on the mad voice
I've recently stumbled across this post by Charlotte Beale, on the Mad in the UK website: Why writing and therapy are similar struggles. She writes: “People suffering have sometimes been denied a voice. Those around them are not willing or able to hear what that person really thinks or feels. To speak becomes dangerous.”
Why dangerous? Because using one's voice means sharing one's thoughts with the outside world, putting oneself 'out there' to be considered and even judged. The internal becomes external, whether through speech or through writing, and the exposure risks all sorts of hurts: being ignored, or contradicted or even rejected. And for some, it risks being pathologised, hospitalised, stigmatised: in other words, psychiatrised.
I recently had coffee with a mad friend. Conversation turned to the course module I've been taking – Mad Studies – and the topic of madness. Sitting there at a table in a cafe, he whispered self-consciously and looked over his shoulder repeatedly, lest he be overheard. His fear of being censured by the general public permeated the exchange.
“When I was really mad,” he confessed, “I thought I was a bionic man.”
“You were,” I replied.
He didn't seem to know how to react; I suspect I'm the first person who hasn't responded to him with a rebuttal or a plea to reason.
So do I really believe this, that my friend really experienced being a bionic man? Yes, I really do. In some metaphorical or metaphysical or spiritual or nonsensical sense, what he was experiencing was real. Perhaps not in the here-and-now, consensual reality that we all share in this place together. But in some sense, some significant sense, some both-playful-and-deadly-serious sense, this was real for him. That reality he experienced is what I believe in.
Do I understand it? No, I don't think it's for me to understand. He's got to figure it out for himself, make his own sense of it in the context of himself and his own life, and do with it what he will. But dismissing it as unreal and demanding that he conform to my experience of him – which may or may not involve bionics – this is where I'm willing to let it go. (Please bear with me, because I'm still learning to articulate my thoughts about this. It's work in progress, as anyone's thoughts are. Beale also points out that “articulation is a struggle, most particularly about things that matter.”)
This matters. What people experience, and whether or not they are listened to: it matters. Because we are all of us here experiencing life and no one's experience is more valid or more real than another's.
In the Mad Studies course, I've learned the term “epistemic injustice.” Miranda Fricker coined this term in her 2008 book of the same name, and describes it as “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.” When we insist that the mad person abandon their reality, and conform themselves to our own, this is a form of epistemic injustice. When we dismiss the mad person's testimony as just irrational nonsense, this is a form of epistemic injustice.
I know it's not a simple matter, because often the mad voice is very challenging to sit with; it can be scary, or slippery, or simply rambling. But I believe it has something to contribute to our world – our messed up, troubled world - something to do with sitting with uncertainty, and embracing the trouble. Something to do with breakdown and breakthrough. Something to do with releasing ourselves from the tyrranical grip of the rational, and allowing ourselves to trust our own experiences rather than surrendering to what is imposed upon us by consensus.
What can we learn from the mad voice? I do wonder...
(Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash)