The Indelible Mark: Talking about Troubled Pasts

Posted on July 16, 2011

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Before I write this post itself, I have to say something about Google+. I’m going to go ahead and dub Google an Innovation Tease. The company’s great at rolling out ambitious projects (Buzz, Wave, +) with word-of-mouth and tech buzz marketing campaigns and the promise of a paradigm shift. We get all hot and bothered by the sexiness of the concept and the memory of the glory that was the first advent of Gmail into our lives. But after all that tension and waiting and lusty watching, we’re given a poorly integrated system that has a few wonderful applications, but seems just a little more inconvenient than it is engaging. And the let down on our anticipation kills the mood of what should be a mild but satisfying love affair with a new platform. Google: innovation tease.

Now on to the thoughts that occupy my mind … but that I do not quite wish to start writing about. For reasons that will perhaps become clear hereafter.

I’ve had candid conversations in this part of the world about some things I never thought I would. I’ve spoken to people about sex and love and religion, and about family and questioning communal values. I’ve spoken to people about the role of individualism, responsibilities to their homelands and their desires for themselves. I’ve spoken to people about rough politics, ethnic tensions, especially about concerns relating to the rapid growth of Somalis (something I think I’ll write more about later). I’ve even had, over the past week, some wonderful conversations about perceptions of sexuality, the place of homosexuals in Nairobi (visited one of the few “gay hotspots”), and changing perceptions/modes of conversation and reconciliation of values between generations.

But I’ve not yet had one conversation that laid bare the emotional side of life in a developing nation. And I have tried to gently push the conversation in that direction, given my fascination with the visceral and psychological reactions of individual, with the resilience of humanity. But mum’s the word on issues of mental health, save for the most fleeting of mentions.

To clarify: East Africa is not some sunny, happy land, circa 1950s America, where emotional trauma and healthy catharsis were shoved into back rooms along with rocking mothers and their little yellow pills. People readily admit to facing emotional difficulty, to becoming depressed, to wondering at how they could possibly overcome the challenges in their lives, both those that we would think of as mundane and those we would see as unimaginable. (It all lends credence to my growing suspicion that we’re the same all over, and that self-imposed caps on human suffering, for the sake of sanity and survival, ensure that we all have some level of connection with and empathy to the struggles faced by others.) But there’s a reluctance to dwell upon those dark moments.

Crawling one’s way out of mental illness is one of the hardest things one can ever do. I can understand not wanting to relive those moments, although I do not think that one can help but return to them, eternally and far, far too frequently. So I don’t think that’s why people here—indeed, let’s bring this global, people everywhere—avoid talking too much about the mental illness they’ve overcome. Regardless of the reason, not being able to talk of these things can be dangerous. When I hear girls here tell me about the horrible things in their lives, and I ask them how or why they were able to overcome them, more often than not I get the blankest stares, sometimes a hurt look. But without the ability to remember, to travel back and pick apart the experience, how does one truly intend to process recovery, prevent relapse, and move forward a whole person with a massive part of themselves missing (they being the summation of their thoughts and actions, and the why and how of their escape from dire straits being, necessarily, a large factor in that equation).

My friends know that I speak quite candidly about my bleakest histories, and the turmoil I went through in relation to those times. And they know how tiresome these stories can become. Secretly, though, I’m running through a terrified series of calculations in my head each time I tell the story. I think I fear to talk about my own experiences (although I frequently overcome the fear) for much the same reason as everyone else: telling someone about the urge to hack into your own flesh and the coiling sense of despair, the … there is no other word, the blackness—it seems like the most monumental thing you can really reveal to someone. And there must be a commensurately oversized suspicion that it will become the most salient aspect of your being to the listener.

There’s the fear that you will become no more than your experience, no more than one story. There’s fear of pity, as much as there can be an intense craving for it at the lowest moments. There’s fear that, by speaking it’s dread name, even in the interest of boasting conquest, you will unleash the demons to rip and rule you from without when once they ruled you from within, branding your flesh and eating away all that once was independent in you with the sign and stigmata of the mentally ill.

But if you don’t reveal that part of yourself, then you live a tortured lie, feeling that you’ve withheld something vital, something core from the people you care about. Because that history of struggle is forever a part of you. It’s the reason I refused to go on anti-depressants, in part (aside from sheer pride and willpower), and a reason I’ve heard echoed by many others: even if it’s hell, it’s a hell that’s become a part of your soul. Would you really be you without the constant rapping of the thoughts against the back of your skull, the squeezing sensation behind your eyes, the pulsing underneath your flesh of boiled blood wishing to break loose? How can you truly be you without the memory and the emotional burden, the struggle and the rises and falls against all of this? And if this is so inborn within you, how can anyone truly know you if they do not know this part of you?

No matter the turn you take with these musings, always it rules you. Even for those out of the woods, the corpse and specter still steer you. And that’s a satanic force whose name you dare not speak, one that can rule you when alive and rule you from another quarter once seemingly vanquished.

There’s an indelible mark to mental illness, and one which we all wish to hide. I try to speak openly, to acknowledge this part of myself, but each time I fidget some. Am I using the right amount of nonchalance, giving the right credit and imparting the right sense of severity and comfort with the material to freeze and channel the perception of me by the listener? Or will they still define me by this moment, this story?

The mark is on us. It will never go away—mainly because perhaps we love it as much as we hate it, as a twisted, gnarled but dear part of our own beings. The mark is eternal and we must find a way to embrace it. But until we learn as the storytellers and the listeners to embrace it with grace and good measure, I’m afraid we’ll all be ruled by, and never have rulership over, the darker parts of our own pasts. And I’m not quite sure what to do about that.

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