A Search for Meaning in Illness
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.
Dr Viktor Frankl (Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist)
Mental illness is a personal suffering and long ago I decided there was no meaning that I could find in my own clinical depressions. But through writing about them I have indeed found meaning. Not about the illnesses. But in the ways I found I could express myself. And what happened through staying with the process of that expressive and creative writing.
On my shelves is a very small book: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). My copy (published in 1963) is a good read which is a curious thing to say about unimaginable circumstances: the author wrote about how he and others survived the concentration camps. The meaning, he means, is not to do with making sense of what is senseless but how man decides and chooses what attitude and approach to take of what is left of his life. Is s/he worthy of his sufferings? (My gender inclusion) he poses.
My trusting attitude could only be found when I was well and wanted to explore something about my illnesses through writing. Here I start with a memory, a disturbing one; meaning came much later.
off the wall
I spent the night in a cave of undergrowth
until dawn when the fox crossed my path
(an event 1993)
Writing Tames the Bad Times
For years at a time my well-being had never been in question. But in 1993 I was ill for a whole year and in hospital for much of it. Allowed home from the acute psychiatric ward, I’d spent a whole night outdoors only wanting to hide like a sick animal under a hedge. When I saw a fox moving through the grass, just yards from me in the early morning mist I noted it, but gave it no more thought. Yet that fox stayed in my mind for many years before I explored the hidden meanings for myself.
Well over ten years later, having moved to Sussex, I’d often see a fox basking in the sunshine from my bedroom window as I woke up to a lovely sunrise. It was usually curled up in the long grasses with its burnished fur, and the contrast would strike me between this waking and that other early morning dawn. I started to write about the fox’s beauty and the disturbing memory. The fox began to hold a symbolic meaning for my mental illness. In the now with its beauty, however, it also represented the good years of wellness. And so a duality was held which is the nature of powerful metaphors. When illness struck, however, it had become the metaphorical stink which entered the hole in my head (see: Blog 5 & Ted Hughes poem). A hole packed with anxiety, terror and fear; at other times empty, vacuous. A void.
Foxes live on the edge of cities and towns, scavenging where they may. Illness too is a scavenger of the body and mind. Illness tipped me quickly into an undoubted bio-chemical ill-balance: a clinical depression. Current research is only beginning to understand why the brain may become dysfunctional but then and now this is my touchstone to some form of comprehension beyond the blame I felt for my illnesses when younger.
Mental illness, also like the fox, is sly and cunning. Creeping up unawares, it always took me suddenly into its jaws and tossed me around, just like a fox or an angry dog might do.
Lion as Metaphor for Illness
Even before the fox became a metaphor, I had tried to describe in a short story, this terrible helpless feeling of being tossed around by illness. The story itself was multi layered with other meanings and events. The metaphor that came into being were golden lions woven into hangings pulled around a four poster bed. The setting was a medieval castle in the fenlands during the thirteenth century. My narrator was nameless to suit the nothing feeling of the ill-self. Her ‘I’ Voice was nevertheless fully owned as she was put to bed with a delirious fever with the warmth kept in by these curtains.
This extract was written in the present tense when the the fever had set in:
I’m crouching around the post of my bed, hiding between the linen folds of the curtain-hangings – they smell old and stale the lions are coming for me, their tongues are poison, their claws are sharp, serrated. I am in the lion’s mouth – chewed and tossed. They are delving into my stomach with their red tongues. I am split apart, torn open – the fodder of these beasts.
I coil up tightly into a quilt amongst the embroidered flowers, the crimson silk is cool and smooth to my skin. The lions arrange themselves into the wool yarn. The hangings are still pulled around the bed-posts. I have no desire to open them. Sleep is creeping over me. The breathing is easing. There is a yellowing of the denseness with the light of noon. I’m stretching out. The shivering is stopping. I draw the covers even closer around me.
I cannot tell you all there is to tell about this time lying on this great bed, hour after hour, day after day. I am alone as I’ve never been in any other time, with no comprehension or yearning.
When I was well and writing this fictionalised version I touched that old fearful feeling of incipient illness, but the writing gave me a new layer of images: these transformed into an imaginary but just as real memory. That contained the healing because something new was created which was not there before, making me feel less in the grip of the memories. A moving forward in life was more possible with this transformative power – only realised after the writing had been done. The process itself was experiential.
The reality I created in the four poster bed with the embroidered hangings allowed the flight of fantastic images. This gave me a clear boundary of how far I was able to stretch my imagination with what rang true. One of the lions having chewed and tossed the terrified narrator in its mouth had to return to the wool yarn of the hangings around the bed-post. And then something else happened as I wrote that passage:
Could it even be that the lions are smiling? Could it even be that the tear-drops are really golden rain? Beautiful. I am bathed in shafts of softness – light diffusing the boundaries which separate my body from the world around me into infinity. This is a joy inside the dimension of life, which claims me, though I am nameless, yet fills me with the bliss of being.
The crescendo of terror had waned into beauty. And that was how I found the ability to express the terrible fear I felt when ill, but the way the writing turned out gave me a wonderful and surprising shift into healing.
I followed the writing. I had no idea this was how it would evolve. It was the descriptions I chose which mutated into the terrifying images, but also succeeded in turning something horrible into something nurturing. During the process of writing, I actually moved into the bliss of being. These experiences were really felt in my body as I wrote. It was not just inside my head. It was all through me spilling onto the page.
I have found this transition with my writing time and time again. I start with a frightening memory and image and during the process of writing something shifts and is healing.
A Blaze of Yellow
Here is a poem which started with another frightening memory and then moved into the time of writing (2006) and a life affirming scene. Selima Hill had recently brought out a collection: Lou Lou (2004). So many of her poems about her time in a psychiatric hospital, resonated with me, and stimulated me to write my own.
A schizophrenic woman, dirty and dressed in rags, was admitted late one night to the high security acute psychiatric ward. I watched her moving along the corridor wall. In this poem, I transferred my own reality of unbearable mental illness through the remembered image of that terribly ill woman.
She is mincing her feet-steps staccato
side-ways, crabbing all four limbs
palms flat open fingers stiff spread
jabbing the crevices for fixings
for holding for the finding of
the hook that isn’t there
in the invisible wall
so she can unzip hang up her lunar jumpsuit
snuggle under duvet into cup of tea morning
yes-saying-sunshine in at the window
forsythia spikes, daffodils, cowslips a blaze of yellow
Alongside that memory, I called on other images and integrated them into the second half of the poem. There are no separate stanzas. It is a compact and dense poem. Although there are commas there are no full-stops, and apart from the initial capital letter, all is in lower case. This helps the poem to flow along; the lines quicken and gained momentum, as well as getting louder and emphatic when read aloud.
The pace of the poem emphasised the crazy-ness; each end-line, up until ‘invisible wall’, merging into the following one – words carrying the impact until a pause before ‘the hook’. There were no hooks of course on either the hospital or an imaginary wall; I felt it echoed that experience of not being able to release myself out of day or night, not being able to find a dividing line in time. The image of this disturbed woman merged into a me who had hung up the madness, the craziness, through unzipping the lunar jumpsuit.
Every morning as I opened the curtains that April in 2006, the forsythia, the daffodils, the cowslips, all greeted me with their yellow-ness. Yellow is the colour of the sun, of freshness, new life in the garden blossoming; these images confirmed my good inner feelings. The poem is anchored by those last three lines of the welcoming morning cup of tea and the comfort of the duvet. Everything slows down for the last four words ‘a blaze of yellow’; this phrase is separated out on the page, so the bottom line acts as a foundation for the lines above and provided the full-stop to the poem.
All of this only became clear to me some time after the poem was written. There was no formula to draw on a memory, imagination and everyday images. None of the poetic devices were planned – they happened during the draft stages. I never approach a poem with rules but in retrospect and with reflection, I see that is what Nightmare contains to make it work.
Metaphor and Meaning
I’ve found metaphor so helpful in expressing and exploring my emotional responses to life. Unable to find meaning in incomprehensible illness, I have found my meaning in writing and its mysterious processes. None of this writing, however, was known to me before I started. My only intention being to write about the difficult times. And yet writing out of a place of pain revealed the converse to me: healing.
A metaphor works by calling upon a specific image from the real world to represent an abstract psychological state or episode. Ted Hughes explained in his chapter: Capturing Animals (Poetry in the Making – faber and faber: 1967) how to make language come alive, how he made his ‘thought-fox’ live through the words in his poem.
If you have a metaphor for an illness or difficult time of your life, I’d be really interested to hear. Please do make a comment. Thank you.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl originally published after World War Two. Reprinted with various publications over the years and available. See:http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/09/viktor-frankls-book-on-the-psychology-of-the-holocaust-to-be-made-into-a-film?CMP=share_btn_tw
Lou – Lou by Selima Hill (2004). Bloodaxe Books.
The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes. (See Blog 5 for reference)
The Embroidered Quilt (short story)
A Fox Crossed My Path (Chapter 9 – book ms.)