Thursday, October 10, 2013

Zip It

I made it through World Mental Health Day yesterday without saying a word, except during one allocated hour of “talk time.” This feat of self-control was in aid of a campaign called ZIP IT. I’m raising funds for Orygen, a world-leading youth mental health research centre in Melbourne. As well as giving people a reason to sponsor me, part of the idea of not talking was to show solidarity with those who suffer mental illness, and share in the experience of not being able to easily or fully communicate with others. Initially, I'd thought of this as more of a campaign gimmick than anything else, and expected that my experience of silent meditation retreats would mean that “zipping it” for a day would be nothing new. But keeping quiet in contexts where everyone else is talking turned out to be completely different to maintaining silence in spaces where that is the norm.

In the morning I had a lecture to attend at uni. I decided to arrive just before it started and sit to one side of the lecture theatre, so as to avoid friends who might try to talk to me - I felt self-conscious about having to explain myself to them in writing, and didn’t want to cause offence by being unresponsive. This strategy worked, but instead of feeling pleased, I started to feel ostracized – why didn’t anyone come over to say hello? I did have a note prepared, after all. Did they think I was being snobbish, not understanding that I couldn't speak? It was a relief to meet up with a couple of friends at lunch, when I could talk at last - although only for an hour.

My flat-mates were aware of what I was doing, but it had an unexpected effect on one of them nevertheless. In the morning, he forgot and tried to start a conversation with me. I interrupted by gesturing to remind him I couldn't speak. Later in the day he whispered when he spoke to me, as if he thought I might be hurt or angry if he spoke at normal volume. Behaviour that’s out of the usual can be unsettling, I guess, and make people feel like they can’t just be themselves around you any more.

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano
The dynamic with my flat-mate reminded me of two films that have fascinated me: Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. The main character in each is a woman who does not speak, and wields a strange power over others as a consequence. It seems to me that these women respond to experiences of powerlessness or loss of identity by masochistically embracing and exaggerating their lack of effective expression. They do so with such determination and commitment that their silence paradoxically gives them the power to profoundly destabilize the people around them. This power is bought at a high price of isolation, however, and becomes a kind of trap from which the women themselves have difficulty escaping. I wonder if some mental health problems follow a similar pattern, starting off as a resourceful response to the constraints of a situation, but then developing into a self-destructive habit that becomes hard to break.

In the afternoon, a friend sent a text inviting me to dinner. I wrote back declining the invitation and explaining that I wouldn’t have been able to join in the conversation. She then offered to buy me a talk pass so I could speak for an extra hour, but I didn’t feel right about accepting this – I didn’t think she should have to pay to get me to come to dinner! But nor did I want to buy my own way out of my promise to the people who’d sponsored me. I heard recently that perfectionism is one of the main causes of mental health problems in our society. I wondered if I was perversely trapping myself in an overly rigid interpretation of my pledge, or just showing healthy strength of mind in sticking to it…

Then my mother called. I let the phone ring out, and emailed to explain why I hadn’t taken the call. She wrote back describing a small lasagne-making incident and saying that a friend of ours was having an operation. Should I have made an exception to talk to her? But then I reflected that people suffering mental illness don’t get to “make exceptions” and just decide to be fully functional as soon as they or someone else wants them to. And I was only committed to a single day of silence.

So I fulfilled my pledge and gained a new perspective on Nietzsche's remark, "It is difficult to live amongst men, because silence is so difficult — especially for a blogger." (He may have said babbler rather than blogger, but I think you'll agree it amounts to the same thing.) Keeping in mind another Nietzschean principle, that some are born posthumously, if you'd like to sponsor me retrospectively, this may still be possible...

As I write, the ZIP IT campaign is still open. To support the cause of helping kids who have mental health problems (and to find out who is in the photo below), please visit my fundraising page here.

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