I would like to write more with respect to how mental health is portrayed in literature, to read about how mental health is portrayed. There are many books out there that look at it to a certain degree. I do not know how these are going to be presented by myself and I suspect a bit of myself will come out.
Let me introduce you to if you have not heard of it already to something special. Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) by Anna Kavan.
Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) is a collection of short stories that interconnect to a certain degree and describes the thoughts and feelings of someone who is suffering from mental health problems along with their time in a mental health clinic an old school asylum. Somewhere in Switzerland in these stories.
Within these collection of stories we read what the narrator thinks, how they thought at the time. It is plainly and beautifully written. The narrator never wholly describes what her mental illnesses are but if you’ve ever experienced them yourself you may well recognise how the narrator is thinking. There is of course the fact that we are only getting the narrator’s side of the story. We do not know what is happening outside of what the narrator tells us.
To anyone who has had problems with respect to your mental health, you will recognise the suffering, the worrying, the overthinking and the low moods. You will be able to recognise not being able to think straight, to see straight, the angers and the frustrations.
Without going in too much detail and repeating the stories again I would like to describe to you what each story shows us. See these as brief summaries about them if you will. I will do a separate post on Asylum Piece and the two short stories that come after it.
The narrator talks about a girl she meets in boarding school who seemed different and somewhat different to the other pupils. Years later the narrator thinks she see the old acquaintance after taking wrong way at a tourist spot and seeing her in what she thinks to be an asylum, recognising her by her unique birthmark she was made aware of in school. After seeing this she is escorted away by guards.
Going Up in the World
Here the narrator tells us about meeting some patrons to ask for help saying she wants to share in their sunshine and warmth, she tells us of how cold and lonely she is in the fog as she goes up to see them living high up in what she sees as the light. Her patrons are reluctant making reference to her past deeds with them but the narrator is desperate, she descends back to the fog, the patrons ungrateful of her modest gift to them. We do not have much detail other than what is given. We are also presented with the darkness and cold when compared to the light and warmth.
The narrator talks about an unknown enemy that wants to do them wrong. This describing what many of us with mental health problems feel. That there is someone out there who hates us, who wants to do us wrong, they win when we feel bad, when we lose our tempers for that is what they want from us. We can feel them inside our thoughts, almost like they are breathing on the back of our necks.
A Changed Situation
This is an interesting short story in that the narrator discusses the house they currently live in before leaving it. A well written mediation on how our environments can affect us. How a space can dominate us (we are learning this now with respect to the current lockdowns, especially in the UK)
The Birds makes reference to that unknown enemy described. It also has a slight nod to Franz Kafka’s The Trial with respect to that they feel victim to some senseless injustice, to a frightening uncertainty. In this story the narrator is fascinated by the birds outside ignoring the environment around her. Within The Birds the narrator analyses their own mental health to some degree.
Airing a Grievance
The narrator is not sure about her official adviser for her condition and the fact that she has to travel. The narrator’s overthinking comes into play and we witness the narrator having to put up with a certain degree of bureaucracy as well as her self doubts.
Just Another Failure
Here we are made aware of the narrator’s relationship with a certain D as well as her overthinking
and mental thoughts come into play. The narrator has a difficulty with living.
In the Summons the narrator meets up with an old friend. Their intentions are not made clear to us at first. We know that they are a close friend and that they are to meet for a date of sorts. The narrator notices R’s ugliness and is made to feel uncomfortable by a waiter. It is later revealed that this is where the narrator is to be taken away by what we would suggest is ‘the men in white coats’ and there is the possibility that R was involved with this. Again, there is the feel of Kafka in this story.
The narrator we would assume is in an asylum. The narrator is thinking over her current situation, as far as she is concerned she has done nothing wrong, as she is not too happy about her situation. She is upset at her loss of freedom acknowledging the fact that she has to put up with it.
An Unpleasant Reminder
To say the reminder is unpleasant is an understatement. A cruel trick is played on our narrator. She is made aware of the mortality of her life and who have control over her whilst she is at the asylum.
Machines In The Head
Anyone out there who have suffered with their mental health would be aware of how it affects them when they are trying to sleep. The narrator’s anxieties take over her in a way that she has trouble controlling it. She is battle with her mind, she is in battle with the machine in her head.
These stories show us a woman who is intelligent and yet at the same time held back by what plagues her mind. She is a good woman and her intentions are honest and true, her hearts in the right place. As stated previously stated we only know her as she is described herself to us. We know that she thinks people are out to get her and to some extent she may well be seem justified which only adds to her paranoia. How the narrator thinks seems wholly justified to her. For example she is repulsed by an ugly waiter despite the fact that he does not appear to have any malicious intent.
These stories are so beautifully yet simply written. The thoughts of the narrator appeared strong in my mind’s eye. The only thing that irked me was that I was able to recognise the frustrations and mental frustrations. I have sensed the enemy coming after me, I have had the sleepless nights and lost all hope. I haven’t (touch wood) had to be committed to a mental health hospital but many people have with varying experiences. Anna Kavan of course was writing in a time when knowledge an attitudes of mental health are different to what they are now (having been written in 1940). Hopefully more will be understood in the future and even out attitudes today may well be seen as dated.