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Thursday, 28 August 2014

I Am!

I watched 'Secrets From The Asylum' on ITV last night. It was really sad to see how badly the mentally ill were treated and misunderstood. Some were left to languish in institutions for more than sixty years. They landed up there perhaps because they'd suffered from "mental weakness" after having a baby, or what we would term now as postnatal depression. Others would end up there purely because a relative had been mentally ill; the assumption being that the condition was absolutely hereditary. This alone was a justifiable reason to warrant the incarceration of another for the rest of their life.

The programme reminded me of the life of a poet from the 1800's called John Clare. Recently I was asked to contribute to an anthology on the healing power of words. I chose a poem of Clare's for the collection and explain the reasons why below:

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.


This poem by the “almost forgotten” poet, John Clare, strikes at my soul!  I often read it to myself as a means of enabling my Mum’s voice to cry out to me. I imagine the rest of the world hearing loud and clear simply that she existed.

Mum had severe bipolar which, in truth, had a devastating effect on her life. On the one hand she was an intelligent, lively and fun person. She loved people and adored her family. On the other hand, mental illness was like a chain around her neck and it all but paralysed the very essence of who she was. In the depths of depression, when she found her inability to connect so upsetting, it only compounded how badly she felt about herself. She felt like a nobody. At times she even believed she was using mental illness as an excuse for who she really was. Sadly she never learned how to cut herself any slack, she never shouted back.

John Clare was a poet I came across, who lived in Helpston near to where I was brought up and where Mum continued to live in sheltered accommodation. He was a poor peasant born in 1793 whose raw and honest language was not fully appreciated in his own lifetime. A man committed for more than twenty years to a lunatic asylum with an illness which these days would most probably have been diagnosed as bipolar. Clare wrote this poem whilst committed and, I imagine, whilst deeply misunderstood and struggling to find any sense in the world around him.

I like the fact that John Clare is not only “shouting back” but he is also simply conveying the alienation of mental illness and it’s devastating impact; the “vast shipwrecks of my life’s esteems”. He’s acknowledging himself and thus giving people like Mum a powerful voice.

Mum loved writing and poetry. Sadly she died earlier this year and although we often found it difficult to connect with one other, I never doubted her immense strength.

Secrets From The Asylum on ITV....