwell’s rejection of Socialism should read it again.) It was, as a recent wag noted: “A warning—not a handbook.”
Shortly after that I read Demian, by Hesse, and life was never the same, but then again it never was and, if I am to understand what novelists suggest, never should be. And while these moments of epiphany are never forgotten, there are often too harsh and too painful to relive, over and over.
For this we have writings like: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; a wonderfully simple tale of tilting with all that destroyed Andalusia. Read it again and marvel at how different it is from what you remembered. And take a moment to peep behind the veils that confuse poor Quijano but not Panza, bearing in mind the words of Edith Grossman who was tasked with translating it:
"The question is that Quixote has multiple interpretations... and how do I deal with that in my translation. I'm going to answer your question by avoiding it... so when I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep... As I grew skin grew thicker... and so when I was working on the translation I was actually sitting at my computer and laughing out loud. This is done... as Cervantes did it... by never letting the reader rest. You are never certain that you truly got it. Because as soon as you think you understand something, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise."
And after you’ve reread it, pick any good book you read many years ago and look at how far you have come since. (And, if you haven’t come as far as you wished—then simply read more books.) Look at all the writer alludes to in the spaces between the words and see how much you have been able to fill in on your own.
While you’re at it, take a chance on something new and different, too, so your mind does not become one of those dusty old places where the voice of the Devil’s Advocate can no longer be heard.
First appeared on The Story Plant Blog:

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


The Informed Voter is the Sword of Democracy. Grand words, if they were true, but the reality is most voters are nothing more than the bludgeon of the tyranny of the majority. We are not informed; we are indoctrinated. And before you say “Not me,” just sit down and actually listen to what our elected representatives say. Can you imagine behaving like that in your own workplace?

“Mr. Murphy, could you update us on your project’s progress?”

“I’ve already answered that.”

“I see. Well maybe you could give us a recap?”

“I’m still cleaning up the mess the last guy left.”

“Even after seven years?”

“Action plan, action plan, action plan.”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“The media is out to get me.”


“The Liberals are just going along with the status quo.”

“What does that have to do with anything? Are you on crack?”

“Fiscal responsibility.”

“What has that got to do with the question?”

“Ask me properly.”


“Action plan, gravy train, jobs and prosperity for all.”