Saying the Unsayable


The Importance of Metaphor

We should never underestimate the importance of metaphor in ordinary, everyday communication. We use metaphors when we find it difficult to describe a a 'thing' or an 'experience'. So, we borrow a word or a phrase, which appears similar to the 'thing' or 'experience', we are trying to describe.

Everyday language is peppered with metaphors. We try to land contracts at work or read about the police netting some criminals. Metaphor comes easily. Indeed, our eyes light up, when metaphors ring true. When we are feeling blue or our plans are pretty hazy , the last thing we want is someone taking a dim view of our colourful use of metaphor.

Medical language too is bursting with metaphors. People are in tip top condition, then they fall ill, sink into a coma, or - in mental health - experience breakdowns. Medicine opted, long ago, to adopt mechanics as the overarching metaphor for the human body. So, the heart is a pump, and the brain is a computer - and in Freud's day the mind was a hydraulic system.

In the psychiatric or mental health field some people are described as
playing mind games and others risk being brainwashed. Even neuroscience is replete with metaphors. Neurons are said to be firing as information passes along various neuronal pathways; electrical impulses cross over at various synaptic junctions, as people experience a brain wave or participate in a brainstorming exercise. All these metaphors depend on the hardware of the brain; which help the software of the mind to do its work. Of course there are no actual pathways or junctions; hardware or software. We simply could not discuss the brain without comparing its activities to other things we can see at work in the world outside.

The Tidal Metaphor


In the Tidal Model we use metaphors only to describe the theory of how we function as persons. In Tidal practice we use only the metaphors that people themselves use to describe their own experience.

It is not easy to describe, in simple language, what it means to be a person. Usually, we have to invoke metaphors - saying it is
'as if' we are like this or like that. In the Tidal Model we compare life to a voyage.

"Life is a voyage, undertaken on an ocean of experience. All human development - including the experience of health and illness - involves discoveries made on that oceanic journey.
The body represents the ship of life and the person is the captain.

At critical points on the voyage, people may experience storms, where they may fear becoming all washed up. The ship of life may begin to take in water, and the person may face the prospect of drowning or becoming emotionally or psychically shipwrecked. All these are potent metaphors for the experience of mental or physical distress and difficulty.

At other times the person may be boarded by pirates and robbed of aspects of self-hood - the potent metaphors of the experience of rape, trauma or abuse.

People who have experienced such human storms need to be guided to a safe haven, to undertake the necessary repairs that preface their recovery from the traumas of their voyage. Once the ship of life is made intact again, and the person has regained their sea legs, the ship may set sail again, aiming to chart the return to the life course".

Of course, there is no actual 'voyage' but it is
'as if' we are on just such a voyage.


Psychiatry, madness and mental illness

Like most other life experiences, emotional distress is always represented in metaphors, ranging from being 'heartbroken' to being 'out of our minds'. Regrettably, psychiatry and psychology often takes apart the person's metaphors, transforming the richness of this 'heartfelt' story into professional jargon.

We have often felt that we were
'at the end of our tether'. How long, exactly, that 'tether' might be, we could not say. However, it expresses, perfectly, our sense of of some reassuring link to something strong and stable - like a rock or some firm ground. What that 'tether' might be made of, we could not begin to say, but the metaphor 'holds'. It 'connects' us (metaphorically) to something of 'substance' in our lives

 Writers and poets with experience of emotional distress, have given us a rich catalogue of metaphors to represent such common human problems. Here we offer two important examples.

Sally Clay
( See Sally  has written many powerful essays and poems, all of which represent the 'unsayable' nature of the 'problems in living' she has experienced. We were honoured that Sally agreed to write a foreword to our book - "The Tidal Model: A guide for mental health professionals". (See Publications)

Sally has had experience of problems in living for over four decades. She recognises that although some people do appear to recover, for her recovery is a process, not a place. What she has been 'doing' to heal the various human hurts that she has experienced, and that were inflicted upon her, is possibly even more complex and challenging than entertaining the notion of recovery.

One of Sally's powerful accounts of her struggle with madness can be found in the book "From the Ashes of experience: Reflections on madness, recovery and growth". In her chapter, entitled, '
Madness and Reality', Sally examined her experience of being put in hospital, repeatedly,  'psychosis', and described how she came to understand what had happened to her and what it meant.

"Jacob named the place of his struggle Peniel, which means 'face of God'. I too have seen God face to face, and I want to remember my Peniel. I really do not want to be called recovered. from the experience of madness I received a wound that changed my life. It enabled me to help others and to know myself. I am proud to have struggled with God and with the mental health system. I have not recovered. I have overcome" .

Janet Frame was one of New Zealand's greatest writers whosew work was introduced to a wider audience by Jane Campion's film - An Angel at My Table - which was based on Janet Frame's autobiography.

Janet Frame's writing is informed by many distressing life experiences, including her own descent into what, at the time, was seen as madness. This resulted in almost a decade spent in various mental hospitals. She experienced the death of a brother at birth, another brother disabled by epilepsy, and two sisters who died of heart failure while swimming, an uncle who cut his throat and a cousin who shot his lover, his lover's parents and then himself.

Janet Frame described feeling propelled into a territory that resembled "
where the dying spend their time before death". She added that those who return alive from such a place bring back a point of view "equal in its rapture and chilling exposure to the neighbourhood of the gods and the goddesses". Her book, Faces in the Water, is a fictionalised account of ten years spent in a New Zealand psychiatric hospital. Clearly, the book drew on Janet Frame's own experience:

"I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammer-head sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears. I was alone on the ice. A blizzard came and I grew numb and wanted to lie down and sleep and I would have done so had the strangers arrived with scissors and cloth bags filled with lice and red-labelled bottles of poison, and other dangers...And the strangers, without speaking, put up circular calico tents and camped with me, surrounding me with their merchandise of peril".

The metaphors used by Janet Frame suggest the essence of the Tidal Model: the journey in and out of 'madness' is a fraught one, where things rarely are (exactly) what they seem. As a result, the journey can be all the more perilous for that fact.

The professional helper - whether therapist, nurse, doctor or social support - can learn much about the nature and meaning of human distress and difficulty from the person who owns the story of that distress. First, however, we must acknowledge the importance of the metaphors. Without an appreciation of the metaphorical nature of reality, there can be no story, and perhaps no real chance of recovery.

The Metaphor of Change


The Tidal Model acknowledges that the experience of health and illness is fluid, rather than stable.  Most people take their 'health' for granted. Only when they feel different  do they realise that 'health' may not be present - and so they feel 'ill'. Indeed, all medical diagnoses of 'illness' or 'disorder' involve change.

The Tidal Model assumes that the only constant is the personal experience of change. This is hardly a new perspective on human affairs. Two and a half thousand years ago Euripides observed: "All is change; all yields its place and goes".  In the Tidal Model we believe it is important to remember that 'nothing lasts'. Heraclitus also was aware of the impermanence of the world, as well as our place within it. He said that "nothing is permanent but change" and, as a result,  "we cannot step in the same river twice"

However, people can, and very often do, resist change, which often appears to bring many threats in its wake. As Andre Gide remarked: "Loyalty to the past stops us seeing that tomorrow's joy will come only if today makes way for it".

 Because we recognise that change itself is never permanent we believe it is important to ask people about their experience of change.  How do people change? What is happening within them, around them, and especially in their relationships with the world of others?

Since change is the only constant we must continually ask the person "what needs to be done now?" "What should we do next?"