By Sara Catanese
“There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization” (Epilogue of the Interim Constitution of South Africa, 1993)
I didn’t expect that attending the world premiere of “Healing Voices” at the Boston International Film Festival last spring would mean more than just watching a documentary. After the credits started rolling and the house lights came up, for a moment, I felt like I was back in South Africa, where I spent time working as a health intern in the underdeveloped, post-apartheid townships of Cape Town. My tears took me by surprise.
Ubuntu. It is a South African term meaning “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” and it was the guiding philosophy fueling the transition from apartheid to a free state. Ubuntu is more than a concept or ideology though, it’s a feeling. For me, it is a force that moves me to smile, and cry. It is everything that loneliness is not. It’s seeing myself in other people–and other people in myself.
My main motivation for attending the “Healing Voices” premiere was to gather information for my family. My experience in supporting my brother Julian, who currently struggles with hearing distressing voices, had revealed to me a broken mental health care system constructed within the broader context of a misinformed culture. Part of the reason why my brother and I connect so fluidly, and why this issue deeply resonates with me, is because I also have personal experience being diagnosed and forced, for two months, into a locked “treatment” setting. And I have experienced the dehumanization that comes with that. I was thirteen at the time. I’m twenty five now.
What really took me by surprise was that “Healing Voices” is grounded in an ideology that applies to much more than the experiences of those who have interacted with the mental health system. For me, the film is so powerful because it lessens the fear of perceived difference that usually separates people, and instead seeks connectedness in the unifying message that profound struggles – psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, existential, and/or any permutation of these – can and do relate to anybody who possesses consciousness. All of us. “Healing Voices” is not about taking sides. It’s not about ‘us’ versus ‘them’. It’s not about ‘psychiatric survivors’ versus ‘psychiatrists’. It’s not a ‘counter’ narrative, it’s just a different one. “Healing Voices” is not meant to polarize, it’s meant to synergize. And that happens when people come together, and respectfully listen to one another. No hierarchy. No labels attached. It happens when we recognize the complex experiences that underlie individual perspectives, and when we respond to them with love, humility, and honesty. Without exception.
I’ll admit that I’m bitter. Angry, really, when I dwell on some of my past experiences. When I see my brother at the state hospital, reduced to an animal, forcibly medicated, all alone, my first impulse is to grab him, make a run for it, light a match, and never look back. However, anger is a divisive force, that if left unresolved, breeds fear and hatred, both within and amongst people. And when equal and opposite forces, matter and anti-matter, collide, there is only destruction. In hurting others, we hurt ourselves. Only in helping others, can we truly help ourselves.
When Jules and I were in high school, we made a pact to get tattoos together. Months later, our plans were a thing of the past. Forgotten. Then there was school break. I flew to Florida with a friend. My former self, a bit more impulsive than I am today, went behind Julian’s back. I broke the long-forgotten pact and got a tattoo without him. With guilt and shame, I texted him, admitting to this utter betrayal. He responded with a picture. It was fake. It had to be. Funny, Jules. It was a picture of his forearm, half-tattooed, the tattoo-artist’s hand and needle hovering just above his skin. Turned out it wasn’t a joke. It was real-time coverage of Jules getting his tattoo. Here we were, separated by hundreds of miles, managing to break our pact at the exact same time. Even though walls and locked doors, lines and boxes, separate me from Jules today, the bird tattooed on my ankle is a constant reminder of the curious ways that we are inextricably and deeply connected. Entangled.
Labels, categories, diagnoses: the lines and boxes. These things carry so little information about an individual, and worse, create the illusion that our differences outweigh our commonalities. Labels are for objects, and human beings are not objects. When we define others and when we define ourselves, we limit who we are and what we can become. How we can change. The “Healing Voices” screening presented exactly that: the opportunity to change. Together. Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t control the tears rolling down my cheeks. As someone who prefers to fly quietly under the radar, undetected, it’s hard to let the canary sing. The feeling was, if nothing else, a sign that I was connected to this. Maybe there was something more I could do. I was entangled.
I like to think that we are all authors of a personal narrative, and that the evolution of that narrative is fueled by all of the notes and edits that are made along the way, by our brothers, sisters, friends, strangers. Our peers. “Healing Voices” had a profound and unexpected impact on my narrative. I would not have predicted that I would have been so moved by the film. And I would not have predicted that I would later have the privilege of being part of the “Healing Voices” Social Action Team. The unpredictable, the improbable, the unknown. Those unwritten pages of your narrative are the most important. And the most beautiful. My story becomes–only with yours. And yours with mine.
You have a voice that needs to be heard. And I’m listening. We’re listening.
For information about organizing a “Healing Voices – Recovering Community” screening, please visit www.HealingVoicesMovie.com