I will start this post off by admitting that, apart from “atypical depression” (which I now suspect was undiagnosed autistic shutdown), I have never been diagnosed with a Mental Illness. So, I apologise in advance if I make any assumptions or get anything wrong on other mental illnesses. And I would really appreciate feedback from those of you who do. Right, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me start.
I first encountered the idea that mental illnesses may actually be a form of natural variation than any sort of ‘illness’ to be stamped out, when I read this post on depression in the context of eating disorders. The idea intrigued me, and I found myself nodding along. It’s such a well written and compelling post.
I then read Crazy Like Us which showed me how the Western (medical) modal of mental illness got foisted onto different cultures, which previously had their own systems and modals to explain mental illnesses.
I thought back to the summers I spent in Sinop, a city on the Turkish Black Sea Coast. I’ve no idea if Sinop is unique in any way, of if the same attitudes prevail in the rest of Turkey. There, people with mental illnesses were accepted and accommodated in a way I hadn’t seen before. There was a mentally ill man nicknamed ‘Tarzan’ who wore nothing but a loincloth. He carried a staff and was accompanied by a pack of fierce dogs. He owned prime development land in the city centre, which contained the ruins of his house and a very overgrown garden. He spent hardly any time in it. Instead, he slept outside, in the public park. He never got moved on. The local restaurants all fed him. Local women would wash his loincloths for him. He used to collect old newspapers and magazines and donate them to local schools. He was no angel, however. I once saw him set his dogs on a taxi driver who threw a cigarette butt on the ground. People just put that down to his fierce love of nature. The rumour was that he ‘went crazy’ after being rejected by a lady who broke his heart. There is a strong tradition of ‘lovelorn’ people in Turkey and it’s often given as a reason for mental illnesses.
The other main ‘character’ I remember was Deli Ali or ‘Crazy Ali’. He was also referred to as The Captain. He lived in a self-built shack on the edge of a cliff, and he built steps down to the beach below. He had an amazing garden hanging precariously off the cliff. I don’t know too much more about him because he kept to himself. But people passing by would often drop baskets of vegetables or eggs over his wicker fence.
Those were the two most prominent ‘characters’ in Sinop. But you would often pass people talking loudly to themselves (long before mobile phones and wireless earphones) or gesticulating to people who weren’t actually there. I would see ‘visibly’ mentally ill people much more often than I ever did in Ireland. And it was seen as no big deal. Something that was created by God (Allah) to add variety to the Earth.
Years later, as I was starting my journey into discovering my autistic self, I was introduced to the Neurodiversity Paradigm in this post by Nick Walker. Although his focus is on autistic people, the mention of ‘bipolar’ in it caught my eye. Again, here was someone who believed that mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar ‘disorder’ and schizophrenia were part of human (neuro)diversity and not medical disorders. And it seemed a lot of mental illness advocates agree. Here is an excellent post on the matter.
Neurodivergent people, those who belong to neurominorities such as dyslexics, people with ADHD, and those with mental illness are often referred to as ‘cousins’ to autistic people. And I, for one, embrace these family members with open arms. (Only if they like being embraced, of course!)
[image: a very stylised graphic of a brain and brain stem, in black ink]