When I feel the lowest, the craziest, the farthest from capable and who I want to be, all I want to do is immerse myself in stories. Like I want to go from listening to Harry Potter on CD in my car directly to watching bad TV on my computer directly to reading some completely engrossing young adult speculative fiction novel (which right now, ps, is The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu—highly recommended). I want to be immersed in stories that are not mine, in realities that are comprehensive and full, in worlds that I can relate to but that are clearly, starkly different from my day-to-day.
It is hard to talk about having a hard time because like with so many other things in our world, we are taught that there is a distinctive mental health binary. There are crazy people and there are normal people. If we are capable of functioning, putting one foot in front of the other most of the time, then we are of the sane half of the world and we work like hell to distance ourselves from everyone else: THOSE people who just can’t seem to hold themselves together. It’s a fear thing, like so much interpersonal oppression– we try to distance ourselves so that we don’t see ourselves reflected in people who we have been taught to look down on. And, of course, there is a huge, powerful, well-funded system behind it that tries to keep us in line—it’s the psychiatric part of the medical-psychiatric industrial complex–the definitions of normal and crazy created by those in power to fit themselves. The pharmaceutical companies that try to convince us that drugs will fix problems so obviously caused by poverty, bias, and violence, the institutions that work to isolate us and convince us that it is all in our heads, that we should never talk about our feelings and hard times except to people we (or our insurance) pay to listen, that we are permanently broken and alone, and if we let on to anyone how broken we truly are, they will mock and shun and hurt us like they do the people who can’t hide their crazy. It’s just you. It’s just you. It’s just you.
Everyone I have ever met struggles sometimes. Experiences of trauma and oppression compound hard times so we interact with them differently based on our experiences, what tools we have available to us, what support we can mobilize within and around us. The root of the word health is wholeness. Wholeness is something we all find glimpses of in different ways, at different moments, as we try to keep our heads on our shoulders on our chests on our bellies on our thighs on our calves on our feet on the ground. I deeply believe that wholeness involves the insides and the outsides of ourselves: it is body-mind-spirit-community-ecosystem-world. Working towards health is working towards collective liberation because it has to be, because to be whole takes all of us, together. No one’s crazy is an individual problem with an individual solution, because what could possibly be whole about one person, all alone? To me, health only exists within movements and communities struggling for justice, dignity, and self-determination—without collective struggle, we are all just some kind of sick in a sick, sick world.
What would it truly look like for the work of mental health to be the work of centering those of us most marginalized by psychiatric oppression/individualized normalcy/crazy? As opposed to a politics of inclusion/exclusion where we leave the most marginalized of our people behind, claiming we will pull them up later, what if we practice what Dean Spade calls “trickle-up social justice?” If we work to center the voices, work, and power of those most oppressed among us, we will all benefit, unlike the fallacy of trickle-down economics by which the privileged compound their own privilege, over and over again. Trickle-up social justice when it comes to mental health justice means we center the resilience and resistance of moms who are surveilled by welfare and are threatened with the loss of their kids because they sometimes have days when they are too depressed to get out of bed, of transgender and gender non-conforming homeless folks whose trauma is compounded every day by violence they experience and fight back against but who are diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic because so many psychiatrists can’t imagine that such realities exist, kids who are so unsafe in their homes that they have to split themselves into a million parts just to survive. Mental health justice depends on dignity and self-determination when it comes to support and healing, understands what goes on in our minds is intimate, private, belonging to us alone and also a crucial part of movement building, and does not allow for simple categories like normal versus crazy.
It’s crucial that we see mental health as a collective struggle as opposed to an individual problem. It’s really hard to see how to do this, given how important it is for us to choose when and how to share our most internal experiences. I think that one way we start is by beginning to name our own resiliences: to recognize, talk about, honor, and share the really smart and brave coping mechanisms we have developed to get us through. Of course they are so individual and based on our particular context that they may not be useful to many other people, but just the fact of the naming that we are all resilient and all have things we practice that make us feel better when we are feeling our worst is revolutionary.
An example: Since I was seven years old, I read speculative fiction when I feel crappy. It’s probably the practice I have engaged in for the longest at the bleakest times. It’s an ingrained thing in me now: when I can barely get myself out of bed, when all I want to do is stare at the wall, I can open some book that will transport me to some other world in which magic and intuition are lived and named and respected and I can get through the day. Stories help us practice things without having to take such big risks as it can sometimes be to try things out in “real” life. They can be like cushions or training wheels or holding a really good friend’s hand, so that we can try out what it feels like to think or feel or enact certain things that seem scary or overwhelming or just plain impossible.
Speculative fiction develops and strengthens our imaginations, which we need in order to vision and dream the world we are trying to create. It lifts us up out of The Way Things Are and creates enough space for us to imagine a world centered on dignity and self-determination, a world that so often feels so far away from the one we live in. For me, the hardest days are often connected to when the world we want/need/imagine/create feels the most unattainable, so any tiny space for possibility helps me breathe. Our assumptions about what is stuck and what is moveable are completely unsettled when we engage with talking animals, omniscient technology, and the rise and fall of civilizations so like and so unlike our own. This allows us to come up with new resistance strategies and maybe, just maybe, to remember the moments in our lives we often dismiss as not real, the times when we listened to our intuition even when it felt “crazy,” the moments when we did talk to animals…
I think that another part of what draws me to stories when I am having a hard time is their predictable arc, meaning something bad happens to one of the main characters and then it is resolved, unraveled. Even if everything is not all the way better, some crisis is averted or some conflict is satisfactorily closed. There is finality, the ebb and flow of hard times and struggle, the reaching of solutions and conclusions. There is the end of the chapter or the episode or the whole damn book and I can breathe again. There is some feeling in my body that comes with the end of a good story, like the door has been closed and my mind is quiet and I can just be still for a few moments while the ripples emerge outward from some central point in me. I feel it in my body, this quiet returning to what is around me from the other worlds I have been soaking myself in. We don’t get that much in the “real” world. The injustices that surround and enmesh and ensnare us usually don’t leave us with moments that feel like resolution, in which the energy and fight we mobilized is allowed to move through us and come to some sort of temporary end, closure, a place that we can notice as stillness, a place to move back into the circle again.
Our bodies are equipped with mirror neurons: we experience the same electrical transmissions and connections when we imagine or watch something happening as when we actually experience it. If I imagine myself typing on my computer, neurons fire in the same places as if I were actually typing. Mirror neurons are thought to be a big part of how we develop language, how we empathize with other people, how we practice and learn. Because our nervous system doesn’t really differentiate between the things we live and the things we witness, it also doesn’t distinguish between what we live and what we imagine. This means that when we dive into story, immerse ourselves in fantastical worlds, our bodies and minds are learning what it feels like to have arc, release, conclusions, and triumphs, the way that stories so often do.
Trauma steals from us this exact ability: we get stuck in an unresolved stress response (fight, flight, freeze, appease, or dissociate) and never get to experience the release that would allow us to move away from that. Our reactions to trauma (oppression included as a kind of trauma) are really smart and brave and protect us from situations that we perceive as life-threatening. However, over time when we get stuck in this place, we isolate ourselves, we get sick, we have a hard time moving forward, trusting, listening, being our fullest and most authentic and loving selves. We can heal in many ways, but the healing modality(modalities) called “Somatics” names that one of the ways we heal, learn connection, and develop awareness of ourselves is by learning to notice what it feels like it our bodies when we feel bad and also what it feels like in our bodies when we feel neutral, calm, good. According to somatics, this process is called pendulation (as we naturally swing like a pendulum between being triggered and being calm)—and the more we learn to track what pendulation feels like in our bodies, the more we can fully inhabit ourselves. It’s like the process of developing awareness about injustice and oppression in the world: as we pay more attention and grow our understanding of what is going on to, for, and around us, we can struggle in ways that are more comprehensive, deep, and aimed at the roots of things. The more aware of ourselves we are, the deeper our healing can be and the more healing we have to offer to the people around us. (For way more articulate explanations of trauma, somatics, tracking and collective liberation, check out Vanissar Tarakali’s blog and Generative Somatics.)
So for me, stories help me learn to ground myself more, to practice moving through crisis and stress and triggers to release and calm. It is a practice, this learning to notice what resolution and ease feel like. It is a practice, engaging with fantastical worlds to figure out how to move through this one. In the space of dreaming and visioning that stories give me, their respite and illumination, it seems to me they are also teaching me some lessons about embodiment, about what it can feel like to heal ourselves, our communities, and our world.
Through learning how to be whole together we learn how to be whole ourselves. Through learning how to be whole ourselves we learn how to be whole together.