Monday, 22 December 2014

Making a Metaphor: Animals and Understanding


A Preface
This is an article on the language sued to discuss mental illness and its understanding – inshttp://www.elefriends.org.uk/ - organised by the Mental Health Charity Mind. Elefriends not only involves an animal metaphor, the focus of this article, but also emphasizes the importance of a supportive and strong community to discuss mental health. I would certainly recommend a look! I guess I can  look at depression a little like looking at an elephant – it may scare me in its unfamiliarity, but it is not something I would want to harm. What I want to do is understand it.
pired by my visit to the website
And therefore my reflection on:

Making a Metaphor

The simplicity of the phrase ‘making it’ is something I so often strive for, when reflecting upon it.
Depression may leave you feeling that anything you ‘make’, if it all, is a mess. And in turn, to climb out if the clutter can be the easy part – to look at the apparent order and synchrony of people around you, their assumed ever-arranged social events, self-security and smile. It can be a transition from an accumulating chaos to an icy isolation in the space of couple of minutes – to feel the fated futility of your life to then look at the apparent ease of someone else’s.

But not only is this potentially illusory, but not necessarily any closer to ‘making it’.
The process of ‘making’ occurs endlessly, at what could be considered a much more accessible level – nature.

At a most basic level, even on a bad day, the birds still sing. Rain may bead and shine on the branch before it falls to the floor. In the sensations and moments of suspension it offers, nature at this level expects nothing back. Often lost is contemporary culture is the comfort of simply appreciating nature for a  moment. Nature too can terrify, can compress, as can anything; The wind can feel agitated and overbearing, the rain relentless, we may well acknowledge certain creatures with fear and phobias.
But the sun rising still ‘makes’ the morning. Looking out of the window to the trees in the field opposite I know that amidst the branches starlings have ‘made’ nests from mere twigs and moss that has fallen.

Nature makes the day, not depression.

To take a perhaps more domestic example, how many people do I know who confess that their dog or cat has made their day? A great number, especially considering the return from university to home. When we embrace nature and animals, we embrace life.

Of course, not all of life is or feels good –  for example the experiences ,many have to deal with in terms of mental illness. Yet this leads me to my point of ‘making’, metaphors and nature.  Not only can nature ‘make’  different sensations, but also can ‘make’ something of mental illness. Take the metaphor of the ‘black dog’ – often used to discuss depression, as seen in just one example in the form of the website: http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/. This website interestingly also advocates the approach to mental illness of ‘doing what comes naturally’ – apparently emphasizing the importance of turning to nature rather than turning away from it even when we may feel like it is human futility which is at fault.

The dog metaphor is furthered in T.H White’s allusion to  mental illness in ‘The Once and Future King’ -  ‘Learn why the world wags and what wags it.’ If we consider the movements of the world like the wag of a dogs tail, it is potentially part of a process of seeing engaging with the world as requiring a relationship of trust and patience in order to be productive. Ultimately, We use animal metaphors for mental illness as they make it accessible; Kate Chopin in her short stories describes the outlook of depression as ‘humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.’ Yet we know that worms, no matter how much they may repulse on observation,  can be great natural good – tilling the soil, allowing for new growth.

Perhaps that is why animal metaphors can be so useful within mental health, in discussing conditions like depression – it is not desirable to ‘kill’ depression. To approach depression with an attitude of ‘killing it’ or ‘fighting it’ is ultimately inhumane. After all, I am a vegetarian, and the association of mental illness with animal metaphors would seem somewhat bizarre if this was my aim. But on a further note, mental illness is by its nature so very frightening and even alien – like a wild animal – because it affects the mind, leaving the individual in fear of what is themselves, and what is the illness. Thus, it cannot be a case of killing.

I would not want to kill a dog, although it may have the potential to be vicious, because there is also the possibility of interacting with it and learning to love it. Stephen Fry furthers animal analogies and metaphors in a recent Guardian Article in terms of mental illness being the ‘Elephant in the Room’ http://www.theguardian.com/society/christmas-charity-appeal-2014-blog/2014/dec/05/-sp-elefriends-the-social-network-for-the-mental-health-community – in which he highlights how depression can feel like a looming creature, but a creature that we can learn to love and want to be understood, in its own way.

In turn, it is important to approach mental health issues according to their nature – and aim then not to ‘kill’ them, but to understand them. It is ultimately through understanding and interaction that mental illness can be brought under effective control for many. Therefore, I welcome attempts to increase accessibility to mental health services and discussion through new formats – such as animal metaphors, pictures even comic strips. These highlight that mental illness lives just as we live.  But what ‘makes’ us who we are is how we understand and deal with it.


Baiting the bear

It entered the room
Long before I can remember
I knew its muzzle  between my ankles
Begging bits from the table.
I supposed it was sponsored to keep me young


Like the toy of childhood
Grasped in the fixtures of sleep
The glass eyes glazed over
With a rasp of fingernails.
Felt like a braille
Even in dreams
Bear substituted the mind-blindness
Swallowed the screams


As I grew
Bear hollowed
As I learned to speak
Stitched through my voice
Was not the growl
But the teeth
Which clipped short the words
A fur on the cheeks
Others called moisture


She has a wild imagination
You better watch her


But the bear watched me
The draw of translucent claws
On laminate
Agony
A futile domesticity
Like the wildcat kittens
Which still savaged the scientists.
The bear yet
Smiled, learned to listen
An imitator, still vicious.


Its black mass would wait
On the edge of my vision
Its fur asking for embrace
Of those same fingers
Nails different
Bitten down, picked
Bloodied
Too many times. The bear sleeps
In the doorway of the morning
I think of a white spotty rind
Fat festering porous, beneath
A pelt inches thick.
Its stench bitter
Galling
Left in the rain too long


I thought I had grown
But its tongue still sickens me
With its black layer
Lapping up imagery
Frozen-fear in a quick glance.
When I reached for the switch
Its smile dripped on my hands


You are just a child


The bear’s breath encrusted
A silt to each eyelash
Coming closer to the bed
Shaking itself into speech.
I used to ward it off with a laugh
Now it takes all week
For it to return to the doorway.
These are the walls of my nursery
This is the rattle of silence.


I wake to find
The bears jaw in my hands
Like a lifted receiver
I could put to my ear and sob
Into that stinking glut
Of darkness and stomach
Fizzing bloodless my foot
Somewhere under its front.
Unhooked
Its muzzle presses my shoulder
And falls down my spine
Like the hair of the woman
I could have grown into
Given the time


My hands glisten at the keys
The bear bristles
As I write
Its snout lifts from my shoulder
Stares out of the window
A reflection moulded, I share
On screen or in picture
Which asks if it offers

A feasible future.