One of my favourite books has always been Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by C.S. Lewis. As a child it captured my imagination. As an adult I am no less enthralled. It is one of those stories that seeps into your subconscious and continues to entertain and delight no matter how old you become.
My favourite character without a doubt has always been the Cheshire Cat. This may in large part be due to the fact I’m a Cheshire girl and prone to my own brand of mischief. Certainly there are many other characters in the book I love – the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, and of course, the Mad Hatter – but it was always the Cheshire Cat who was my favourite.
Perhaps the most famous quote from the book is a comment made by the Cheshire Cat:, ‘We’re all mad here.’ There is a whole conversation surrounding this quote, but by and large it is these four short words alone that people recall. The conversation goes as follows:
Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.
The Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.
Alice: How do you know I’m mad?
The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn’t have come here.
Alice: And how do you know that you’re mad?
The Cat: To begin with, a dog’s not mad. You grant that?
Alice: I suppose so.
The Cat: Well, then, you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.
While there isn’t space here to weigh the merits of the Cheshire Cat’s argument, there is one point upon which everyone agrees – the inhabitants of Wonderland are indeed decidedly mad. Between the drug addled Caterpillar, the various characters in the caucus race, the March Hare, Door Mouse, the Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and of course the Cheshire Cat himself, the cast could hardly be more varied, charismatic and, to put it bluntly, crazy. Even Bill the Lizard and the White Rabbit are a few aces short of a deck.
Despite this it is Alice, the relatively normal little girl who comes into their world and finds them all so strange and unfathomable, who is the odd one out. By ‘real world’ standards, Alice is sane, yet in Wonderland she is presumed by the Cheshire Cat to be mad at first, simply for being there.
This has often caused me to wonder whether, in the world of Wonderland, it isn’t in fact Alice who is mad, while the rest of the world is perfectly sane.
Sanity is a relative concept. We define insanity, disability, madness, even mental illness, by looking at how the majority function, calling that ‘normalcy’ and writing off anything that does not conform to the established ‘norm’ as abnormal. Madness is a characteristic of those individuals who act in a manner contrary to the majority. If the majority of civilisation finds an action, a thought, a response, abnormal, the person responsible may be deemed mad. If there is a physical appearance or capability which is not in keeping with the majority, it may be defined as a disability. Mental illness is no different – those who are bipolar or schizophrenic, OCD or agoraphobic, suffer from eating disorders or anxiety disorders, or antisocial, have borderline, histrionic, or narcissistic personality disorders, are really only groups of people who think differently to the established norm in one way or another, and as a result may act, speak, or live differently.
If we turned the world on its head, if the assertion, “We’re all made here” were true, and found that the majority of the population of the planet were bipolar, people with bipolar disorder would no longer have a mental health illness; anyone who was not bipolar would have a mental health illness, because the majority, the norm, would be for people to think and act and live as we do. Granted it would take a massive majority for this to be the case, but the point remains the same.
The guests at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party are all quite mad, in Alice’s opinion, yet they are all aware of what is going on and understand their world – it is Alice who is lost.
Since joining the online bipolar community I’ve met many people with a variety of mental health issues. As I am myself bipolar the majority of these people are bipolar. It interests me to note that in these little communities, we understand each other far better than non-bipolar individuals generally manage to understand us. We relate to each other. Moreover, we abhor those who don’t understand us, or perhaps rather those who refuse to try and understand us.
My family has never understood me. They try, and since my diagnosis I think they have found it easier, especially as I have been actively trying to help them in that understanding, but still they do not understand. I love them for that – for the fact that they try – yet I know people whose parents have disowned them for being bipolar.
I struggle to envisage a mother who would not try to understand her own child, even if that child had a mental health illness, yet there are people who are simply incapable of accepting the reality of a diagnosis. There are people who accept the diagnosis but do nothing about it – they write a person off as mad and tell themselves there is nothing they can do about it. Like Alice, they don’t want to go among mad people.
To us, however – and by ‘us’ I mean those who actually are mentally ill – it is the actions of those people which are incomprehensible, perhaps in some cases even inhuman. We wonder how they can be so cruel or thoughtless, so ignorant or lazy. We wonder if it is simply a case that they don’t understand enough to know better, or if there is malice behind their responses. In a community where everyone is bipolar, the non-bipolar individual stands out like the proverbial thumb. Despite this, we are welcoming – we try to help those who have friends or family members with bipolar better understand the disorder so they can better understand the person they love. We try to give them practical advice, as well as emotional support. We do not, as a general rule, ostracize people because they are NOT bipolar.
The only exception to this is when people are offensive, and these people we tend to pity for their ignorance. The irony of this is not lost upon me. Surely it should be us, the ‘mentally ill’ who are pitied, but I find it difficult to pity people simply because they think differently. I empathise with the fact that mental health issues can be so difficult to deal with, so painful, so hurtful, so destructive, but I do not pity those who are mentally ill. I pity those who go through life thinking the best reaction to mental illness is to pretend it doesn’t exist, shun those who have mental health issues, or even punish those who are mentally ill through verbal, emotional and even physical abuse.
In wonderland, Alice is the odd one out. The world is mad, yet it is a functional madness, a shared madness; it is a way of thinking and acting that is simply not lateral and consequently incomprehensible to poor Alice. She doesn’t understand how the various potions and tablets and mushrooms work, so she misuses them and finds herself made monstrous.
The Caterpillar may be drug addled, but he asks a very shrewd question: Who Are You?
The inhabitants of Wonderland might be mad, but at least they are content in their madness. They know who they are, and they’re perfectly happy in their own way. It is Alice, the ‘normal’ girl in a ‘mad’ world who is unhappy with Wonderland and upset by events and circumstances. She does not even see the majority of the wonder in Wonderland, because she is too caught up branding the denizens mad and trying to get away from them. More so, however, she is unhappy with the ‘real’ world, which is what causes her to enter Wonderland in the first place. Once she leaves, she finds herself far happier, both with who she is and what her life is like. She even finds herself thinking of telling others about the wonderful land she visited and the beautiful madness of its inhabitants.
Even madness has a place it can call home, a place where it isn’t even insane, but rather a different norm.
How lucky for us that our home is a place of such beautiful wonder. We should stop and smell the roses more often – even if they are painted red.