Mind Games

The Asian media is still completely saturated with coverage of Michael Jackson, more than a week after his somewhat unexpected demise from a cardiac arrest. The pundits, former friends and employees, doctors, nurses, people who took his garbage away… they’re all queuing up to place their tuppence worth into the media frenzy surrounding the death of a very strange and singular person. The truth is that nobody really does know the truth, and the only person who could give the answers to the complexities of that particular screwed-up life has passed on to whatever (if anything) lies beyond.

From despair to where… the performing arts, and in particular the field of music, seem to have more than their fair share of troubled geniuses… the Syd Barrett’s, Richie Edwards’ of this world whose thoughts are simply too big for their minds to cope with and end up either shutting that part of their life out completely or ending that life to silence the demons within… perhaps as public figures they feel extra stresses and strains that so-called ‘normal’ people are not subject to. Having said that, let me qualify – I really don’t believe Michael Jackson was remotely a genius – he was a professional entertainer, but as a human being he was not conforming to anything like the parameters set down for normalcy… and in his quest to remake and remodel himself, he clearly exhibited symptoms of mental distress.

Mental illness is a funny thing. I mean it’s not usually a ‘funny’ thing in the hahaha sense of the word (although it does have its moments…), but in the sense of ‘funny’ as peculiar. Of course it’s a huge spectrum of syndromes and symptoms to delineate all too simply with the catch-all term ‘mental illness’, but the general description is of a ‘disease of the mind’ – the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the American Psychiatric Association’s standard reference for psychiatry, includes over 400 different definitions of mental disorders. Wow! That hurts the brain….

What is definitely not funny in any sense is the very real mental torment being exhibited by the survivors of S-21, Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, who are currently giving evidence in the case against the former head of the prison, Duch. Three survivors have been testifying this week, all have broken down during their testimony and all have admitted to suffering mental illness as a result of their brutal treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I receive trial transcripts at work, and one of the most astonishing things is the complete lack of sympathy or understanding exhibited by the Cambodian judiciary toward the witnesses and civil parties – their illness is very obviously seen as a weakness that lessens them as human beings in this society. Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining how people can live with the legacy of genocide… anguish becomes internalized, seething away inside but never allowed to break through the tolerant smiles given to the questioning foreigner…

What follows will of course have little bearing on the tormented souls reliving their own hells in the chambers of the ECCC, or for the tens of thousands others in this country living and struggling with the things they have seen or done, but for the privileged foreigner who has ready access to help if they want it these words of advice may give some comfort or a spur to make some change. Having some experience of mental illness is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, one just wants to sweep the dust back under the carpet, put the files back in the cabinet and lock the drawer and throw the key away when one has come through a particularly dark period. Particularly true when, as I do, you come from a community where usually the kindest word you hear about sufferers is ‘nutter’. On the other hand, discussing it openly may help others who are feeling unable to cope with their own situation. However, when I am feeling good the last thing I want to do is talk about ‘my problem’, indeed often I refuse to acknowledge the fact that there was (and is) a problem, because the demons (shall we call them that – small red creatures with horns and tridents… mean, mean reds…) never really disappear, they hang around nipping at my ankles until they think the way is clear for them to clamber up and nest once more inside my head. I don’t really know how long they’ve been there either… the turn of the last century saw their worst manifestation, when I seriously lost the plot for a good while.

However I’m still around, and back on track now, so I guess what I’m trying to say here is do not go it alone – acknowledge, if the signs are there (and if you can’t see them, then often those you love and who love you can), admit you need help and do something about it. I absolutely loathe and detest taking medication, but it clearly helps me, so I do it. Talk to someone, preferably a professional who doesn’t carry the emotional connection that a friend or family member might, and that too will help. Always try and look outside of yourself – many sufferers pour everything inwards until they explode, often again at the expense of their loved ones who are around when the eruption takes place. Equally, don’t become numb, don’t shut down or shut yourself off from life. If you have something that gives you a release and a relief from the internal struggle, do it! Write a book, learn to fly, sing a song, paint a picture, go cloudgazing … all positive therapies…

We have such a limited time on this amazing planet that it’s such a waste to spend it all in the dark alleyways of the sidestreets. We can help ourselves into the light of day, and we can share with others, who may also be suffering, ways to beat their demons. There is an amazing Kurosawa film in which a dying civil servant, who has spent his entire life shuffling paper around, struggles to do something meaningful before he dies.

The film is called ‘Ikuru’

The word means “to live.”

Stop shuffling that paper now…!