The Glass Wall

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:54

Foreword to Dorothy and Walter Swartz The Glass Wall Chipmunch Publishing 2005 

Most of us don’t discover what helplessness really means until we become a parent. We think we know how to solve problems, how to get things done and be in control. Then we become responsible for a small scrap of humanity and we discover that there are problems we don’t know how to solve, things we don’t know how to do, and events for which we are responsible but over which we have no control. As the small scrap of humanity becomes a child, a teenager, a young adult, our sense of responsibility becomes greater as our ability to solve problems and be in control of events becomes less. Even if our child is strong and healthy and deals with education, work and relationships competently and happily we have some inkling that all of this could fall apart and we wouldn’t know how to put it right. Being a parent is an impossibly difficult task because what determines a child’s behaviour isn’t what parents do but how the child interprets what parents do. This is something over which parents have no control whatsoever. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we feel the helplessness that accompanies the thoughts of ‘If only’ and ‘I should have’. When things do go wrong we vacillate between the guilt of ‘It was my fault’ and the helplessness of ‘There was nothing I could do.’ In guilt we feel the archetypal terror of punishment that we deserve, while our helplessness awakens the ancestral terror of being prey to an unknown but an immense, ravening beast. And then there is sorrow, the sorrow of a loss for which there can be no recompense or reward, and the sorrow of no forgetting. This is the experience of loving parents whose child has lost his grip on his life. It falls apart, and the child, despairing, kills himself.  

Many parents who experience this keep their suffering private, and in so doing can feel that there is something peculiar about them because they suffer so. They don’t want to risk being condemned by others or leave themselves open to the thoughtlessness of others, and so they don’t discover how universal their suffering is. Dorothy Swartz experienced all this when her beloved daughter Zoë killed herself, but celebrating Zoë’s life, showing how little the extremes of mental distress are understood, and how badly such sufferers are cared for by those who say they are experts in the field were far more important to her. All this she has achieved in this courageous and vastly important book. 

These experts, the psychiatrists, say that there are mental illnesses, or, as they are now called, mental disorders, which are the equivalent of physical illnesses. When parents are told that their child has a mental disorder they may assume that this means that their child is suffering from an illness for which there is effective treatment. However, they soon discover that, though the psychiatric language used may be that of physical illness, what actually happens is not like a physical illness at all. When we are physically ill most of us do whatever we can to get better. Most of us see our doctor, follow his instructions, ask family and friends for advice, and we rest and take care of ourselves, but those who are said to have a mental illness resist all help. They refuse to see a doctor and, if forced to do so, they neglect to follow his advice. They reject psychotherapy, or else see a therapist but resist the wisdom and understanding of that therapist. They may go into a psychiatric hospital, but then the parents discover that little happens there and that patients may be abandoned at the moment they need help the most. Physical illnesses have a natural progression which a doctor can describe but with mental illness none of the professionals can give any kind of prognosis. Psychiatrists may talk to chemical imbalances and manic-depression genes, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence for any of this, but then they urge the patient to try harder, even though no amount of trying ever cured cancer or even the common cold. Watching all this, the parents oscillate between hope and despair, and always with a sense of utter helplessness. 

The cure for helplessness is to take control, if not the situation itself but of something relevant to the situation. In the last fifty years the greatest improvements in the care of those in extreme mental distress have come, not from the professionals, but from the sufferers themselves and from their family and friends. These people have seen that their greatest asset is their experience, and that what they need to do is to work collectively and change not just the psychiatric system but society itself. Extreme mental distress is not an illness but part of what it is to be a human being who lives in an uncertain and dangerous world, as we all do. The Glass Wall is not merely an account of the tragedy of a young life cut short but a challenge to us all to understand ourselves and thus  learn how best to care for one another.