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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Landscape and Madness

 But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedar cover
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
Coleridge: Kubla Khan

I’ve just been reminded, by someone in ‘the profession’, that today is World Mental Health Day. It’s a concept the dark forces of convention and orthodoxy – you know, the ones who take great pleasure in telling you to ‘live in the real world’ (whatever that is) – like to belittle. Don’t expect me to join the self-righteous squad, next time someone suggests I ‘wake up and smell the coffee’, they might well get a smack in the chops in return.
But it’s not my intention to offer a treatise on what is and what isn’t madness, suffice to say that normality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. What I want to draw attention to is the relationship between the landscape and mental health in its various manifestations. Not, perhaps the clichéd landscapes of the troubled gothic or romantic mind – though I’m a sucker for the subliminal landscapes of Keats’ Odes – but the role played by the landscape in maintaining – or undermining – our emotional well-being. Not so much psychogeography as geography as psychoanalysis.
First a confession – I’m very good at those, must be my inner Catholic. Last year I came out as a ‘sufferer’ of Borderline Personality Disorder: I’ll leave it to my boffin friends to argue the toss as to the causes of this condition is but it’s always been my contention that psychotic episodes are triggered, if not caused, by environmental factors. Here are two experiences of my own; I’d be interested to hear whether anyone else has encountered something similar.  
I had my first breakdown back in the heady days of 1986, just as I was approaching my finals at the good old Dorset Institute of Higher Education. My local GP, God bless him, filled me full of Mogadon and I spent a fortnight staring at the World Snooker Championships on TV – though I couldn’t tell you who won. I was plucked away from this … well, I can only describe it as sheer lunacy … by my then partner who accompanied me on a three day trek along the South West Coast Path from Studland to Weymouth. It was spring: the sun shone and swallows swooped in from the sea. I could feel the summer stirring beneath my feet, nature rousing herself, full of fecundity and desire. I went back to college, completed my dissertation on landscape and literature in Wessex.
Remind me to blog about that another day.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2006 and the leafy countryside of North Hertfordshire. I’d got post-traumatic stress disorder and I’d got it real bad: trashed my flat, cut expletives into my arms and existed on a diet of pure gin. The only thing that kept me from teetering over the abyss was my ‘Fuck Walk’; a circuit of ten kilometres or so through the woods that I followed, religiously, every time I had a free afternoon. I think the name’s self-explanatory enough; I’d run through the mud, kick out at the fallen leaves and shout ‘fuck’ into the wind and driving rain. The wood harboured dryads, satyrs and nymphs and they were all out to get me.
Landscape as therapy? I’m not sure therapy is the right word but it must have helped because I managed to get through the subsequent court case, even though the bastard who assaulted* me got off.
Strange thing is that whenever I’m back in that neck of the woods, I’m drawn back to that landscape, like a moth to a flame. I follow exactly the same route, even mumble the occasional ‘fuck’ underneath my breath because the anger has only subsided, will never go away. It’s like deliberately opening a wound to make sure it never heals. Might sound self-indulgent but it’s a coping strategy; if I didn’t walk and shout ‘fuck’ into the wind and driving rain I might be six foot under by now.
Wordsworth's Prelude
Boy steals boat. Boy rows out into lake. Boy gets scared by high mountains.
Boy goes home. Boy gets depressed. End of.
Well, that’s all rather up close and personal. Anyone like to share their own ideas/experiences?

*I say assault, what I really mean is a four-letter word beginning with r that even now I can’t bring myself to repeat. Enough said, I think.

1 comment:

  1. For me, walking is certainly therapy, it's one of the things that keeps me sane.