Painting and Story by Lehan Winifred Ramsay
I am thinking that it is very bold of me to venture into the domain of myth as we have amongst us Atomou, a true scholar. But the public debate – one with two sides with no ears – last week moved back in to mental health and this is a place I have some curiousity about. I wish I had kept a copy of one comment I posted that was knocked back, as it was I thought quite good but I will try to return to that moment here.
The “mad” were once considered seers. Not all of them, I’m sure, but some were. They appeared to be able to see into the future. Cassandra was given the gift of being able to see into the future, perhaps by Apollo. But then in an act of total spite he cursed her with small print – that nobody would ever believe her.
It appears to me that mental illness can carry with it something that resembles Cassandra’s gift. It is a sensitivity to pattern. Is mental illness a “bad fit” – that the individual somehow comes into conflict with their environment or community and for whatever reason is unable to conform to their thinking and action? For a multitude of possible reasons – that they are simply incompatible, that the individual has some unacceptable behaviours, that the environment or community has some unacceptable behaviours.
Perhaps sometimes merely through belief that they are correct and do not accept correction. There is either a great necessity to evade correction to remain safe or a smaller necessity to evade correction to remain convinced of that correctness. For whatever reason they become aware “of the air”, as they say in Japan. They develop higher skills in pattern recognition. Those patterns being patterns of behaviours or actions that are unfolding. They learn to recognize how things happen, which patterns lead to good results, which lead to unfavourable ones. And they learn how to head them off.
It’s quite a skill, when you think about it. It’s also a skill everyone has and uses. But for a person who has developed a conflict with their environment, this skill is highly sensitized and particularly acute. It’s acute because it is detecting developments that could be dangerous to the individual ego or actual physical safety. It’s acute because it is aimed at preventing things from happening. Because this individual’s sensor is far more sensitive than those around them, they are seeing things developing much earlier.
Firstly this means that their reaction to those emerging patterns is going to seem abnormal and far too strong for what is actually happening. But secondly, they could be wrong. The patterns that they are seeing may not develop in the way they are expecting. And their reaction to those patterns may in fact be part of the pattern itself. And importantly, it might be that the more unsettled the person is, the greater the selection of data from which those patterns are forming. This means that they might be recognizing a pattern from something else, so the level of distress is an important factor in determining the accuracy of those patterns.
I’ve experienced the recognition of this in myself. First I began to feel stressed by some interactions, even though on the face of it they appeared not to be particularly serious. Next I found myself in a couple of situations in which my reaction surprised the people around me and also myself. I felt a little ashamed, but also curious. This has happened before, what is this, I thought to myself, and spent a lot of time going over everything that was going on around me.
What had happened was this. There was an initial interaction. It was quite innocuous. But some time before that the same persons had initiated a very similar interaction, once or on multiple occasions, and each of those interactions had led in the same way to an unfavourable outcome. My response was to the pattern, but the strength of my response was to all of those previous outcomes. I was also signalling that I would not allow this strategy to happen. The strategy appeared to be a kind of manipulative use of socially acceptable interaction but it appeared in hindsight that they were actually using that socially acceptable interaction as a form of manipulation to achieve an outcome that was not really acceptable to me at all.
I suppose I had signalled to the other person that I would not allow the strategy. But to the onlookers I had signalled something else. I had signalled that I was over-reacting. If they were surprised by this it is likely that they were not aware of the interaction at all. It was not a group strategy, it was an individual strategy. And it was helpful to know that but that too came at a cost: they were now likely to distrust my future reactions. This is, I suppose, the curse of the “mad” – that even a response is tricky. The response is to the ongoing interaction, not to the actual dialogue or action. That ongoing interaction cannot be seen by those around it if it has taken place over time. So we are talking about a time-based problem.
Can the “mad” see into the future? In a way, perhaps they can. Perhaps though the real curse is that they cannot predict that that particular possible future is the one that will happen with any real certainty. We cannot know how their knowledge might contribute to an unfavourable result. But that anyone knows anything at all about what is unfolding is perhaps an advantage to us. I believe that it may be to our advantage to return to a point of listening to madness, rather than trying to cure it.
This does not mean: to give up our interventions. It means: to pay attention. It may be trying to tell us something. Patterns of individual communication are strongly affected by our environment – and I am particularly thinking about our media and our public dialogues.