I have nothing in common with Nina Simone. Our lives are separated by so much more than time and place; she fought circumstances I’ll never face and was more brilliant than I’ll ever be. We’re worlds apart, and still some of her words hit so close to home.
Honesty and art have been a topic for me lately. I’ve been reading and learning about great women in art (because why not), and recently saw the fascinating documentary What happened, Miss Simone?. Nina Simone lived with bipolar disorder. Her diary, as shown in the movie, reflects a deep struggle with depression, suicidal feelings and the search for meaning: “Inside I’m screaming “Someone help me”, but the sound isn’t audible – like screaming without a voice […] They don’t know that I’m dead, and my ghost is holding on.”
I wonder how much (in addition to other battles I cannot begin to imagine) her illness contributed to the honest, urgent way she lived her life and made music. Mental illness can strip you down to the bare bones of your existence and push you to the edge of a bottomless darkness many do not return from. Once there, grasping desperately for anything that might save you, it gets difficult to be arsed with rules for what is “proper” and “comfortable”. There comes a point when pretending takes too much energy. Honesty becomes the only option.
There is a freeing aspect to making art, I think, which might be the reason so many people with mental illness turn to creative pursuits. Art provides an outlet for suffering. It’s a form of escapism (I draw to stop brooding); an opportunity to rewrite situations we wish had gone differently; a way to lose ourselves in something else and explore the lives of characters who are different from us.
Most importantly, in my opinion, it allows us to experience ourselves more fully. Art provides a beautiful framework for honesty. On paper or stage I can experience my own feelings, openly and without judgement of my person, using someone else’s words, a different name, environment or even language. There’s plenty of opportunity. Nobody wants to know an Ophelia or Lear personally, but everybody wants to watch them.
Acting, dance, spoken word poetry – they all feel safer than talking to someone who would judge me without the filter of “It’s art!” I’ve never heard anyone say that a piece was “too honest”. On the contrary – honesty is brave, and bravery is to be applauded. That’s how you make beautiful, award-winning shows. The works of many great artists – take Nina Simone or Frida Kahlo – wouldn’t have been as striking if not for their honesty.
As much as I love all this (and I do), it’s strange that we can’t seem to talk about mental illness in “real life”. It’s uncomfortable for all parties; it opens many a can of worms, and unlike a play or piece of poetry we can chalk off as “not my cup of tea”, it risks prejudice and judgment that can ruin relationships. Your friend/lover/family member/coworker is not something you talk about on the way home and then never think about again. They’re not a carefully curated and rehearsed one-off experience.
There’s this kind of pressure I feel all the time when it comes to talking about mental health. This pressure not to be a burden: Only talk about it once you can cope on your own. Only have the kind of anxiety that can be cured by handholding, and the kind of depression that can be eased with a blanket and a cup of tea. Only have the kind of OCD or ADHD you can joke about 24/7, to show that you’re in control. Don’t have a personality disorder (too hard, too long-term) or any kind of psychosis (too scary). Please be easy to deal with.
Now, nobody wants to be a burden to others any more than they have to. But sometimes – often – being ill is fucking difficult. Mental illness is no different from physical illness in that respect. The UK is one of the countries with the best mental health treatments in the world, and they’re still depressingly inadequate and leave tons of people by the wayside. Mental illness affects one in four people, among them many children, teens and seniors. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. It’s a massive issue, and the health system isn’t going to change overnight. So it’s on us, the ordinary people, to help each other; to start talking to each other, learn about each other, and be mature enough to help each other out. All of us.
Living well(-ish) with mental illness requires therapy, an iron will and full commitment to putting in a shitload of work, and the support of others. Medication, if available, only does so much. We have to use our brain to make our brain better, which can feel like trying to heal a broken ankle by running a marathon. Pretending to be fine is not an efficient use of mental energy. It makes the healing process so much harder.
What happened, Miss Simone? ends with words from Attallah Shabazz, set over a slideshow of glamorous photos, the highlight reel of a turbulent career and life:
“As I got older I started to look at her and I thought to myself, “Wow! She’s from another time!” But she was not at odds with the times. The times was at odds with her. […] The challenge is, how do we fit in the world that we’re around […] Are we allowed to be exactly who we are? Was Nina Simone allowed to be exactly who she was? […] Most people are afraid to be as honest as she lived.”
I’m afraid. I’m not ready to share details of my diagnosis outside of my safe spaces, but I am trying to find ways to talk about certain things, and this blog might become one of them.
It needs to happen. Battling mental illness as a nationwide (worldwide) problem is a momentous task even without considering the causes we can’t easily fix, like poverty, discrimination and other circumstances that make life awful for so many. But we have to start somewhere, and one thing absolutely everyone can do is open their minds and hearts to the people around them. It makes an enormous difference to be able to talk to someone without fear of being judged or rejected; just to know that there is an option to ask for help, or just someone to talk about the everyday stuff with. Sharing small victories like making a call without delaying it for weeks, or moaning about how annoyingly long it took to leave the house this morning.
“Are we allowed to be exactly who we are?” It would be so wonderful if more people could ask that question, not only in their art, but all aspects of their life, and say yes.
Today is Time to Talk Day, a day to get the nation talking about mental health. Today is a good a day as any to ask someone you care about how they are, and listen to their answer.