Art Thou A Survivor?

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 2

2007-08-05 -- Allow the Defect -- a Monday Night at AACA, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the most difficult aspects of mental health is to know when a mind is ill. How do you measure the point at which sadness becomes depression, or the moment when anxiety becomes a phobia? For most of us there is no clear answer because we lack sufficient knowledge of our own complexities to adequately judge any deviation from what we might presume to be normal. We also tend to hide our defects, to doubt their very existence, and to doubt ourselves in the process. In the first post of this short series I mentioned that people with mental illness tend to push aside their own concerns and focus on the verdict of authority. What does the doctor say? What do the institution and the system do for me? The corollary, of course, is that if society ignores someone who is mentally ill, if one of the most significant institutions in society causes that illness, then nothing has happened.

That, I would argue, is a deprivation of the right to medical care, to a cure.

This is not a post about the widely known and appreciated aspects of mental illness. It’s a post about growing up the child of alcoholic parents. Or of an alcoholic step-parent, or a de facto parent. The family is society’s most revered institution regardless of culture or location. Governments inevitably foster it, often urging growth but always ensuring stability. Even dysfunctional families receive funding or tax relief in many parts of the world – for having more children, though sometimes for having less, for buying their first home, for sending their kids to school. Welfare services can regulate family life, but they’re not terribly good at finding drunks. And even when they do, the children of alcoholic parents can slip all too easily through the social safety nets.

A failed social duty of care is a human right denied.

You might not think that being the child of an alcoholic or two would necessarily upset your mental balance, but it does. Think about this – living with tension and stress from an early age, with neglect, with arguments and fights, with the crash of hand on cheek, with broken walls and broken vows of love is not the path to happiness. It makes stunted non-children out of kids, perfectionists who cope with this imperfect world by looking inward. And it lingers long after adulthood comes, in long term, low-level depression, harsh self-judgement, the incapacity to understand what really is normal, an inability to focus, a difficulty in having fun.

If you recognise any of these traits in yourself and your parents are or were alcoholics, you’ll know the trials well. The need to do things alone, the inability to stay in relationships, the sense that you’re somehow, in some way, a victim of an authority barely imagined. But you might only just now be realising that all these things are connected. Or might be connected – the doubts that you’re maladjusted are there, urging you to forget and to move on.

That’s exactly how I feel – unsure, uneasy, not wanting to move or change despite the evidence. But I owe it to my own kids and my wife to recognise my past, to protect their future.

Fortunately, I recently stumbled upon the art of Roy Blumenthal, a visual facilitator – amongst other things – in South Africa. The picture at the top of this post is his, as is the video below. He also happens to be an adult child of alcoholics who is learning to survive their legacy. Roy might not agree with my position on his experience – my experience – and human rights, but his art and his artistry have helped me to understand these things inside my head. Listen to him speak, and ask yourself: is this me?

The book Roy mentions, Janet Geringer Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics, is available through Amazon. At least one organisation can help you move on if that’s what you need. Then there’s always the precedent. Roy has built a workaround into his life, a way of dealing with his days as they really are. He speaks in ways that others cannot, about things of which some people can barely whisper.

Spread his word around – people have the basic right, the inalienable right, to know.

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