Tonight, prompted by Jaakko Seikkula’s invitation to consider what the current crisis means for dialogue, Iseult and I will be joining a panel of dialogical practitioners to reflect on this issue. In preparation, I thought I’d take a few moments to gather my thoughts and share some ideas that have been dancing around me in these past few weeks. Perhaps they will resonate with some of you, or perhaps there is something different you would like to add. Please feel free to add a comment or response underneath. It would be lovely to hear you (and not talk into a void).
The idea that ‘psychosis exists in the space between us’ is a near mythical ‘Open Dialogue’ offering that has had many of us scratching our heads over the years. It’s a big statement. I instinctively like it – it was one of the things that first attracted me to Open Dialogue many moons ago. Yet, I am aware that there are a plurality of ways it can be heard and understood. My own perspectives on it are evolving, too; how could they not? There’s a big conversation to be had around the idea of psychosis and what it might or might not be. However, this lockdown has brought the idea of ‘the space between us’ to my attention. Let’s start there.
Lockdown and social distancing have, in a very concrete way, highlighted the space between us. We can no longer pop round to a friend’s house for a cup of tea. We cross the street to avoid an oncoming stranger. We sit looking at a computer screen, conversing with people as if they were a plane ride away. Now, living in our separate socially distance bubbles, in some ways it hardly matters whether our loved ones are 5 miles or 5,000 miles away. I can feel my concept of distance shifting as the weeks progress.
This enforced distance has had many different effects. Amongst all this chaos, uncertainty and suffering, I have witnessed others reaching out – as if to bridge this chasm that has become increasingly visible. As the couple in front of me cross the street to avoid me and my family, they smile and wave. Sometimes we speak across the road from each other, exchanging greetings from afar. Sometimes, if I misjudge the spacial needs, I can feel someone shrinking back from me – as if my 2m buffer is threateningly close. Distance may, sometimes, provide a feeling of safety that allows us to try to connect. Whereas, in these times, physical proximity is risky. This space between us, finding a balance and navigating it together feels crucial.
Beyond the physical, there is something in some of the more creative responses to Covid-19 that suggests to me that some of us are becoming more aware of emotional and social spaces too. I’ve seen some wonderfully creative attempts to lessen social inequality – A small group of survivors of mental illness and the psychiatric system launched the MadCovid Hardship Fund – raising money and distributing small grants to those with mental ill health and are facing financial hardship. National Hearing Voices Network has set up a crowdfunding campaign to pay for online support and print resources for people who hear voices. Theatres, museums and cultural spaces are opening their virtual doors to those who might otherwise not have the resources to access them (e.g. people who are housebound or cannot afford entry/travel costs).
To me, this signals some small but significant steps that begin to build tenuous bridges between across the social divide. They are examples of people bridging these gaps with whatever they have to hand – passion, IT skills, financial resources, energy and time. There seems to be a shared recognition that we are living through profoundly difficult times, a shared social movement that is experienced in many ways on many levels. One that requires a recognition of our differences (lockdown is different for someone in a big house with an acre of land to a multi-generational family in a small one bedroom inner city flat). One that may encourage an appreciation of our shared humanity. Perhaps it fosters dialogue, or makes a need for it more visible.
This is not universal, though. I see gaps widening too. Our forced isolation and the spectre of a global pandemic has highlighted social inequalities and privilege. It has stoked the embers of racism and can easily lend itself to a battlefield mentality – that sense that we are at war. Similarly, we can easily read of those who hoard toilet rolls and basic necessities. Newspapers, in England at least, show pictures of people ‘flouting’ the rules – having house parties and chilling out with friends in the park. In this time of solidarity and community-mindedness, it’s so easy for us to view others as perpetrators. We can cast them as selfish and uncaring. The space between us widens as we find it hard to imagine why they might do this as so many others are risking their lives and livelihoods.
Perhaps this is the space we mean when we talk of psychosis … the space between a person and an other – someone who is responding to life in a way we find it almost impossible to understand and connect with. Perhaps we even, if we’re honest, have little space within ourselves to try to connect with them. Or we’ve already designated their experience or sense of being as less important of understanding. Or the very idea of connection feels powerfully aversive. Perhaps, for the other, the idea of connecting with me is equally aversive. After all, my experiences may be similarly un-understandable. Yet, if we can create a frame that enables us to feel safe enough to acknowledge one another and our right to exist as we are – perhaps then we can become curious enough to begin building bridges.
As someone who experiences that thing we call psychosis and other extreme states, the Covid-lockdown has helped me move a little in my understanding of how psychosis could exist in the space between. It’s helped me think about how my experiences may, at times, be profoundly threatening to other people’s sense of reality and thus provoke a nettle-like response as they automatically back away. I am also aware of how, sometimes, people respond to a sense of distance with the wish to bridge the gap – inadvertently invading my space. As a practitioner, my ongoing reflection is on how it is that we can create frames that enable us all to bear the space and each other as we sit together and allow ourselves to become curious again.