Every year, thousands of supporters across the UK take part in Mental Health Awareness Week. This year the week will take place from 8-14 May on the theme of surviving or thriving?
— Mental Health Fdn (@mentalhealth) May 8, 2017
Surviving or Thriving in Books
Taking care of your mental health is important – especially when you’re the only survivor of a post-apocalyptic event:
I am Legend
The book (as well as the well known movie starring Will Smith) deals with severe psychological traumas. PTSD, Sole Survivor syndrome, guilt and depression.
Turning point of his sanity is when Darkseekers have set a trap for him using the mannequin as a bait: he managed to free himself, but when infected hounds attacked him, Sam tried to defend him but she was bitten by a hound and infected. Neville rushed her home and injected her with the Compound 6 in a desperate attempt to save her, but when she showed the early stages of the KV infection, he was forced to strangle her to death. Her death, and more specifically, at his own hands, caused him a severe mental breakdown, and even though he tried to go through his regular routines the next day (during which he buried Sam in Central Park), he went into a rage and angrily drove through the streets of New York at night, slamming and running down large numbers of Darkseekers until he crashed, attempting to commit suicide in Darkseeker’s hands.
Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood has managed to create a world in Oryx and Crake where the apparent only survivor of a mass genocide is Snowman Jimmy. Jimmy deals with depression throughout the book and you can see how of the things he once took solitude in like words and sex, are not interesting to him anymore. Although his mental health has never been the best, he is slowly deteriorating and becoming more like his current self, Snowman. Perhaps it’s the negative outlook Jimmy has on life, but it just seems like he never gets a break. He gets temporary moments of happiness, but he never really can find true and lasting meaning in life.
Jimmy suffers from many diseases: an infected food, hunger from the one fish he eats a week as an offer from the people Crake has created and things get blurred in his mind as he has no-one to talk to. His extreme alienation leads him to a deep depression and bouts of inactivity.
“Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere though of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or rabbit doesn’t behave like that. Take birds — in a lean season they cut down on the eggs, or they won’t mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.
As a species were doomed by hope, then?
You could call it hope. That, or desperation.
But we’re doomed without hope, as well, said Jimmy.
Only as individuals, said Crake cheerfully.”
José Saramago (1995)
This novel is worthy of consideration even though it doesn’t detail a global disaster. Saramago’s acclaimed story deals with an epidemic of blindness, like Day of the Triffids, in a single unknown city and how everything swiftly falls to pieces. Turned into a movie in 2008, Blindness helped earn Saramago the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
With few exceptions the blind characters in Saramago’s novel lose not only their sight but also their ability to tend to their most basic bodily needs, their courage in the face of intimidation, and their sense of morality and decency. When the government attempts to stop the epidemic by placing the infected in quarantine, the women are willing to be raped and humiliated in order to obtain food from a gang of thugs in Ward 3 of the dilapidated mental hospital in which the blind have been imprisoned. The men, including the husbands of the female victims, more or less accept this state of affairs and even encourage the women who protest to tolerate the brutality to which they are subjected. The reign of terror is ended, not by the blind, but by the sole sighted person in the facility, the wife of an ophthalmologist, who decides to slip into Ward 3 while the thugs are raping several other women and kills their leader with a pair of scissors.
The blind prisoners, as well as the blind residents of the city depicted after the mental hospital burns to the ground and some prisoners escape, have forgotten how to use the toilet, and they defecate in the streets, which run with filth. They also routinely walk around on all fours while navigating through an unfamiliar environment, and they either cannot, or don’t care to, wash themselves or their clothes. Except for the small group of main characters led, of course, by the ophthalmologist’s sighted wife, they cannot organize themselves or collaborate on anything other than rape and extortion.
Saramago’s portrayal of those who were born blind or have been blind for much of their lives is equally misleading. The only character born blind and able to read Braille sides with the criminals and uses his literacy to keep an inventory of their stolen goods and the women they have raped. He even leads them for a time after the sighted woman kills their leader. Aside from the Braille-reading criminal, Saramago’s other scattered references to the blind who lived among the sighted prior to the epidemic depict us as unable to cross the street without sighted help and as lacking the moral compass possessed by our sighted peers.