Over the wall…

Posted: September 18, 2012 in Uncategorized
Longing for life more luminous,
        With manumitted vistas to reconnoitre and vivify,
        I turn for home.
Over the walls that divide,
        Us from ourselves,
        And one another,
        Occluding the stars we are,
        Burning resplendent.

Home - beyond the tear-stained streets,
        Trembling under a canopy of blighted stars,
        And the neighbourhoods at watch,
        Guarding no-fly zones green-eyed,
        And Meccano homes where covert wars rage,
        For the coveted prize,
        Of the mephitic upper hand.
A cacophony of deranging countenances,
Agglomerate before me,
        Clamouring for my diversion and duress,
        Disavowing all transcending visions, 
        Of what might be.
But they are bricks in the wall, 
        Of their own darkening denial,
        Triturating before my unwavering gaze.
And at last: my beloved Arcady!
        Where Love is no foreigner,
        And the font of being springs pure and clear,
        Ah! The peals of laughter – do you hear?
        Echo to the breaking dawn:

Dedicated to Matthew, who sadly died of an overdose in August 2012, aged 32. RIP.

Matt was a mate who lived a few doors down from me. In retrospect it was inevitable we’d meet and get to know one another sooner or later because of our dipsomaniacal cravings, and because, well, he was around and so was I. As a character he was refulgent and beguilingly endearing – but alas, he was a blighted star. Never entirely blighted though – even when he was three sheets to the wind his playful and whimsical nature still murmured. There was something of the sun about Matt, though in truth he was more a creature of the night. Imagine a wayward Peter Pan – Peter Pan with issues and rampant cravings, and you’ll have some idea of Matt. It seems time kind of froze for him at about the age of fifteen or so, and wherever he was then, internally, he carried it with him to the end. A recent tragedy – drug related not surprisingly – hit him hard I know, and his involvement in that sad tale, not to mention his untimely death, it seems to me was a strong indication of the psychoemotional trap he was in – he never reinvented himself. One is tempted to romanticise the reality when speaking about the deceased, but I want to resist that; like many addicts without a substantial income, on occasion he would seek nefarious means of funding – he sneakily purloined a fiver from me once, but that was before we really became mates. Anyway, that’s not the Matt I’m really concerned with: the real Matt was the one whose face lit up with pride when showing me photographs of his family; the real Matt was the one who expressed genuine gratitude that there was someone to just be there with him when suffering his withdrawal torments. I felt so sorry for him watching him at these times, and prayed internally for the right thing to say or do. But, frankly, he never really gave himself much of a chance to climb over his imprisoning walls. Such a shame – he was an amazing and profound artist, and I really wish I could show you some of his work. Had he managed to climb over those walls and gone to art college, had he done this or that – well, we’ll never know. What can you do when you’re in no fit state to engage with the real world effectively for any length of time? Tragically, he knew that too.

Like many native artists of a certain predilection, Matt felt in his element living on the borders of chaos, or apparent chaos – I think he revelled in being seen to be living outside the parameters of normality; there was an intellectual aspect to his rejection of convention however, and I could empathise with that. But fundamentally, I believe he was seeking the door into a greater reality, and I could empathise with that; unfortunately, the keys he relied on – drink and drugs – could only ever open doors into chimerical transcendent experiences. Drugs may offer seductive will-o’-the-wisp experiences – but they don’t help us to ground the transcendent into the everyday. For that, I proffer, a spiritual path coupled with sobriety and earnest dedication is required. People often resort to drugs and other addictive sensational experiences when everyday life is difficult to cope with and provides scarce opportunity for organic self-expression and relating meaningfully and lovingly with others. But inasmuch as the fleeting ‘highs’ of these experiences don’t help one to address the fundamental causes of psychoemotional perturbation, instead offering only temporary and delusive escapes, they can become a dreadful trap. The peculiar thing is, I think Matt was romantically enamoured with the idea of self-combustion. A hardcore Pink Floyd fan – I’ve been a fan too – he seemed particularly fixated with Floyd’s The Wall, the album and film; in the film the main character becomes entrapped in his internal walls * (see below), largely through substance abuse, imprisoning and alienating him from meaningful expression and communication with others. Did this character assume a kind of antihero status for Matt? Because like that character, Matt surrendered to his walls. ‘Why?’, is the obvious question. I’m sure that an abiding anger and profound disconsolation with the world and the card he was dealt in life, fulminated in his soul. Perhaps in choosing, consciously or subconsciously, an early exit as it were, he felt that he was ‘getting back’ at God, the world, certain people in his life, or even his own past.

But where was the help when his walls were closing in? The humanity even? Etched on my memory for life shall be the times I witnessed him crouching on the pavement of our High Street, head in hands, rocking from side to side – obviously suffering the hellish torments of withdrawal. Obviously, he was trying to draw attention to himself and his predicament – it was a cry for help really. Yet, disturbingly, he was barely acknowledged by passersby – as if as long as he didn’t appear to pose a threat, he could be regarded as a novel part of the scenery. Perhaps seeing him there like that induced some to feel better about their own lot in life? Has our society become so soulless and bereft of humanitarian feeling? Matt really required, I believe, psychospiritual treatment, and had this been available for him, he might still be here and the world a better place for it. Because it’s often the troublesome individuals and misfits who, overcoming their difficulties, become the best wayfaring guides for others seeking to overcome their own problems or simply advance their own personal spiritual evolutions. The treatment or help people like Matt need has to be holistic and, in an alternative and more ideal world it would be delivered by the Ministry of Love. But of course there is no such Ministry. What we have instead is mental health service provision which, if it can be accessed at all, is principally concerned with effecting change in individuals and their life situations so as to enable greater conformity, it’s not about the welfare if the unfortunate individuals per se, certainly not from a spiritual perspective anyway. But there’s a fundamental problem here given that it’s ‘normal’ life that is so often the cause of mental health disturbances. One in four people suffer with a debilitating psychiatric condition at some time in their lives, according to a 2001 survey by The Mental Health Foundation; of course, many psychiatric problems are not recognised as such by the individuals afflicted and therefore don’t come to the attention of frontline services. Consequently, I think it’s fair to say the problem is endemic in our way of life, which is also to imply that society doesn’t work as it should or could.

Be that as it may, there has never been a society which worked perfectly. All systems of social organisation fail to a greater or lesser extent because of the fallibility inherent in the human condition. Which is not to say that some societies and their organisational structures don’t work better than others. With the relative demise of the influence of organised religion on Western societies concomitant with the rise of Godless paradigms of reality, the status and meaning of right thought, feeling and action has been rendered problematic. The problem of uncertainty in matters pertaining to belief and morality has been compounded by the rise of consumer-capitalism as the ideological and materal bases of societies, which is both symptomatic and causative. Unmitigated consumer-capitalism is a scourge because first, it inevitably produces gross inequalities in wealth distribution, second, fosters a dog-eat-dog mentality whereby ruthless competition between individuals and groups usurps the value of community and fellowship

We need to get to a place where our empathetic ties and obligations with others are recognised and honoured. Regarding others as ends and not merely as means to achieving our own ends, as the second formulation of the Kant’s Categorical Imperative prescribes, is the aim we should be striving for personally and societally. And it is an aim which cannot simply be willed, it has to be lived experientially as an orientation of the heart.

What we have instead, I believe, is mental health service provision which is principally concerned, not with the individual’s psychic wellbeing in any essential and holistic sense, but with effecting change in individuals to bring about greater conformity to normalised behavioral mores and the hegemonic ideological and value laden constructions of reality they’re intwined with. There are vested interests in preserving particular social and cultural configurations, and as a consequence there is an institutionalised tendency to cite problems in the sphere of mental health at the door of sufferers rather than appraise them as symptomatic of dysfunctional and pathogenic socio-environmental conditions. I believe that the majority of mental health maladies are rooted in social-environmental inter-communicative contexts. Sigmund Freud did not say “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes”, as was depicted in a cartoon I recently saw, but I’m sure you take the point.

One in four people suffer with a psychiatric illness of one kind or another at some time in their lives, according to a 2001 survey by The Mental Health Foundation; of course, many psychiatric problems are not recognised as such by the individuals afflicted and therefore don’t come to the attention of frontline services. But of those individuals who do recognise a problem and consequent need for treatment, a great many, worryingly, are simply not able to access it. Not that a plethora of services are not being offered – in the private sector, at a considerable cost which renders those services unobtainable for many, and it’s the people on the lowest incomes who need the most help. I’ve been trying for years to persuade my GP to refer me to a psychiatric professional, to no avail, but he’s perfectly happy to ply me with mind altering chemicals – antidepressants; chemical intervention may make the intolerable seem tolerable up to a point, but that’s no answer at all. The essential causes of psychical perturbation have to be addressed, though I accept that chemical intervention may assist in bringing about a stabilisation which allows those causes to be addressed – if indeed they can… Because the pressure to function, largely conflated with patterns of conformity, in a malfunctioning society is the pressure that often unhinges. The consumer-capitalist mode of life and societal organisation is based on an inadequate and distorting representation of the human condition. Between the blinkered pursuit of profit and the banality of consumerist lifestyles, the human spirit struggles for meaningful expression and experience – meaningfulness cannot be commodified and subsumed into a falsifying cash nexus, to be packaged and presented for sale. Fortunately, the human condition is such that fidelity to authenticity in the lived – honouring experiential truth and a deeper understanding of our shared experiences and relations to one another – can never be entirely obfuscated, and there are people out there really trying to open the portal of humanity. People working and volunteering at CAAAD (Community Action Around Alcohol and Drugs) in Bristol, for example – a service Matthew engaged with. Often, it’s grassroots community-based initiatives that make the crucial difference. Of course, being helped requires a degree of trust – often not easy for the psychically traumatised to grant when faith in humanity is in tatters. Which is why it’s important that frontline services in this sphere employ people who can really relate to the service users – and there is no substitute for shared experiences in this regard. But this is not a straightforward matter when those with social adjustment and mental health difficulties (the two are separate, but often closely linked) tend to be unduly defined and stigmatised as deviant, which can greatly increase the likelihood of falling foul of the law, which in turn adds fuel to reactionary prejudicial labelling.

Home is where the heart should find succour and sustenance, but too often it’s where the walls of deceit, denial and delusion begin and continue to be erected. Home and familial life cannot of course be divorced from what is happening in and to society at large. But because of its critical role in the shaping of individuals, equipping them – or not as the case may be – with the mental and emotional facilities required for successful engagement with the world, the home and family has to be a principal focus for anyone interested in individual and collective wellbeing. Parenthood is both a great responsibility and opportunity to shape today’s and tomorrow’s world. There has been some offensive pontification in the political arena recently regarding ‘responsible’ parenting; the focus has been on the financial aspect of parenting – people are being encouraged to ask, “Do I have the financial wherewithal to bring another human being into this world?” All well and good, insofar as it goes, but here we go again – trying to make sense of the wonder of life and contain it in the distorting lens of the cash nexus. Whilst not denying the importance of considerations pertaining to financial means and material conditions for the upbringing of children, isn’t the really important consideration whether or not we can instil in a new person an understanding of what it means to love – how to experience it, give and receive it? I’m sorry if that sounds romanticised and clichéd, but I’m sorrier to conclude that far too many people just don’t seem to understand what love is – that lack of understanding is the root of so many probems in the world. Lessons in love: it’s not on the school curriculum. And I’m sorry too that the depictions of love we so often encounter in popular media entertainment are distorted and distorting. What then is real love? And why aren’t more people asking the question? John Lennon sang ‘Love is real, real is love’, and he was onto something. Love manifests variously of course depending on the object of love, but at root surely love challenges us to truly connect with and cherish that which is – the divine which is at the heart of all things? To love another is to open one’s self to who they really are. Often, the challenge of loving requires us to reach for an enlarged view of life beyond the comfort zone delimited by the current walls of our worldview. We love another when we really endeavor to listen; we love another when we really endeavor to see; we love another when we really endeavor to be, with them.

I identified with Matt to an extent in the communicative walls he was struggling to surmount; an obvious wall existed between him and his father, with whom he lived in close proximity. In times of mental and emotional turmoil, sometimes all we really yearn for is a knowing touch or presence to reassure us with a sense that we are not abandoned, and that our pain is not felt by us alone. But this takes a kind of loving which some, sadly, are not able or willing to provide. There are times, I know, when the company and attentions of certain individuals – who may be affecting sympathy and concern – can be quite lethal. I suppose my view of the human condition is quite old fashioned inasmuch as I believe human hearts tend to be orientated either towards the light (truthfulness; superego-centred), or the dark (untruthfulness; ego-centred); souls of the former are moved more by love, and of the latter fear. Communicative walls within the familial context, or the greater human familial context – barriers between peoples; the situation existing between Israel and Palestine is a glaring example – are daubed with the metaphoric graffiti of denial: I cannot not see you; you’re point of view is totally alien to mine; you do not belong to my reality; my reality is the only reality and has not been chosen or constructed. Matt’s father is a colourful and endearing character, and possesses a formidable mind – but I believe he was an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Matt’s problems, and can’t help but suspect he was in denial of that. It seems paradoxical that people can be so perspicacious and sagacious, and yet are blind to the really important matters close at hand. I used to listen to Matt’s father reciting reams of profound poetry memorised verbatim, but more often than not I’d take leave of his company feeling somewhat diminished in stature. The words of wisdom he feels obliged to dispense and the tales he tells of the great adventure that has been his life, don’t sit comfortably with the reality one beholds. According to him, he’s done it all, and so at the age of sixty-one he feels he’s earned an early retirement, which apparently means doing little more than drinking throughout the day and making his way to the bookies in the hope of winning big and escaping to some sun drenched island with a bevy of young beauties on hand to cater to his desires. ‘Done it all…’ The irony was not lost on me when I thought of Matt, and Matt’s brother (also an addict). Lamenting his lot, Matt once said, “According to him [his father], he’s gold and everyone else is bronze”. Much as I’m sure his father didn’t consciously intend it, I think he furnished Matt’s feelings of inadequacy as a consequence of not confronting and dismantling his own walls of denial. On the other side of all our walls is a grander vision of ourselves, able to cope with the slings and arrows of life and grow in wisdom, strength and love.

Finally, “What is mental illness, ipso facto mental wellness?” Conformity to pervasive tacit norms of behaviour? Psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm asserted, “That millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” And Aldous Huxley adopted a similar tack: “The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal.” (Brave New World Revisited) I agree: conformity should not be confused and conflated with soundness of mind; conformity in socio-cultural contexts is relative to those contexts, and contexts are continuously changing – that which is conformity in one place and time can be regarded as abberant and outlandish in another. For me, an adequate conception of psychical wellbeing has to be grounded in a coherent humanistic-ethical framework. Thus, a sane person is one capable of discerning right from wrong and acting on this discernment. But on this reckoning a great many so-called normal people, not least amongst those wielding considerable power and influence in society, are indubitably out of their right minds. In any case, despite the pervasive belief that real democracy exists in the UK and elsewhere, the truth is that policy-making is overwhelmingly shaped by the interests of plutocratic elites, and the neoliberal-capitalist model of socio-economic organisation in which we are situated – Mammon’s epoch – serves to make the wealthy wealthier and encourage and reward selfish, narrow-minded and narcissistic proclivities in general. The individual constructed by and required for this model is a self-interested narcissist, blindly immersed in consumerism and easily manipulated by advertisers and others, such as politicians, who seek to control the proclivities and sensibilities of the masses (see for example The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis). But it’s a model which is inherently flawed and self-combusting. The present financial morass, for example, was instigated in the main by the irresponsibility and rapaciousness of financial speculators, yet our so-called political leaders continue to detract attention away from this and cite spurious causes – the feckless poor and freeloading counterfeit benefit claimants. It’s a measure of the iniquity at the heart of the UK government that those who are unfortunate enough to be out of work or who are disabled mentally or physically have become easy targets to deflect attention away from the real problems and sites of causation. Very soon the wealthiest in our society will be receiving a substantial income tax cut, whilst many living and suffering with physical and mental impairments/challenges are being ruthlessly catigated and hounded and being made to live under the very real shadow of their subsistance benefit incomes being cut or withdrawn. It’s no great surprise then that there has recently been a rise in disabled and ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimaints committing or attempting suicide. There was nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with Matt – many individuals with mental health problems and addictions are simply more sensitive or highly-strung than most and consequently encounter difficulties in adjusting to their social environments; by the same token others may have difficulty understanding and adjusting to them. Modernity’s obsession with systemisation, control and efficiency indicts heterodox proclivities as deviance and derangement. But this is the hubristic and complacent folly of attempting to impose a reductionist schema onto the greater and ultimately unfathomable magnitude of what it means to be human. Society will never really function until it finds its heart; people like Matt may need extra help and especially love to flower, but their flowering is our flowering collectively.
Matt shouldn’t have withered and died. But it’s a sick society, and the walls between us and within us are many and high.

* Walls Repressive affective and ideological cognitive structures rooted in pathogenic social relations delimited by dominative impulses and fear. These structures are embedded in tangible socio-environmental contexts: in the wall that partitioned East and West Germany, and the wall that presently partitions Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, we encounter actual and symbolic representations of these repressive structures and concomitant dysfunctional social relations. These structures and relations tend to be replicated and perpetuated over time because they become ingrained in individual and collective psyches as ‘the stories people tell themselves about the world, the lives and identities of others and themselves’. These structures also tend to endure because they become self-enforcing through social and personal investitures in their maintenance; when these structures are challenged or renounced by individuals or groups, those individuals and groups may then be defined as deviant and consequently subject to exclusionary and punitive actions.



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