Today I read The Unfinished Bookshelf’s Q&A with Maureen McCarthy about her inspiration for Stay With Me. Yesterday I read Allen & Unwin’s blog about Maureen McCarthy’s book launch in early May. I liked Stay With Me, but if I read these two blogs before posting my review, I might have blogged about my horror at what Maureen McCarthy said about mental illness at her book launch.
“Through the story I wanted to look at the way we pathologize unhappiness. We put it out there away from us. In the past you didn’t measure up as wife or mother then they put you away, to moulder away in a mental hospital until you die.
“Today it’s different but some elements remain. So much of life pushed away under the umbrella of ‘mental illness’. Maybe you suffer loneliness, despair, grief, a sense of dislocation, perhaps you hate your life and don’t know what to do next. Maybe your parents are neglectful selfish drunks… and you have no idea what to do about it. Perhaps you’re with a man who thinks love means owning you, and you don’t know how to get away from him because you feel so powerless.
“Well we’ve got a name for you. We’ve got a name for all that. Mental Illness. And here are the pills… to fix you up! To my mind that way of thinking lets the rest of us, the whole bloody culture, off the hook! Nothing has to change if we can subdue unhappiness with a pill.”
The way Maureen McCarthy conflates domestic violence with mental illness really bothers me. Just because Tess’s abusive partner said she was mad, didn’t make it true. Everything he said was a lie and these lies crushed her self esteem until she believed she was worthless. That’s what abuse does to people.
Victims need support and counselling to overcome their trauma after leaving an abusive situation. Leaving is the hardest step, but a person doesn’t magically heal once they leave. They may need medication in the short or long term, but support is imperative. Tess got this from her friends and family. Many people, like the woman Maureen McCarthy met on the train, have no support.
Then there’s the mental illness that can be triggered by abuse: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Any trauma can trigger PTSD eg. prolonged incarceration with no hope of freedom eg. the situation Maureen McCarthy’s grandmother experienced and inspired the character of Tess’s great grandmother. Her grandmother had a tragic life, if she lived now she would receive grief counselling which could have enabled her to overcome her grief and continue being the loving mother her children remembered. These awful situations were all too common.
If I lived in the 1920s I would have been one of those (actual) crazy people institutionalized, to “moulder away in a mental hospital until I died” or killed myself.
I’ve never experienced abuse, only mental illness, and yes it runs in my family. As with many illnesses there’s a genetic component.
For half my life I’ve taken a multitude of the pills Maureen McCarthy thinks “subdue unhappiness.” They don’t. They keep me alive and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. My clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder have caused mountains of unhappiness,
“loneliness, despair, grief, a sense of dislocation, hating my life and don’t know what to do next.”
The pills I take fix the biochemical deficiencies in my brain, but my treatment is so much more than these pills. I manage my depression and anxiety with:
- psychological therapy eg. cognitive behavioural therapy
- healthy eating
- relaxation techniques
- emotional support from family and friends
I wish there was a pill that fixed me. I also wish people didn’t perpetuate the stereotype that mental illness is unhappiness. I can cope with unhappiness, I can’t cope with your ignorance of what constitutes mental illness.