I noticed it before, but now – as people deal with the challenges of social isolation in the Corona pandemic – I come across it more often: the idealization of sanity. People express gratitude for the people, things and habits that „keep them sane,“ or worry about how they will manage to „maintain their sanity.“
And I wonder what these people think it is that they are maintaining.
I wonder what they think it is that they are steering away from: sanity’s Other, which goes by many names: insanity, mental illness, madness.
Among the mad-experienced people, survivors and (some) users of psychiatry with whom I talk, gratitudes and worries take more concrete shapes: the fear of being forcibly put into a hospital and forcibly medicated, for instance. Even when we stay vague — people who speak the language of mental illness talk about having a „relapse,“ others talk about going crazy — we understand that our interlocutor is talking about something they know, even if we don’t know exactly what they know. We also understand that, however difficult the experience may be, it is not the end of all.
Efforts to „stay sane“ are becoming more popular and more avowed, way beyond the circles of those living with the real consequences of being considered „mentally ill.“ But there is no there there. Rather, „keeping sane“ is more and more like „staying fit“ or „staying in shape“: A meager ideal built on the dehumanization of Madness and Fatness, respectively. Those accommodating to it can gain some emotional satisfaction and social rewards even while more meaningful life aspirations are dwindling.
Thoughts are welcome in the comments section!
May 21, 2020: After reading this piece, someone asked me: „What are the implications of idealizing sanity?“ I would like to add my response here:
Sanity, as an ideal, is a confused mix of ideas about well-being and normal behavior and social acceptability, perhaps also about self-control. I would ask: what are you really aspiring to, when you say, you want sanity? A minimum of emotional well-being? A minimum of self-control? Accountability? (All these things are not necessarily part of existences that are considered „sane.“) Or the minimum human respect(ability) that is certainly not awarded to you when you are considered not „sane“?
When you idealize sanity, you don’t realize that there is no there there, in other words, you don’t realize that sanity is not an objectively determinable state of being (although psychiatrists make a living from making such determinations).
When you idealize sanity, you celebrate a very restricted version of being human, where intense distress, joy, creativity, imagination, intuition, spirituality … are only welcome in so far as they don’t resemble the experiences of the „mentally ill“ or mad people, experiences that are considered pathological.
If you idealize sanity, you also make abuse of those deemed mentally ill (such as lock-up, restraint, forcible medication, and more) seem necessary because you helped everyone forget that these allegedly „insane“ ways of feeling, knowing, sensing, and expressing oneself are also human and worthy of human consideration.