The first time I walked into the Mental Disorders Intensive Care Unit, I expected to see hysterical patients and to hear their unintelligible ravings. But I did not. Instead, I was surprised about the cleanliness of the ward. The patients there were not very different from ordinary people in their expression and understanding. Most patients were fluent in expressing their current state of mind and concerns, and some were even very articulate. But the content of their medical records or self-reports was sensational. I found it absurd yet magical at the same time when they calmly told the doctor about their desire to die or their symptoms of hallucinations. It was like the world in your eye was out of track.
At that time, I couldn’t understand that it was the drugs that enabled them to behave normally, so I couldn’t feel the difference that exists between me and them. When I heard them talk about their despair and depression in a casual way, there was a feeling of “lightness” like the title of Kundera’s book “The Unbearable Lightness of Life”. I didn’t know how to cope with this ‘lightness’ of life, and miraculously, I found that the longer I stayed in there, the more numb and insensitive I became.
However, this insensitivity also had a side effect, which continued for several days even after I finished my internship as an assistant in the Mental Disorders Intensive Care Unit. During those days, I lost the ability to perceive or be interested in anything, and even when I looked back on my internship, this defensive numbness simplified my memory of specific events. All I could remember is the doctor’s daily consultations and prescriptions, and patients’ wandering in the corridors.
Was this “lightness” a result of my complete lack of understanding of these patients or not willing to face them? I don’t think so. I got to know a few patients. The more I learned, the more I realized the similarities between me and them.
I once talked to an adolescent female patient. It was difficult to have a conversation with her because she was always chasing meaning.
Once I followed the doctor on his duty.
“How are you feeling today?” ,
“What’s the point of asking that question every time you do?”
“To see if there’s any change in your condition.”
“I don’t want to answer that question because it’s meaningless.”
“Then think of it as a daily greeting.”
“But what exactly are you trying to say? I don’t see the point of you asking me that question, and why you said hello to me.”
“It didn’t have to be meaningful.”
“Then why do people show concern?”
In a series of questions with no logical progression, the dialogue seems to be directed at the philosophical question of “what is the origin of the world”. It was later revealed that to keep asking questions is in fact a defensive state of mind. It is a way of distancing oneself from people in order not to be hurt by broken intimate relationships.
The doctor didn’t really know how to answer these questions, but we have encountered moments in our lives when we meet someone we know several metres away and hesitate to greet them, and those several metres seem extraordinarily long and awkward. Sometimes her questions can be thought-provoking, and we cannot deny the thinking power of the mentally ill.
After gradually getting to know the patients and their upbringing, it suddenly struck me that their current symptoms were logical. Their symptoms are just the result of their past traumatic experiences and have little to do with them or their subjective will. The reason why I am “normal”, or slightly more normal than they are, is only because I do not have the rare experiences they have. Yet there is no standard by which to measure whether their upbringing and primary family are good or not, let alone the mindset of these mentally ill. This is a “pluralist” value, but it does not mean that we should respect the behaviour of all people, because there should always exist a bottom line that cannot be touched. If such a line is breached, then there should be corresponding constraints, as an maintenance of social order and public benefits.
When I think about this, I feel that my feeling towards these patients is not that of defensiveness, and I really think they do not need sympathy from other people about their conditions.
It was clear to me thatI was struggling to find the difference between myself and these mentally ill patients. And since I couldn’t find it, I felt anxious, scared, and even numb. Realizing this, I discovered one of the causes of my anxiety — I had set a strict, but not internalised, set of standards within me to judge myself by.And I can’t find the specific area that I’m anxious about , which is why I was overwhelmed by this “lack of difference” with my patients. However, this set of criteria was not suitable for me either, or I failed to internalise it, otherwise I would not be looking for differences between the patients and me.
On the one hand, I was able to break this standard to “see” the residents of the closed ward, to understand their specificity, instead of judging them within the societal standards. On the other hand, why couldn’t I understand myself and “see” myself, instead of being caught in a spiral of anxiety in the endless comparison?
However, as I realized I was blindly following a commonly accepted standard, I also realized that I had lost some of my self-perspectives. Both the discrimination against the mentally ill and my constant anxiety wereinfluenced by society’s default standards, such as the so-called “involution”, which must have an accepted standard. Further promoted by the successful people on various social media platforms, people cannot help but apply this rule to themselves and others.
After spending a month with the mentally ill, I woke up from the anxiety of involution. It is okay to fall behind in a certain standard, as long as we are entrusted with our energy at all times. Under a uniform standard of time, we all have something to gain or lose. Maybe thinking in this way can help us to develop a sense of subjectivity. To see ourselves, to do more of what we like and to do more of what we want to do. This process is similar to that of a child going through the process of changing his/her teeth, and after a long period of cultivation, the permanent teeth will overturn previous baby teeth.
This article was written by Yihan Yuan currently based in Shanghai, China. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
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