"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage." - Richard Lovelace
I went to see "The Theory of Everything" at the cinema yesterday. My Dad is a keen astronomer and scientist and a life-long admirer of Stephen Hawking and his work. I know a bit about his life and a bit more about his work, so I expected to be inspired by the film. I had no idea it was going to move me the way it did.
I had always respected and admired Hawking as a scientist but Eddie Redmayne's portrayal stirred within me a deep fondness and affection for Stephen the man.
I could write a lengthy review of the film but that's not what this blog is about.
When he was diagnosed, Stephen Hawking was given two years to live. Yet, despite all expectations and odds, he just celebrated his 73rd birthday. Medicine and technology aside what would keep someone with that limited quality of life living and working half a century later?
His body must feel like a prison at times; a cage. Locked inside with only himself for company.
And I can't help thinking, if one was to be locked inside a body for the eternity of life on earth, wouldn't one want a mind as sharp and brilliant and creative as that of Stephen Hawking?
What that man can do with thought alone is staggering. Truly, when you start to consider the scale of his achievements professionally alone, with his physical limitations, it's impossible to grasp the level of intelligence he must possess. To not be able to make notes, scribble ideas, write equations, pace the floor, chat with friends or colleagues, even make a simple cup of tea...
For it demonstrates something else too; a profound ability to direct thought and emotion; the skills of focus, concentration, but also openness, spaciousness and suppleness of mind. Not to mention patience. It's awe-inspiring.
It brings me to my personal battles. I'm not looking to draw loose and insensitive comparisons. What strikes me is what someone with next-to-no physical function has managed to achieve. And what many people with completely healthy physical function consistently fail to achieve.
There are two types of disability or illness if we lazily categorise them: physical and mental.
Of course there are overlaps. For instance, some of my worst periods of anxiety were brought on by a significant head/neck injury which produced distressing neurological symptoms. And healthy brain chemistry is a physiological issue as much as it is a purely mental one. But anxiety disorders, like the OCD from which I suffer, are mental illnesses.
Whilst not literally, anxiety and other forms of mental illness can feel paralysing.
I have spent literally weeks at a time pacing, lying down, sitting, standing with no purpose or direction. Able to move but unable to find a reason to move nor awareness of doing so. I've been so disconnected from myself I've been unable to communicate with my body in a useful, comprehensible way. I've lost months to pointless anxiety; chunks of life 'wasted', months of feeling locked, not inside my body, but inside my mind, and often with not even enough clarity to seek help.
I was shocked, but also not surprised, to read:
"[OCD] can be so debilitating and disabling that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has actually ranked OCD in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life." OCD UKIn just the same way that a body can become a prison. So too can the mind become like a locked cage.
During the most devastating times of my OCD I have been a prisoner to my mind. It has not been a wonderful tool, nor playground nor canvas in waiting. It has been a dark deadly cell with demons both visible and invisible clawing at every thought and spinning them into madness and obscurity like some evil PR machine.
At times, it has made me question my sanity and wish for death.
And it has made me realise that, without the mind, we are nothing. We really are just shadows of ourselves; shadows that terrify and consume us.
I'm sure that Stephen Hawking must have suffered at some point with acute anxiety and depression as a result of his disease. I don't know that to be true but it seems almost impossible that he would survive the physical assault without a profound psychological fall-out.
In one sense I imagine it is his mind that has saved him. I have glimpsed from his public appearances (and the film) a sense of humour along with his obvious curiosity, determination and objectivity. To be able to think in those ways must be the ideal companion for such an ordeal.
But, conversely, to be locked in with only your thoughts for company, knowing as I do, what terror our thoughts can inflict; knowing what madness they can serve; what hell they can create... without movement and without space; makes me all the more amazed at the man!
It also makes me stupidly grateful for how my body gives form to my thoughts and, through movement, steals me from them. And I am selfishly grateful that, whilst physical illness and disability is sometimes irreversible or without cure, with many mental illnesses we still have the freedom of choice and therefore the possibility of recovery.
Not that it's easy. If it were easy, OCD wouldn't affect 1.2% of the population. Mental health requires discipline and gentleness in equal measure; focus and curiosity. Thank goodness these are traits - skills - that can be acquired through proper training and practice.
I come day by day to my meditation and mindfulness and I feel the space inside my brain grow, I feel the boundaries fall and the gates open... in this way, healing has been and continues to be possible.
As a wise man once famously said:
"Where there is life, there is hope." - Stephen HawkingWith love x