Ourselves & Others

‘I immerse myself in the traumas and tragedies of other people because I so desperately need to heal other people ‘cause I know what it feels like to have nobody come and do that for you…

…It’s about healing myself and one of the ways we heal ourselves is to heal others’

– (Patricia Cornwell, BBC News HardTALK 31st OCT 2016)

Patricia Cornwell is a crime writer who’s written many crime novels. I remember reading one, back in my youth… ‘Hornet’s Nest’. It had a very graphically violent scene somewhere in it…. I don’t know what it was about that description, but I kept turning back to it and re-reading it, just as I kept replaying her words in her interview over and over again in my head.

As a young person muddling my way through life my aspirations, in no particular order, went something like this: technician, writer, doctor (probably of paramedic variety), actor, director…

Doctor was out, as I quickly found I couldn’t kill maggots, let alone dissect a human being, or even part of one. Technician… Possibly had the brain for it… but as for the braun, forget it. Simply not strong enough. That left: writer, actor and director.

Do you know what all these had in common? They all had to know what a character’s motivation was. Good or bad. So I grew up, studying violent media, (as part of my Media Studies ‘A level’), acting and directing in Drama, and creative writing in English Language, all the while being told that to create a dramatic plot, I needed to have some action happen. Some real life-changing experiences had to take place… and all my characters, however good or evil, had to have a solid motivation behind their actions… a plausible reason behind doing whatever it was that they did.

This is usually easy enough for your hero or heroine, your main protagonist, your ‘good guy’. It’s not so easy for your villain… The ‘evil’ person of the piece.
So I sought, high and low, for reasons why a bad character might be bad, or become bad… In one of Sidney Sheldon’s books Tell Me Your Dreams, I stumbled across the perfect reason… Mental illness. In this instance, in the guise of Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder, or Split Personality.

Fast forward 10 years into the future… I’m now pursuing my ambition to become an author, free from educational deadlines and non-related work, with enough life-experience to make a good go of it, half way through my first fiction novel, while creating shorter works as I go. Character motivation remains central to my creative process, but thinking back to what I was taught back then, I am horrified and slightly ashamed.

Horrified, because I grew up learning to fear those with mental health conditions. Ashamed, because I never questioned what I was being taught….Psychopathic traits, multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, they were all valid reasons for extremely violent, unpredictable behaviour which would otherwise be difficult for the average person going about their day to day life to understand. It alters the perception of how the reader interprets the character, moving the villain from the evil, two dimensional cardboard cut-out, to a three dimensional, living, breathing person, existing within the realms of your story, coming alive
from the page.

Therein lies the problem…. Because the villain is now understandable, and can be imagined by the reader who can empathise with their situation. These characters in a sense live beyond the pages of their fantasy world. They help construct our belief system and sense of reality. We subtly change our opinions and ideas based on a variety of influences picked up through friends and family, teachers and mentors, film, television, books and articles, gradually moulding and forever reevaluating and reforming our sense of existence.

This is both good and bad. It can make us less likely to cast automatic assertions… We now question whether someone is evil or ill. We look for reasons and motives behind other’s actions, to judge a person, to protect ourselves, to keep ourselves safe and to prevent a dangerous or unfortunate situation from occurring again.

Unfortunately, in the case of mental health, many have tarred all with the same brush. Growing up, studying violence in the media and searching for character motivation in my creative endeavours, I was undoubtedly a culprit as I was practically taught these prejudices throughout much of my education and recreational pursuits. Whether or not I actively discriminated – taking action on my younger beliefs – I would hate to say. The answer is probably. Even if it was only in small ways.

If there is anything good from having suffered from mental illness (and trust me, in my experience it’s been a prison sentence… mostly psychological, occasionally actual), it is this: I am now aware. Aware of mental illness, and aware of how much I still don’t know.

I have met many, many people, both in and out of Designs In Mind, who have suffered with, or are living with mental illness. I am honoured and proud to know them, and to be among them. Many of them are friends, others have helped me through some very dark times. They’ve equipped me with the language I needed to be able to speak about my own condition, which for me, assisted in getting the correct diagnosis itself. They’ve provided me with a feeling of safety and understanding,and I often feel more at home speaking to those with personal experience rather than any amounts of counselling could provide. In this, I whole-heartedly agree with Patricia Cornwell…

‘One of the ways we heal ourselves is to heal others, in fact, I don’t know of any other way to heal yourself than to do that for other people’

– (Patricia Cornwell, BBC News HardTALK 31st OCT 2016)

Trying to explain on paper what Designs In Mind is, and how it works, is tricky. People often ‘don’t get it’. Help provided here can be subtle; the focus being in the work we do rather than being helped, or healed… Sometimes all we need is that safe space; to be accepted in a world where we frequently feel isolated and vulnerable, tiptoed around by others with unasked questions on their lips… or worse, confronted, often by strangers in public settings, where our medical confidentiality is stripped away and we are left vulnerable and scared in a world which has been taught to fear us.

We all need to help others, as much as we ourselves need to be helped, and here at Designs In Mind we can do this.

This is the fifth blog in a series of six blogs by Lorraine Knight.