I finished reading “The center cannot hold” in three consecutive settings. It is an memoir written by a conventionally successful professor on her journey struggling with schizophrenia. I guess it says a lot that these days I can almost only find comfort in relating to depressed philosophers, reclusive hermits and people with mental disorders.
In the book she wrote considerably about the profound isolation she felt because of her mental illness. In her life, perhaps there was only one person she felt who understood her: Mrs Jones, her first psychoanalyst. I don’t think I can recall one living person whom I felt understood how I feel in relation to the world (apart from depressed philosophers but in some way you can only get a tiny slice of a person through reading their writing, a tiny but deep slice nevertheless). So I sort of clumsily understood why Mrs Jones meant so much to her, why she couldn’t deal with their separation when she had to return to the US from Oxford, the depth of her grief when Mrs Jones passed.
It was Anthony Storr, a well-known psychoanalyst who wrote after seeing her once, that for her it is analysis or nothing. She was hospitalised twice, after threatening harm to both herself and other people, and she would often hallucinate and have extreme delusions. But she acknowledged throughout her book that while it was medication that helped manage her disorder, it was psychoanalysis that gave meaning to her life. It was being in analysis with Mrs Jones that she credited for enabling her to finish graduate school at Oxford, and set the foundation to her being in analysis permanently, eventually cumulating in her undergoing psychoanalytic training as well. For what it is worth, she has two philosophy degrees and one law degree, completed alongside while she suffered through the worst periods of her schizophrenia (and she readily admits that her privilege allowed her the space to cope, because she didn’t have to cope with any financial worries).
The memoir is written with a lot of detail, and I can’t help but wonder how she managed to recall so many details when she was undergoing perpetual brain fog during those times. But I appreciate it nonetheless. It is her professional standing that allowed her to write something like this without having to suffer serious professional consequences, but it is also her professional standing that was at risk when she made that choice. Many of her colleagues were unaware she has schizophrenia and would make discriminatory remarks about mentally-disordered people in front of her. Imagine working exceptionally hard to have a semblance of professional success in her life, only to have it permanently tagged to the label of being crazy (her word, not mine). But she has had an impressive body of work published prior to her memoir to serve as her record, and if someone like her cannot reduce the stigma to schizophrenia, nobody can, she thinks, and I concur.
That was similar to how I felt when I started writing about my chronic depression more than 10 years ago. I was only a moderately successful freelancer, but I believed that if I couldn’t survive coming out with a mental disorder even though I had a visible body of work in a forgiving industry, then where is the hope of a regular person? The stigma causes more isolation on top of the isolation that already comes with the disorder, and it often snowballs into a loneliness that pushes a person into a untenable corner.
I have friends and a loving partner. There are multiple parts of me, and people know that part of me I present as my front. I would say that is the most superficial part of me, the part of me raised and conditioned by society. To be capable of jokes, self-deprecating humour, smiles, no matter how I was feeling inside. Then there is the part of me who is chronically suicidal, often thinks that life is meaningless, feels profoundly empty and sad no matter what goes on externally. I often feel that most people don’t truly know me and they would rather see me as the superficial self I present. Now, is that the truth or is that an artifact of my depressed brain? Am I depressed because of my depressed brain or because of my fundamental philosophical beliefs? Can an improved brain chemistry change someone’s philosophy?
These days I don’t interact with people much, by choice. I find comfort in taking my own pain seriously for once instead of belittling myself, though it is a constant challenge. I have a ton of self-pity combined with self-hatred, because I feel guilty at not being able to love and appreciate life when I know there is a ton of people who would do anything to live a little longer, whereas I think about cutting mine short all the time. That in itself is a kind of deep existential pain, the belief I am taking up precious space I don’t deserve.
I don’t wish to be my superficial self anymore, but I don’t know how else to be when I am physically with people. So I opt out of the whole thing. I think I am only beginning to learn how to be authentic even to myself, to not be dismissive of my own feelings.
I don’t wish to become a happier, more optimistic person, which is something difficult for people to accept. I just wish to be more coherent/congruent as a person, more accepting of myself, less of splitting into superficiality and defences. I often thought of sparing people’s feelings, so I starved mine. I still want to spare people’s feelings but I no longer want to starve mine, so I limit my social sphere to my partner and I.
It is only with her that I am capable of being who I truly am. A frightened, anxious, insecure child. Yes, I’ll be 40 in a couple of years, and I am publicly calling myself a child. At this point I am not sure if I’ll ever grow up.
The author loved her Mrs Jones like no other because it was only with her that she felt she could be authentic with her very disturbing thoughts. I have something similar with my partner, an unconditional acceptance of the perceived ugliness within me. But I would like to find my own Mrs Jones one day: someone who is able to see me for who I am without the emotional investment of a life partner, someone I can be fully ugly with without having to be protective towards.