Courage is much overrated in mental illness. When I first wrote about my own experiences, a lot of people told me how brave I was to do so. This made me squirm and feel quite odd, but they would insist that it was so, even when I denied it. It didn’t feel brave or courageous; in fact it had been rather easy, particularly compared with some of the years that preceded it. It was even rather puzzling, because no-one had told me that I was brave when I was in the throes of depression.
I don’t think I was particularly brave at any point. Obstinate and stubborn, yes, but hardly courageous. Courage somehow implies knowing your enemy, having noble ideals and rising above all that is against you. Courage is moral fortitude. I didn’t really know what I was up against, as I muddled through the ups and downs of mental illness. I railed against what had happened, but not in a way that attracted any admiration, not then.
Perhaps this is unfair, because I would certainly admire anyone who had been through major mental illness and rebuilt their life. I think, perhaps, that it’s the timing, that courage is often only recognised after the event; that striving can be difficult to watch when the outcome is unknown. If I had remained unwell, and never returned to medicine, what would I have been? Bitter and sad? Or would I have adapted, done what I could, and tried to lead a happy life? That would have been brave, but I’m not sure it would have been seen as such.
What is courage? It may be used to do things that are both silly and wrong, and often is. Lady Macbeth’s urge to ‘screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail’ (misquoted by my English teacher who got the screw and the stick confused) was an incitement to murder. Macbeth was undoubtedly a brave man, but I think most would agree not in a good way.
People ‘battling’ physical illness may be more revered than those with mental disorders. But why should they have to be brave, or battle? Somehow this implies that those who don’t have given up, and even that they are responsible for their own deterioration. Emily Bronte died in the nineteenth century, horribly and rapidly, of tuberculosis. Some of her biographers have queried whether she gave up, even willed herself to death, because she refused to recognise her illness, to see doctors or take remedies. It seems far more likely that she had seen others succumb, had seen the pointlessness of treatment, and was terrified. She wrote ‘No coward soul is mine’, and that has painted her with courage for posterity. I’m just not sure that she had many options, and we do what works best for us. Sometimes that can mean denying the enemy.
In my work I often see those who have stopped drinking alcohol, and are looking into a future without it. This requires the courage to experience life without it being softened by drink, something which can be very hard. But do we see those who relapse as cowardly? If we do, then we need consistency, and in my view we cannot at the same time say that alcohol dependence is a disease, or indeed a result of traumatic life events. We are instead espousing a moral model of alcoholism, even if we have not realised it.
I sometimes wonder if courage even exists. We do what we can do within the constraints of our lives, our physical abilities and even appearances, and what we have experienced. I suspect we have far less choice than we think. And if we can say someone is brave, then we can also see them as the opposite, which brings me back to my discomfort at being admired for my bravery. Interestingly I had been advised against writing about my experiences earlier in my illness, at a time when, in many ways, it would have been braver. For courage to be admired, it needs to come at the right time, and in the right context, otherwise it may make others uncomfortable.
This may come across as rather gloomy – no praise for anyone – and of course that’s wrong. It makes me very happy if people read what I write, and if they tell me that it meant something to them. But there will always be part of me that remembers that other me, the one who never got back to work, whose life had a different path. I don’t want her to be criticised, or seen as a coward or failure – she will have made the best choices she could at the time, and may have required courage to do so. There are many versions of ourselves, and not all may seem brave.
We all need encouragement and kind words, especially when unwell, but these should not be dependent on our recovery, or how we do it. One person may see bravery where another sees cowardice. The things I have done that felt brave to me are not, on the whole, on my CV. Ultimately I think it is important to talk of difficult times, both to make sense of them oneself and to give hope to others. Sometimes it will feel very difficult, there is no doubt. But it has never been as difficult as all those days I spent on psychiatric wards. Nobody thought I was particularly brave then.