There are many depictions of non-usual mental states in story and song, including some excellent first-person representations of mental disorders. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is famous for his accounts of psychotic breaks in the first person. Sometimes we know we are witnessing “madness,” as Poe called it, but sometimes these descriptions are framed as something else.
In his novella, The Beckoning Fair One, author Oliver Onions initially describes a case of writer’s block descending into clinical depression which is all too recognizable to anyone who has experienced either of those states. And yet, although Onions was writing half a century after Poe when the new science of psychology was well underway, this tale is widely regarded as a ghost story.
Stories of mental disorder and illness are often disguised as horror stories. The 2001 film The Others comes to mind. Yes, many of the characters are ghosts. But that is not really what the story is about, or where the horror comes in. The genre label “psychological horror” hints at the real core of such tales, but the emphasis is still on the horror rather than where it should be, on the psychology.
One of the thousand projects on my to-do list is to compile a website of compelling and accurate representations of psychological conditions in the form of art, music and literature. This is important for a couple of reasons: first, to help people who have never experienced these states understand what others are going through. And second, to help people who are experiencing these states understand that there is something wrong.
I think I might’ve understood that I was depressed decades earlier if the many expressions of that state I encountered in reading and popular music had been labeled as such. But none of them were. Therefore, I had no reason to think that other people felt any happier than I did, and so, no reason to hope that I could feel better. On the contrary, I received validation from every quarter (or so it seemed) that my subjective experience was widespread. This was not at all helpful in my recovery. In fact, it nearly killed me.
When I had just discovered I was an HSP, and was reaching out to the world for clues on the implications of that, I was purged from a “support” forum for suggesting that another poster might be depressed. Not only did the person I was trying to help turn on me, badgering and misrepresenting me relentlessly for my pains, but other forum members, including one of the moderators, joined in.
This was devastating at that particular point in time, and took a lot of the joy and excitement out of the self-discovery, since it taught me that I couldn’t even turn to other HSPs for understanding. However, after a couple of months, I gathered my courage to check my email from that forum and discovered that there were at least a couple of forum members who were outraged at how I was treated, and had stood up for me. (If not for them, I might never have dared to write publicly about my personality explorations again, and this blog would not exist).
That’s all water under the bridge now, but the point is, the idea that he might be depressed was so offensive to the person I responded to that he felt justified in publicly attacking me for even suggesting such a thing, and others agreed. And I’ll bet to this day, he is trying to solve the wrong problem, and not making much headway. Everybody got hurt, all because of our massive national ignorance about what depression is and what it does.
There’s no excuse for this. Resolution is entirely feasible – it’s just a matter of education.
I don’t have time to make that separate blog I dreamed about, but the next time you read a story, or hear a song, or see a painting that perfectly encapsulates a mental condition you have struggled with, or seen others struggle with, post it to the comments here, and name what it is representing. Let’s start that list of examples we can point to when we need to communicate our experiences from the inside out.