The romantic poet, John Clare spent most of the last years of his life in an asylum. Life had been hard as it was for many in the eighteenth century. Born into agricultural poverty, known as the ‘peasant poet,’ Clare had a great love of nature, of the unspoilt landscape that surrounded him, the changing seasons, the colours and textures that ebbed and flowed, that came together and fell way. I imagine him finding joy beneath the rich canopy of an oak tree, amongst bluebells and primrose, admiring a hedgerow filled with cow parsley and stitchwort, when he heard the nightingale sing, upon seeing the small, delicate wings of a butterfly.
Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution had no time for sentimentality, so Clare’s precious backwater was ripped apart by the idle rich who claimed it as their own. It upset him terribly. Nature fuelled his poetry and to watch its slow, painful devastation made him feel lost and alienated, a stranger in a new land driven by profit and tallies.
Clare struggled to find an audience for his poetry, so was often depressed and penniless and the pressure of supporting a wife and large family added to his troubles. Eventually, as is often the case, his mind unravelled and his wife, Patty, at her wits end, had him admitted to a mental institution. In 1841, Clare absconded and walked all the way home believing he was to meet his first love, Mary Joyce. Mary had been killed in a house fire three years earlier, but Clare, in a delusional state, did not believe this to be true.
As Clare walked home, shabbily dressed and talking away to himself, he stopped, and ate some grass. No doubt hungry, and in need of a proper meal, he may have took the grass for food or and it’s something I have often thought, perhaps it was his way of reuniting with nature, a reconvening with self, the bread and wine of divinity, an attempt to reset his fragile equilibrium.
After eating the grass, he is said to have proclaimed ‘It tastes like chicken.’ This small description, perhaps something that would be ignored by someone else, always stuck in my mind. I had read Clare as a teenager but knew little about his life until I came across his biography in a charity shop. Upon learning about his depression, alcoholism and later his descent into psychosis, rather than taking something away from him, reducing him, as often seems the case nowadays, I felt his madness was more an indication of his heightened sensibilities and his propensity to feel in what had become a cold and remorseless world.
I use Clare as an example because, as a society, we seem to be more generous to poets, writers, artists, musicians and so forth who are no longer with us but who suffered from mental ill health and specifically psychosis. We romanticise their suffering, viewing it as a consequence of the artistic temperament, texturizing their madness so as to create our own acceptable dialogue around mental illness and the expressions we are willing to accept.
Modern madness seems more threatening and psychosis, the word, the very idea of it, makes most people want to shut their doors and draw their curtains. It is a frightening word, not helped by popular cultures portrayal in films and books of psychotic individuals or the media who like to frighten the general populace with stories of people with Schizophrenia – dangerous, unstable, likely to cause you harm – running amok like some deranged Wee Willlie Winkie.
We live in an incredibly violent world, violence leaked into our lives almost unconsciously like fluoride in our water supply. Violence isn’t simply murder or someone being beaten up down a secluded alley, it’s far more nuanced than this, more insidious and slippery, a litany of small blows and punches leaving cuts and bruises in places we cannot see. Yet, we never challenge this, it’s normal, it happens, but the mentally ill, we believe these people are capable of a more unpredictable violence and it makes us feel uncertain and fearful in our commonplace savage world.
People living with psychosis are simply trying to survive, to get through the next second, the next minute. Ordinarily, we can remove ourselves from stressful situations: stop talking to someone who is upsetting us, have a bubble bath and a glass of wine to relax at the end of a stressful day, play some sports, walk our dog, read a book, do a crossword, watch a favourite film but the one constant, through all of life, is you take your mind with you and when this mind feels like an unsafe and dangerous place, you have nowhere to hide and no place to go.
For me, psychosis often makes me feel terribly, terribly frightened and the overwhelming feeling that I have to stay around, sit it out until it passes adds further terror. It also strangely makes me respect my mind more. Freud said “the mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water” and this reminds me of how little I know of my mind, it’s mysterious and obscure and full of unknown potholes and meandering paths.
To be in a state of constant flux, fearing your mind and then respecting it, respecting it, then fearing it is a crucial aspect in struggling with your mental health. Everyone who suffers ends up with their confidence and self-esteem in ribbons, in shreds, at least for a time and psychosis, at least to me, each time it turns up, shreds me a little bit more. This is the reality for most people, rather than their focus being on the world around them, on you, on causing violence, they are focused on the world within them and trying somehow, from somewhere, to pin down a splinter of themselves, to find a corner of faith and hold on to it, hoping the nightmare may end.
When it does end, I have come to understand, that there are always new possibilities. Psychosis, rather than being about the loss of self, the ruin of one’s mind, the most severe of mental illnesses, instead can be an opening, a door to exploration and new insights and ideas about why this is happening. It’s not to say this is always immediately possible or that a little self-reflection will sort everything out. Often psychosis simply has to be got through, survived, but after we do come out the other side, we can start a slow and quiet process of unravelling – to see what really lies beneath – the underpinnings of our own natures, and of how we, just like the seasons, ebb and flow and maybe, just maybe, we may learn something new about our very complicated but always very beautiful selves.