Purplepersuasion’s article ‘Jagged little pill: has the recovery narrative gone too far?’ puts into words most eloquently some of the troubling half-hearted thoughts and semi-solid ideas that have so recently lead me to question my own blogging journey, my own narrative of resilience and recovery.
I started writing quietcalliope four months ago, at the age of fifty, with the idea of finally giving myself a voice and sharing my experience of living with life-long, low-lying depression punctuated intermittently with deeper, more debilitating depressive episodes. In one sense this has proved truly successful for me – I have indeed found my voice. But nevertheless after a while I found writing under that singular remit too restrictive, too psychologically uncomfortable, as I felt defined – was effectively defining myself – by what is after all only one facet of my being.
So with a slightly troubled heart I decided to move on from quietcalliope, and start afresh with madmeanderingme. This new blog would have no specific remit, fall into no specific genre, so although in one way it would simply be some kind of continuation of all that went before, it would also be so much more – more psychologically rounded in outlook, more inclusive of all aspects of my life, would hopefully feel more like ‘me’ overall…
But this particular confluence of my move away from focusing only on a narrative of recovering depression and reading Charlotte’s timely article has reminded me of a concept I learned about during my degree studies – discourse. During the 1970s French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that in order to be able to put our experience out there, for us to be able voice it into words, there first has to be a recognisable discourse of knowledge available – an accepted cultural framework of specific language, ideas, beliefs and practices – through which to discuss it.
For example, the traditional late 19th and early 20th Century discourse of mental health included notions of locking ‘problematic’ people away in mental asylums, looney-bins, nut-houses, carrying out frontal lobotomies and electric shock therapy – seriously scary stuff. Added to that, the very narrow societal parameters outside of which you would be deemed to be either morally or mentally infirm were in themselves deeply flawed. Unmarried mothers, for example, were regularly included in this wholesale removal to supposed ‘safety’ of ‘unfit’ members of society.
This was not a description – a discourse – that anyone would be comfortable in associating themselves with voluntarily, and not the kind of place anyone would willingly incarcerate themselves in if they had the choice, especially as once you were ‘put away’ you pretty much stayed there for the rest of your life, effectively out of sight and out of mind. So not surprisingly many people kept all too quiet about familial or personal mental afflictions, differences and difficulties were swept ignominiously under carpets, and skeletons remained firmly closeted – after all stigma is a great silencer.
The current new improved discourse of mental health is, happily, far less extreme. It is in many ways a user-friendly, inclusive discourse that many of us can more comfortably identify with, and embrace with relief. It gives us an everyday descriptive language and belief system with which to discuss our experiences, and it gives the general public an everyday descriptive language and belief system with which to acknowledge and accept that experience. But yet…
The problem with every discourse is, not only is it descriptive, but it can also be prescriptive – it not only lets you tell how you are, but also tells you how you should be. Foucault argues that there is an inherent power struggle present in every discourse. However liberating it may be for us to finally have an acceptable lexicon with which to openly discuss our lived experience, it is also inherently limiting in its approach. In one way we are all individually in control of what we choose to say about our mental health, but in another sense we are still effectively controlled by what we feel is societally say-able.
It is all, of course, infinitely healthier for everyone now than in the past – things are clearly getting better. But they are still not the best they can be. A simplified, non-threatening narrative of correcting chemical imbalances through medication in order to facilitate recovery is definitely part of the ongoing story for many of us, myself included, but is not the answer for all, and is not ever going to be the only answer.
Popping a pill or two in the comfort of our own homes however many times a day is of course a vast improvement on having ‘experts’ either frying or cutting out parts of our brains in some God-forsaken Victorian institution somewhere in the back of beyond. But underneath the upbeat, inclusive message, our 21st Century discourse on mental health still creates the underlying expectation and requirement of eventual conformity to a societally acceptable norm, and for me at least, that is still a very bitter pill to swallow…