Where the Torchlight project is going this year and what “storytelling for recovery” means
Aristotle used the word Catharsis (“purification”) to describe the audience’s response to the drama unfolding on the stage. The emotional release that occurs when some moment of tragedy or comedy befalls to the actor is a once-removed, by-proxy way to feel things without undergoing the actual pain or elation of the dramas being enacted. When you wince at a Larry David faux-pas or pump your fist at a win on TV, these spectacles stand in for the minor tragedies and triumphs in our own lives, unfreezing static emotions and articulating the hidden feelings about them.
In popular, wellness-meme terms catharsis can also mean letting go, letting out, ’fessing up or facing one’s demons. These are things that another Greek concept, therapy (θεραπείαl; healing or curing) is good at. In “the talking cure”, the talking itself is often enough: just saying shameful things out loud to someone unmasks them, depriving them of their power.
And to stay classically Greek for one more paragraph, if today we’re under constant pressure to claim to be “passionate” about something (a vocation, job or hobby), the ancients seemed to know that, on the contrary, passions and strong feelings were better off outside the body — literally “expressed”, like stream through a coffee machine, rather than left to eat away at the person from within. Catharsis can be beautiful, ugly or chaotic, but it can also be therapeutic and curative: better out than in, as we might say to a teenager wrapped around the toilet bowl after an experiment with Šlivovica or Green Chartreuse.
I say all this because there is a system in Torchlight System, the project I’ve been presenting for the last year, which interprets some of these not-particularly-new concepts. I’ve been writing all this down since we need a suitably polished explanation (for partners and investors, among others) of what this System is, how we think it can help people, and how it relates to what we’re planning on doing next (TL;DR: publish a second collaborative volume of stories on mental illness and recovery; a second pack of Practice Cards with an extroverted new theme; present them in Firegazing meetups, with a business model built around getting these products to where they might be needed, in schools, businesses, recovery centers, community groups and so on. Several entrepreneur-type friends who are big on LinkedIn have suggested we need a BHAG: so why not aim for 1,000,000 copies over the next five years?)
But in the first place, also it makes me think of a personal moment of catharsis a few year ago which itself was the start of the recovery path I’ve been on ever since. It was a Sunday and I’d been hauled into the crisis center of a Berlin hospital, the syntax of intense suicidal ideation-thoughts still looping through my mind. The doctor asked me to explain what might have led to this, so for the first time ever, I spoke the story out loud: panic attacks at 16, OCD at 21, depression and medication at 30, in between going from sobriety to hedonism as from pillar-to-post, then therapy and life questions culminating in a major depressive episode at 42. I mumbled it all out for half an hour or so, and at the end, staring at the transcript she and I had co-authored, I paused and I thought, “Gosh… that’s quite a lot.” It was the start of things changing.
That was August 2014. Afterwards it took a year to think about and them two years to write and make Torchlight (the memoir of this breakdown and recovery) and the Practice Cards (the stuff that helped me over it). And since then there’s been a year of passing copies around, soft-launching, word-of-mouth-ing, vlogging, crowdfunding a second printafter the first sold out in days, and then devising the second run of publications above, and ideas for an app.
More recently still I’ve been on the road again to talk about this stuff, back to the special school in Lincolnshire, to a community outreach project in Glasgow and a wellbeing Festival in Edinburgh. Later this month I’ve been invited to talk (and listen) at a City law firm, a school up north, a shop, and, with Kati Krause from Anxy magazine, a journalism festival in Umbria with a discussion format for media types entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Mental Health”.
We’ve called this project Torchlight System without ever being explicit about what that system is, but these travels have helped test some assumptions.
What I mean is that doing all this confirmed my sense that telling a relatable, authentic story IRL (person-to-person, mano-a-mano, ideally in a circle of chairs in a chilly church hall) assists others in telling their own, which in itself can help, because telling is both cathartic and therapeutic: the effect of speaking these things or, addressing them, acts directly upon both the teller and the listener (it helps to be honest when you’re confronting demons: candour blinds them temporarily, and while it’s never easy either to know exactly what you think and feel, there’s little point in euphemising things or leaving stuff out. In any case, it’s a therapist’s job to intuit what you’re not saying.)
Similarly, speaking can help the teller as much as the listener, or to put it another way: if it helps you to say it, it will probably help someone to hear it. At least, this is what I’ve put in the writer’s guidelines I’ve been mailing out to potential contributors to Torchlight volume II.
I hope the image above makes clear what the thrust of this “system” is, a sequence from acceptance (asking for help, or at least coming to address an issue) to catharsis (speaking it out loud, writing it down, making something out of it, or objectifying it) to change (moving on and living well on the other side of those moments). I’ve illustrated these successive steps with the emblems of the Torchlight project — the #Ask For Help message, the Torchlight publication, the Practice Cards — since they’re what I have to hand.
But if that sounds a bit narcissistic, as if I’m saying “Do what I did, and you’ll feel better”, I’d counter that the same arc governs more famous stories from the canon of recovery literature, from William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” and James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces” to Amy Liptrot’s “The Outrun”, along with the case studies in Irvin D. Yalom’s “Love’s Executioner”, and the tales of human transformation in Vincent Deary’s truly brilliant book “How We Are”. These along with what I’ve heard on the road suggest to me that this three-part narrative is an ancient story which needs to be told and retold again and again, with different actors and effects in different situations and eras.
We break down but we find a way, and we get better again.
So much for the literary theory. What all that means in practical, material terms is that this project aims to go beyond raising awareness and destigmatising mental illness by talking about it, by which I mean, expressing, recording, making and publishing about it: mental health doing rather than only mental health talking. Producing publications, finding containers for the content, prototyping tools for that help and sharing practices, and systematising them into something that can work for anyone (and I mean anyone: here’s a film I made for the pupils of Ash Villa School one how to make your own publication). I guess that these days we’d all agree that mental health is something that should be talked about, but I above all I’m interested in how storytelling technologies — which are social technologies, really, the ways in which we relate to one another — can assist and supercharge the effects.
So that’s the system, and that’s the plan. We’re aiming to publish again later this year, and if in the meantime if you’re interesting in getting involved or helping out, drop me a line.
Stay well and keep practicing.