“Are you enjoying your art therapy?” she said.
I shook my head, partly in answer, and partly in disbelief that a mental health professional should have so little understanding of psychotherapy. In what universe is exposing your screwed up self to another FUN?
But this is the world of Recovery, in which any vaguely pleasant or rewarding activity can be dressed up as therapeutic. So there’s therapeutic art, therapeutic gardening, therapeutic baking, therapeutic kindness to others. And from there, of course, it’s not such a leap – and this is already well on the way, inveigling itself into government policy – to the concept of therapeutic employment. You can see the appeal. Cut the benefits bill and solve the growing mental health crisis in one fell ideological swoop.
And if these dumbed down “therapies” don’t work? The blame is easily located in the service user and their poor “coping strategies”. Treatment for mental health problems is increasingly merely instructions in how to live. Eat healthily. Exercise. Practise sleep hygiene. Make a self soothing box. Embrace mindfulness. But somehow simultaneously also distract yourself. Always distract yourself.
The message is consistent: We don’t want to witness your pain. We will bat it straight back to you. It is your individual responsibility. There is no healing to be had. You just have to learn to deal with it better. You have to learn to manipulate your thoughts and emotions into a more positive and acceptable mindset.
And if you express your doubts, if you dare to speak of your experience of decades of attempting to make these changes and failing, and your growing suspicion that these changes aren’t the magic answer, if you assert that these strategies don’t work, you are accused of not believing hard enough, you are told you must keep trying. The failure to recover from mental illness is an individual failure, a lack of determination and character, and labelled, more and more, as a personality disorder. You’re not trying hard enough to be good.
Current theoretical frameworks of Recovery consolidate the grand fundamental denial of the traumatogenic nature of capitalism and current culture. Mental illness is built into the system, those who suffer (and there are increasing numbers of us) are collateral damage.
And while we are busily trying to fix ourselves, through diet or meditation or yoga or CBT or crochet, we are conveniently distracted from naming the real sources of our distress. Make no mistake, the Recovery doctrine has a political agenda. We are economic units, to be judged acceptable or otherwise by our productivity, and the prime focus of mental health services is to so adjust us that we better fit the mould. That is the measure of their success.
It drives the pain, the deeply human response to the inequalities and injustices in the world, underground. It “works”. I no longer phone the Crisis Team because I have given up hoping that someone will hear and acknowledge my brokenness and despair, because I am tired of being told to make a cup of tea and watch television, because I am sick of the assertion that the problem somehow lies in me. So am I “better”?
I am the child who believed in the power of poetry and was advised to pursue a career in advertising. I am the adolescent who believed that God had forsaken her, because all around her was the message and the pressure that to really succeed was to be attractive to boys. I am the twenty-something who was haunted by anniversaries of war. I am the thirty-something who ended up in and out of psychiatric hospitals, tormented by visions of a planet in pain.
I will not “recover” until the world recovers – and I can’t see that happening any time soon. For now I hold my coldness and anguish close to me. It is, at least, something real, and in this culture of consumerism and illusion I cherish the real. And it moves me.
I have a voice. I vow to use it. When the world ends you will find me singing there.