Words by Georgina Johnson
Photography by alba yruela
I lost a friend to suicide in December last year, writes The Slow Grind’s Georgina Johnson. There isn’t one way to understand the complexities of such loss, but some can be explained. As can modes of healing and care—access to nature is one of them.
When did you first learn to put language to a feeling or emotion?
When—as Virginia Woolf once wrote—did you take pain in one hand and sound in the other, fuse them together and find that a new word reveals itself? New, at least, to you; it’s been kept in your cellular memory, waiting for you to recognise it and give it voice. It isn’t always pretty, it’s mostly not. In her essay A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light, Sinéad Gleeson writes that “a life of pain is a distracted one, where every thought is always second to the source of where it hurts.” But what if your mind is where it hurts, and your thoughts are incomprehensible?
I lost a friend to suicide in December last year.
Sometimes I forget—but when I remember, two thoughts fill me with melancholy: Why and I wish I could hug you. The former triggers an overwhelming mixture of sadness and secondary peace, an emotion that’s particularly hard to put into words. It is strange to feel and even stranger to write. Perhaps I only feel it because I was there, not only contemplating, but attempting the same thing two years prior. When I broke the news of my friend to my mum she said to me in the softest tone, “Now you know how we would have felt.”
It’s been hard to hear how people speak about suicide. Often, attempts to understand it land in conversations with reductive soundbites of: There’s so much to live for or There’s a choice. In the physicality of the act there may be an element of choice, but when your mind is not your own, anything that could have been considered an active choice no longer is one. “We feel emotions in our bodies,” Alva Gotby writes in her book They Call it Love. And yet, the expression of feelings is often restricted by “rule-bound processes” in our society, so it’s easy to forget that emotions are neither fully controllable nor containable.
I’m sure there are lots of us that have tried and failed to read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, but there are some meditations within it that are key to understanding mental illness and trauma. The passage I return to when I pick up and put down this book expands on the “Body-Brain Connection,” which is an area of research that explores emotional life, natural instincts, and bodily responses to trauma.
“If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care and love. For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.” —Van der Kolk
Put simply: when you are in a trauma state you are in survival mode. Dissociation is one symptom of trauma and is characterized by the fragmentation of reality; like a break in realms where things that have happened (or anxieties around things that haven’t) are either re-lived or aggressively replayed in your mind. When I go into an episode, I can only use the analogy of it feeling like looking down at myself from above—although I know that my mind is spinning out of control, I can’t slow the spools or break the tape’s film.
The truth is that mental health challenges do away with respectability. They bring up painful confessions, truths that you would rather not look in the face, and sharp untruths.
The truth is that mental health challenges do away with respectability. They bring up painful confessions, truths that you would rather not look in the face, sharp untruths, and monologues that seem completely transcendental—between you and God.
Quiet, still, no voice (even small)
No whirlwind, no reply; no burning.
Just a bare winter bush.
This is God, too.
The space between stars,
Where noise goes to die,
And the space between atoms,
Where the charges thin out:
These are places too.
—Alice Walker, A Blessing
I felt those words as I took most of 2021 to recover from a bipolar episode that landed me in the place that I mentioned earlier—and ultimately a women’s mental health unit. To say that the mental health services in the U.K. are archaic is an understatement. Whether formal or informal patients, women often came into the unit dazed only to be taken to the physiatrist immediately, diagnosed on the spot, and ordered to take unexplained medication. This is what happened to me. If you rejected the medication or exhibited any anger, you’d be pinned down, sedated, and force fed the pills. I had conversations with women that couldn’t advocate for themselves for a number of reasons, ranging from energy levels to worsening health. Whatever the cause, they were still entitled to care—but what I witnessed was a microcosm of a system that exploits women in a vulnerable state. I couldn’t comprehend that this was where you were sent to get better. At least 80% of the women in my unit were Black and it felt as though the same things that threatened our safety and wellbeing in the outside world were tenfold there. We were being disappeared, our agency stolen. I was only lucky that I was coherent enough to demand that my mum be phoned in on every psychiatrist consultation because I knew she would inject some sense into a nonsensical situation.
The other women got me by. We made friends, ate together, and campaigned for one another. They were my blessing—they made me feel safe and cared for in a place that felt void of both. They were my prayer, they were God’s love irl.
The labor of love: It’s hard to have patience with mental illness—whether you are the one going through it or caring for someone that is. Care is labor. It is intimate work enmeshed with physical tasks. It’s a mix of emotions; anger, guilt, numbing boredom or sneaky joy. Care is gendered; it is political; it is body intensive and mentally exhausting. It is ok to admit this truth. In fact it’s time we did.
We need to start embracing systems and practices of care that decentralize the burden. As many know, care work often lands on the shoulders of a single individual, a matriarch, usually a woman. No one person has the capacity to take on an infinite amount of work in any form—it is the same for care.
I have experienced and witnessed firsthand the prevalence of community mothering in the Caribbean diaspora. My mother and aunties, for instance, grew up interchangeably between my nan’s sisters’ houses. My dad spent part of his childhood in Jamaica, and my parents sent my sister and I to Birmingham during the school holidays to stay with my nan. While the history of “sendin’ kids bakka yard” (sending your kids back home) in the Caribbean community doesn’t always reap positive results, it has historically been a mode of coping throughout periods of migration and settling.
Care is labor. It is intimate work enmeshed with physical tasks. It’s a mix of emotions; anger, guilt, numbing boredom or sneaky joy. Care is gendered; it is political; it is body intensive and mentally exhausting.
But as community-oriented as many Black and Brown communities can be—to echo the thoughts of Fariha Róisín, author of How to Cure a Ghost and Who is Wellness For?— issues like trauma, abuse, and mental illness are often met with avoidance and silence. The danger in this though, as Róisín writes, is the numbing of an individual’s “internal darkness” and the abstraction of feelings that allow the trauma to replay and repeat instead of heal. In order to change course, we need to re-evaluate how culture interconnects with the enactment of care. Reframing community mothering through the lens of collective resistance, compassion, and with a recognition of the varying needs and capacities of a collective, family, or group of kin would be the bedrock.
I believe that nature is where we find ourselves.
In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, Alice Walker speaks of her learning to breathe through pain rather than avoid it. By concentrating on her breath, she connected her body and mind-state to Earth. Like Walker, when I was in recovery, I developed my own mantra: You are safe; Trust your Breath. It helped ground me in the present.
Breathing, an act we routinely take for granted, is vital in moderating the energy flow within our body and regulating our nervous system; keeping us safe, keeping us alive, causing us to think, feel, and behave in ways that are driven by unconscious patterns. Dysregulation is where negative mental health can come into play; triggered by psycho-spiritual and biochemical factors. This is the case for all of us. But whilst mental illness does not discriminate, our society does. Exposure to heavy metals, mold, chronic fatigue, and socio-economic pressures all contribute to the state of a person’s mental health—and due to systemic discrimination, communities of color are made all the more vulnerable to each factor. The result is an alarming disparity in the rate of treatment for mental illness among BIPOC communities, who are also intentionally deprived of access to green space.
Whilst it might seem simplistic or perhaps trivializing, access to green space can be instrumental in working towards healing. This is why land theft, the covering of whole cities in concrete, and a focus on the amount of people that can fit in a square foot are nothing less than calculated tools of tyranny that imperial and capitalist powers employ. Why, in 2023, is it near impossible to breathe in clean air, live in a home without mold, and embed rest into your routine? Simple. The world, our society, is designed that way. These frameworks create environments of disillusionment, which disempower individuals and communities. They sever our navel cord to nature in all the ways: spiritually, molecularly, mentally and emotionally. Because they know that nature is where we develop pride, joy; where we locate our belonging.
When I took the time during my recovery to get to know this place that holds each of us softly, the ‘Earth Mother,’ a sensitivity towards and forgiveness for myself slowly started seeping into my thoughts. Alice Walker felt this, too; “She can be known by swimming in her oceans, or even by looking at them. She can be known by eating her collard greens and carrots. Savoring her fruits, walking through her wheat fields. She is everywhere, our Earth Mother; it is truly astonishing how often she is not seen.”
This is something I discovered when learning how to not be afraid to go outside again; how to get dressed even if it took me two hours to prepare my mind to do so; when I began to count the stars at night on the walks I had to build my confidence up in order to achieve. My recovery was marked by long walks around a pen full of bulls in a random field on the green edge of London that I looked forward to feeding and stroking. It was marked by the voice of friends that sat on FaceTime with me whilst I went over my despair again and again. By me learning to trust myself to take medication in measure. By sleep and no appetite. By changing seasons and a heavy body. But more than that, it was marked by slow growth. I couldn’t will it into being—all I could do was take one day at a time. That’s all I would ever say—take one day at a time.