In the wake of the loss through depression of Robin Williams, here is an excerpt on mental health and mental ill-health from In Through A Coloured Lens
October 26, 2009
If We Take Life Too Seriously, Life Will Seriously Take Us
One of the unspoken truths of this world in its totality is that it is really one of organized, controlled lunacy. The evidence is everywhere, and while so many of us have had those moments, some individuals lose the façade entirely.
A case in point: A person travels from another land to this one – heart and mind filled with hope for a new and better life. But somewhere along the adventure, her hope dims and in response she finds a new way, nothing like the imagined one. In fact, her life is one of carting bundles, and it does not allow for daily hygiene. It finds her positioned between doors at the underground entrance to a downtown subway station where she humbly seeks your spare change. You might smell her presence before you even see her.
She couldn’t have imagined this as a young woman in the now faraway Caribbean homeland where her dream of traveling to a new country to find a new life was born.
Where does she go at night, one wonders?
You don’t see many Black women living on the streets of this city – a testament to the resiliency of the many, and our invisible, informal support system. But there are some. Being so few, they stand out. They live in our midst, yet still are on the outer edge. There was another who used to collect spare change at Bathurst and Bloor. Where is she now, one wonders?
Another woman of colour, though coaxed, refuses to tell her story. She keeps the details of her life to herself, holding on to her dignity, controlling what little privacy she still can. Yet, her life is very much a public statement, as daily she drags her large, battered piece of luggage around with her. Her hair is sprinkled with grey; some teeth have gone missing. But every day her hair is neatly combed, makeup beautifully presented, although that does not hide the frayed edges of her psyche.
Some days, if she allows you, there will be conversation. One day she gave away that she has a daughter. Where? She doesn’t say. But she will talk nonstop about the “iniquity workers on the Earth.” She will tell you that the devil will trick the unaware in many ways and she will talk, half in a trance, about the spirits of evil that are busy fooling us all with enticements of wealth and power. She will speak to you, but she is not friendly. And if you listen carefully, with empathy, you can hear her keen intelligence mixed in with the madness. You will get a sense of what plagued her mind until she tipped over the edge. You will understand that she is crazy, but not stupid.
If you ask about her swollen foot, bandaged but not seeming to heal, she will tell you frankly that she doesn’t care to discuss that at this time… or any time. She has lost her mind, not her pride. To have come so far to a new land and then to have taken this unforeseen road is heart-wrenching misfortune.
On another day, in another place, there is the other, older, woman of colour. She doesn’t seem to be as disconnected from reality as her younger counterpart. She is friendly, with an approachable demeanour, if you can manage to overlook the smell. For some who abandon themselves to uncontrolled insanity, this is an instinctive defence, keeping them safe – other people are less inclined to approach them because the stench ensures they have a wider personal space. Yet, with compassion, some individuals extend a hand.
One of the pointed differences between the relatively few man and women of colour who live daily on the streets of this city– at least from this observer’s perspective – is that the women’s unstable mental health is not tied to drug and alcohol addiction. Other pressures came to bear to take them to the private hell of mental illness and the public admission of their homelessness. What rejections, what disappointments, what patterns have been running throughout their lives? How is it that they have so lost their humour?
The singer Seal reminds us “we’re never going to survive unless we get a little crazy.” In other words, allowing the madness out a little at a time prevents a full-blown leap into the chasm. Our sisters on the street remind us that Adversity has its own plan. Yet if we take life too seriously, life will seriously take us.