When my professor called on me, I couldn’t contain an inarticulate growl before proceeding with my response to his question.
“Wow,” he said. “The rage is strong with you today.”
It was indeed. We were discussing the two doctors who “treat” Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and which of the two was worse/more destructive in his treatment of PTSD. If you never read Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus is a character suffering from “shell shock” – hearing voices, seeing his dead friends, believing himself the recipient of a grand message from the universe, and feeling suicidal in the aftermath of serving in WWI. The first doctor, Holmes, literally pushes Septimus’s wife, and therefore her worries for her husband, aside in order to lecture Septimus about how there is nothing at all the matter with him and how he should just get a hobby and go outside more. The second, Sir William, agrees that Septimus is ill, but his focus is on normalization – that is, getting Septimus back to being a Contributing Member of Society, Back to Normal, and if he can’t do that, then letting him stay in an asylum rather than burden society any longer.
These two delightful characters undoubtedly spring from Woolf’s own experiences with medical professionals while struggling with manic depression. And even though Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, these doctors are still representative of social reactions to mental illness.
Setting my rage aside for moment (difficult as that is), I can understand the outside perspective. It’s difficult to “believe in” an affliction we can’t see. It’s not like a broken leg or a bleeding wound – there’s nothing visibly wrong, so a tiny doubt wriggles its way in. He seemed fine two weeks ago. Is she really that sick if she’s still getting all her work done? He’s always been so reasonable – is he really thinking of suicide? We base our assumptions on what we’ve seen and known of people up to this point, and sometimes it’s difficult to overcome that desire for them to “prove” that they’re “really sick.” Similarly, I can see why, once we realize that something really is wrong, we want our friend/family member/classmate to Get Well Soon. We want them Back to Normal, because isn’t that what they’re supposed to want too? Our society often views healing as a process with an end point, a time in the future when the sick person will have Gotten Over It, whether It is a cold or the flu or the death of a loved one. Of course, we are not completely callous. We know that some things take longer to heal from than others. But we’re still envisioning an end point rather than the possibility of “living with” the thing. “Living with” seems to suggest an uneasy compromise, which we don’t like, because there’s the underlying possibility of another upset where the Bad Thing takes over, and of course we don’t want to see this person go through that again.
So I can understand these viewpoints.
But people who hold these views usually cannot understand me.
Both Holmes and Sir William fail to recognize and validate the reality of mental illness. Yes, it’s difficult to “see” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the person is making it up. Visibility does not equal proof. And, while there are sadly a few individuals who do make things up to get attention, why should that be our default assumption?
As for the push to Get Better Soon, while it usually comes from a place of genuine care and concern, it forces the sufferer to “take responsibility” for their illness – a problem that is actually beyond their control. It may make the person feel as though the longer they take to get Back to Normal, the more irritated or fed up their support system will get. Believing that the people around you think you should be over something makes you question yourself and begin devaluing the reality of your experience. Also, prioritizing Back to Normal-ness denies a major fact of mental illness: it doesn’t always go away. Balance can be achieved. Strategies can be developed. But when there is something chemically awry in a person’s brain, it can’t always magically be fixed. So in that case, “living with” it instead of being crushed by it is actually a victory.
We have progressed significantly since the days of Septimus Warren Smith and his two horrible, horrible doctors. But there is still room for improvement and understanding.