This blog post is written by Ariel, a member of the 2019-2020 Yahel Social Change Fellowship. Ariel is living for 9 months in Lod
Throughout the Yahel Fellowship’s progression, especially at the beginning -or so I hope- one has to incur in many self-introductions. These introductions are expected to give our interlocutor -one of the many, and very relevant figures we meet- an idea of where we come from, why we’re here, and what we expect to get from the experience. To achieve this purpose we, each of us fellows, go about telling a story, about past geographies we populated, what we studied, or stopped doing so, what social or community-oriented endeavors we’ve engaged with, etc. The stories I’ve told were diverse in their content of truth, not because I lied, but because in the end those stories were no more than small pieces of fiction, even when well-grounded on facts.
Oftentimes my fiction will cover angles like my search for identity and belonging, my interest in building community and engaging in fulfilling work, my desire to (re)connect with my now Israeli brother, my hope to quench a thirst for exploration and learning. Again, not that these angles lack veracity, but they can be very circumstantial, abstract, or consensus-dependent.
Eventually, my Yahel experience progressed to volunteering at Enosh (Hebrew for “human”), the Israeli Mental Health Association. Here in Lod, they run a “Friendly Center”, where the endeavor is to provide a safe, nourishing space for its members. This is achieved by treating patients, or “הִתְמוֹדֵד” (copers), like the humans that they are, through sponsoring community engagement with them, hosting open events, or organizing trips, thus promoting destigmatization. All the members are covered by insurance and have no obligation or pressure to participate. The majority are diagnosed with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, but there is ample diversity of mental states, even among people with similar diagnoses. Through this experience and previous ones, I’m finding plenty of insight that I hope to illustrate here.
First and foremost I gained substantial understanding of the marginalization people with mental illness suffer, which are partially and often because of a disability to accurately identify and assess circumstances, apprehend the abstract, or harness consensus. But they are especially marginalized, I would say, because of the complete, and even ruthless, invalidation of their fictions. Living their own fiction with authenticity is usually denied, constraining individuality in the name of functionality. Functionality that, more often than not, will focus on the economic aspect, disregarding finer social aspects, and completely discarding transcendental ones. Further invalidated and marginalized by the stigmas associated with having mental disorders are: presumptions of violence, criminality, or obscenity; perceptions of being parasitical, or dependent on society; and intolerance towards non-conforming patterns of thought.
Next comes an insight into how fine and biased the lines are. In this case, the ones keeping me, and possibly you too, on the “sane” side. Like with many other complex phenomena, a continuum more accurately represents reality, a spectrum in which there are no clear-cut distinct situations. Thus one may present a less disruptive disorder, or even a potentially disruptive but unnoticed one, or simply be ignorant of one’s nuanced condition. Statistics, and sometimes even common sense, show how normal and widespread mental disorders are, making just the privilege of validation and social acceptance the line that separates fit from not, sane from insane. Maybe eventually progress will reach the mental health department, and linguistic inclusiveness along with de-stigmatization will allow people to own and express a richer mental state. But for now, there’s a big social pressure to keep a solid line between the ill and not. I wonder what fears fuel that pressure: Maybe the very stigmas surrounding the subject makes it easy to reject? Maybe it’s a collective of individual resonant fears of identifying with dangerously unstructured mindsets?
Lastly, in a more exposed, and even lysergic note, I found plenty of valuable insight into how nourishing and formative of an experience it can be to build rapport, or just relate with people diagnosed with even the most disruptive of mental conditions: I’ve found people not restrained by many of the cultural devices implemented to “keep things simple” or protect society from unproductivity, allowing dimensions of freedom and creativity that would claim arduous deconstruction efforts, if even attainable, from the average “sane” person; openness to experiencing and sharing emotional and existential vulnerability to an extent worthy of admiration; true child-like curiosity. In short, a human experience as valid as any other, but sometimes too intense for the human experiencing it, or those around them. Experience that invites me to explore how far can some lines be blurred when approaching them from the sane side.
“Crazy isn't being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified. If you ever told a lie and enjoyed it. If you ever wished you could be a child forever.” ―Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted