Mental Health Week, by Billy O Hanluain

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For some, it is the vehicle that brings pensioners to the bingo, for others it might be the transport from the airport to the hotel or even that taxi that brings a group of six to a house party. I am talking about the “Mini Bus”; two words that still make me very uneasy many years after I was in one, being brought to places I didn’t want to go to.

You have seen them, those white mini buses that are stopped at traffic lights near the bus stop you are waiting at. The side of the bus, emblazoned with the letters HSE, Saint Ita’s, Saint Loman’s, Saint Brendan’s….my Saint was John of God. Lazily you catch a glance of the passengers, some with bucked teeth and rolling eyes, others staring into some private infinity, drooling, there was always a drooler, no mini bus would be complete without one.

And the rockers and the rollers, shaking in their seats and hey! That’s me, covering my face like somebody leaving court as the bus passes my secondary school hoping to god the mini bus wouldn’t be caught in traffic at the school bus stop and the girls in tartan green and the boys in navy blue might see me. The banal cruelty of a school bus stop.Fatso, faggot, knacker and if a mini bus passed by, a good chance for the heroes of the 46A to shout “Look at the Johniers!” and pull faces at them. Truth is, I may well have done that in the past, mocked them but now I was a passenger being brought to the Spring Show to collect brochures about combine harvesters and stickers for pesticide companies, how I wanted for some machine to mow the wild acres of my sadness. Maybe we were going bowling in Stillorgan where one girl was so thin she had to lift the lightest ball and it always fell in the side gulley and nobody ever got a strike. The bowling alley was no shelter from shame. Lads from my school sometimes came there after school to play video games. As I’d pick up the ball, a seal’s face pierced with three holes, the nurse would say “Go on Billy, a strike, aren’t ye great…”.I didn’t want my name spoken out loud. I didn’t want to be there. There was one boy who refused point blank to bowl and instead scratched words on his arms. I have an irrational hatred of bowling to this day. Many years ago I went bowling in Madrid and broke down completely, tore off the pathetic clown shoes you have to wear so as not to damage the surface, and beat my head to migraine with them, needless to say that date didn’t end well.

People who access mental health services aren’t others they are us, they are me. But the stigma stays like an unwanted tattoo. The memory of things I saw and people I met and the sound of doors being locked has never quite been erased. The many months I missed from school. The drugs. Seeing a lovely young man left mute after ECT. Having to do the Leaving Cert a year after all my former class mates. Meeting them, at a house party a month before they’d sit their leaving. I was out only a month, feeling good about myself. Me and another fella were trying to get the attention of a beautiful girl. He chatted her up and then I playfully stepped in….she was enjoying the attention and we all felt so adult in that back garden in Cabninteely, mid-May a month before their final school exams. A free gaff! Eventually she held my hand and my friend said under his breath “ye lucky bugger…” We kissed and I felt an almost unbearably beautiful release from the previous months. We came back into the kitchen where people were dancing. I was holding her hand and that’s when the nightmare started. Another fella, drunk, roared at her, “What are you doing with a Johnier? he’s just out of hospital, could be dangerous, could be psycho…he’s only here because….” Somebody gagged him but I was already smarting with dry tears. I understand now those headlines “Man Killed at house party”. It can happen that easy. An act of love though, that I will keep close to me like a winning hand of poker for the rest of my life, she squeezed my hand and said ” I don’t really know who you are but you’re the nicest guy here” She took me to a bed room and made me feel more alive than I’d felt in years,
Names are important. The Naval Ships of Ireland have the names of mythological Irish women, Aoife, Ethne, Orla, Ciara and even writers Beckett and Joyce. The patients inside the mini buses are given the wing and a prayer of a Saint, sympathy, whereas the sailors are given heroics and literature.

The discourse around mental health has changed a lot since the late 80’s and much of it for the better but much of it still makes me very uneasy. It is a good thing that people are encouraged to “tell their stories”, “to share”, that people can emerge from the shadows of shame and secrecy. I like when I visit secondary schools now that I see posters, painted by students promoting respect and tolerance.

We must ask ourselves though, is it the function of mental health services to help people and rehabilitate them so they can function again in a deeply dysfunctional society? In a society like ours that privatizes everything the bill invariably gets handed on to the individual. Everything becomes a private transaction. Health care, waste collection, education and even spiritual practice are all conducted privately and our sense of belonging to a sane and caring community is eroded in the supposed interests of efficiency, cost and individual rights. The onus is increasingly on the individual to pave his own way, regardless of his or her means.

Yes, it is a good thing that people are able to speak about depression, suicide, addiction and stress but the focus seems to be all the time on the individual being able to deal with these symptoms and get back into the race, if they manage this, the race has invariably become a lot crueler since they were last in it. I accept that some people may have a pre-disposition towards depression or that an addiction may run in a family but nowhere in the current discourse on mental health is anybody really challenging the societal factors that make people sick.

All around us we are surrounded by and compliant with madness and we know it. Whether it is the annihilation of our imaginations by advertising, our fear of being who we really are, the constant attacks launched on people’s self-esteem by marketers, class division, war, lives spent in meaningless jobs, show me a child in a playground who dreams of being a sub-prime lender? There are none. Somewhere along the line we co-opt and voluntarily sign up to servitude. We smother our own dreams before they even have a chance of crawling towards realization. So many of us live lives of bad faith being, untrue to ourselves, we don’t want to take responsibility, the burden is too much. People go to gyms, spend hours on thread mills, running to nowhere. A generation believes that food comes from a supermarket. We have outsourced thought to Google. We have few meaningful rituals or symbols. Our cities are clogged with corporate clutter. Wars are televised between ad breaks. We dance Gangnam style, we “like” cat videos, we eat whatever fad food is going, the burrito, sushi. We invent narratives around Nature, that it is a benign force, a mother, a giver, a carer, while raping her for resources. Look into the eyes of the Atlantic, it cares not a salt spray drop for you. We vote for clone singers on talent shows, while Aleppo is shelled, late night shopping on Thursdays and a new fad diet reviewed on a Saturday radio talk show while a million die out of sight from no food at all. We are overloaded with information; we fear eye contact. Casual violence,,porn, poverty, the suspicion of people who are not exactly like you. And Money, the new moral arbitrator, the new church…. how do you manage it? How much do you spend? How much do you save? How much do you earn? Where do you live? What school did you go to? What school do your children go to? You have three hundred Facebook friends but no one to call when none of the pieces of your rotten puzzle fit together….

And we are surprised that people are sick…

But of course it’s your problem because you can’t cope. There is a whole front line of Pharma-Soldiers there to prescribe medication for you and a lovely label to go with your prescription ADDH for the kids, Bipolar for you and Paranoia for the lady in red at the back of the audience, please read the label carefully and don’t exceed the daily dose, don’t ask too many questions, that’ll be 60 euro, thank you.

Tell your story…. sorry but sometimes one’s story is not strong enough to withstand all that other madness. Maybe it’s us who were in Mini Buses who are not sick at all…. the problem with “telling the story” is that we are all dreadfully unreliable narrators…it’s presumes that there is some epiphany lurking within us all, maybe there is but it is often soon crushed again once we step back into the race. The story doesn’t always heal us; we can become slave to it…it assumes that there is a purpose…. the imposition of purpose on our lives is another source of discontent…. the story is also always changing as the past is not a fixed or objective place, it is forever shifting, being informed and shaped by now, there is no simple returning with a key to unlock it….the trail of crumbs has been blown away by the wind…

I will leave you with these words by Henry Miller

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”

 
Billy O Hanluain is a regular contributor to The Bogmans Cannon

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