By James Alexander
Contributed by author: “Self-Portrait”
I feel as if I am on a journey, rapidly progressing from one understanding of the world to another. I’ve learned that happiness is fleeting, but that contentment and love may endure.
It’s my life’s hope to reconcile my identity with love.
Looking at a photograph of myself from 20 years ago I could say “that’s me”, but I wonder how true it is as an identity claim. My hair has darkened, I’ve grown taller, and my interests have since expanded beyond ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. To discuss the importance of personal identity first requires the acceptance that there is such a thing as identity. Herein lies the problem, defining oneself when one feels that there is more than one true self. With much of our understanding of identity rooted in psychological continuity, I’m left wondering what’s left if streams of consciousness divide and discontinuity prevails.
My parents first met as patients in a psychiatric unit and would later continue to frequent psychiatric care. My formative years were defined by periods of instability, danger, emotional, and sometimes financial impoverishment. When I think of right and wrong, I wonder where incapacitation by mental illness, addiction, or transgenerational trauma fits into this sometimes-simplistic narrative. My parents made the mistake of being poor in a rich and unequal nation, and over their lives have suffered immensely. Statistically speaking I’m a textbook case for an identity founded upon a fixation with one’s internal mental state. Being born into the perfect storm of genetic fallibility and adverse childhood experiences have made certain that I could do no other, but to be this way.
A person detained involuntarily under the mental health act once told me: “You get it don’t you? You’re one of us!” I was one of ‘them’ not by virtue of sharing a mental state per se, (I shared the space with them because of my work) but because my curiosity and desire to empathise necessitated a suspension of belief in the reality around us. My stoic retort ensured that they did not know the veraciousness of their questioning assertion. I don’t know whether it was an astute observation, or a lucky guess primarily designed to catch me napping. Either way, conceptually they weren’t wrong.
"When things are bad, imagine a sound akin to T.V static. A sound that encroaches and builds relentlessly in my mind to a crescendo that robs me of all focus and slashes at my remaining tether to a shared reality."
It’s a truism to say that we all hear voices, you’re hearing one reading this now. Moreover, we’ve all experienced stimuli that weren’t really there: a vibration of a silent phone in one’s pocket, or sighting a mysterious figure transiently synthesised from the shadows against one’s wall. These are harmless and no barrier to the prerequisite of sanity that is required for the superficial shared reality that our societies rely upon. Issues arise however when one’s inner mental state is projected upon the external environment and the incongruity causes disconnect. What does one do when they feel that they are going mad, and has seen the consequences of madness first-hand? Can one, with appropriate help, think oneself back to the safety of sanity? Or, do we merely delay an inevitable demise? Cycling through sanity and insanity ad infinitum, always pushing Sisyphus’ boulder and cruelly ‘living’ in absurdity, until we live no longer.
I’ve heard and seen things that lie outside of a shared reality. I’ve heard voices, heard the thoughts of others, seen invisible images, and felt colours burrow their way into my mind. These distortions of a reality, not perceived by others are real only to me, but through my experiencing of them, remain real. When things are bad, imagine a sound akin to T.V static. A sound that encroaches and builds relentlessly in my mind to a crescendo that robs me of all focus and slashes at my remaining tether to a shared reality. Colours desaturate and an intractable melancholia pervasively cleaves reality into irreconcilable fragments. Me, myself and I are left to pick up the pieces. Likewise, I’ve wept at the mercy of ecstasy, colours so intensely saturated and deep that I could bathe in their form and expression. This euphoria feels like nothing else; it is the height of passion and is wholly consuming.
I am wary of romanticising or fetishising the intricacies and outcomes of an altered mental state. A protracted state of elation does not allow for a meaningful quality of life and can turn destructive.
The more that I read, converse and think, paradoxically the less I feel that I understand. How impossible it can be to understand the world in any way that is not merely a superimposition of our internal reductionist frameworks onto the external world. I believe that this question of relating the self to the non-self is something that we must all in time come to face. Wherever one lies on the spectrum of sanity, our negotiations intra- and inter-self become, by definition, the very basis of who we are in this life. In recognition that words are merely the shadow of experience; I include a sophomoric attempt to visually represent the expression of these thoughts. I invite the reader to observe the image and allow it to serve as a bridge between my introspection and the mind ubiquitous. Within each one of us is something identical and yet entirely distinct, the very foundation of our identities and presence.
"I’m coming to the realisation that through it all, I was loved, but that love isn’t always expressed kindly or altruistically. "
I used to fear that if my stream of consciousness were to separate, that it may never reconvene. [For] now stable, owing to years of introspection and help, I instead relish this existential challenge. I’m developing systems of thought that focus on what the right way of thinking is, focusing on processes rather than outcomes. So rarely do we ever pause and wonder whether an experience or information matters because of how it makes us feel.
I’m coming to the realisation that through it all, I was loved, but that love isn’t always expressed kindly or altruistically.
I work in a prestigious field centred around caring for others, but it is underpinned by conservative social hierarchies and power structures. Thus far, I’ve been disappointed by the surface-visible lack of diversity of opinion and experience. I’ve become accustomed to a prevailing institutionalised misunderstanding that anything lying outside of traditional mechanisms is a threat to the survival of the field. Instead, I believe that to best care for others, to best explore the feelings and wellbeing of another, to best understand the human condition, we must change our ways. We need to think more deeply about ourselves and others. This is imperative if we are to better professionally understand suffering and injustice and to remedy them with due conscientiousness. We need to start from a position of knowing the self, and how we may best express love. I believe that a well-reasoned and righteous internal compass underpins our ability to best love. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else.
My journey of knowing the self revolves around best understanding love. I’m actively rewriting a narrative that would have otherwise consigned me to a life of miserable instability, whilst accepting some of the inevitability of my predetermined identity. I’m learning of the moral ambiguity of how love may be expressed so that I can learn to be more compassionate and to forgive, and to love more and love better. I have no doubt that I owe my life to the love and intelligent actions of others and I recognise its power as a transformative force. Ultimately, I desire to love and to be loved, and because of the journey of knowing myself, and the impact of others, my life’s hope is cordially progressing. For this, I am immensely grateful.
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