Mental Health Writing Exercises for Adults

The Speaking Cure, David Homel

Mental Health


Set in Belgrade during the recent civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, The Speaking Cure, David Homel’s novel of adultery and political dissidence, grabs the reader’s interest from the start and never lets go. Alek is a clinical psychologist requisitioned to work with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress. A passive opponent of the regime, Alek proves a reluctant therapist. What makes his job extremely difficult is a general atmosphere of cynicism and despair in a country ruled by an inept, corrupt, and basically irrational dictatorship. Furthermore, he lives in a culture in which the concept of mental health is often ridiculed as a decadent illusion. However, Alek also realizes that normalcy is a relative concept, and that, compared to the unspeakable horrors of the war, even life in a depressed city is some kind of relief.

Meanwhile, I began to make a log of the soldiers’ calls. It was part of my job. Maybe, someday, someone would want to know what the complaints were.

Soldier I reported trauma as a result of being dispatched to a village where he had spent his summer vacations as a boy, and having to destroy that village, including the very barn where an enemy girl— she hadn’t been an enemy at the time, but his sweetest saviour—had slipped her hand into his britches and freed his dove.

Soldier 2 complained that his wife accused him of being too rough with her the last time he came home on leave. He, on the other hand, was sure he hadn’t done anything different. Not that he could remem­ber what it was like before.

Soldier 3 wanted to know how much was the right amount of pleas­ure to be derived from a really good series of kills. He told me that he intended on keeping his sanity despite the war, and surviving it and being a normal man afterwards, and he wanted advice about how not to turn into a sadist.

Soldier 4 wouldn’t hang up until I gave him a quick and easy recipe for feeling nothing, but which would be one hundred per cent reversible when no longer needed.

Soldier 5 wondered what was so bad about bringing his hand grenades with him when he went to his in-laws’ house for supper.

Soldier 6 described the following happy turn of events. The fighting had taken him to the obscure, muddy crossroads village where his mean, stingy drunk of a father had retired to drink away the rest of his days. He had used the opportunity and his Kalashnikov to do what he’d always dreamed of. He turned every piece of furniture in his father’s room to splinters, shattered every window and door, and raked off all the stucco from the outside of his building, forcing his terrified father to jump out the window and break his ankle. Now he was in trouble with his commanding officer. But wasn’t this kind of thing what the war was really all about? When I agreed with him, he asked my help in preparing an insanity defence.

Soldier 7 told me that his girlfriend had tested positive for the AIDS virus, which she had contracted from her last boyfriend, who shot up heroin before he died. Should he bother getting a test, or would the war take care of it? […]

And so the days went. The fear of losing control accompanied every call. I didn’t see how any side could win a war with soldiers like these. Then again, maybe the well-adjusted ones weren’t calling up. [.]

I MUST HAVE FALLEN asleep, because when I opened my eyes, I saw the light had changed. We were parked in front of a giant mural painted on a stone wall. Here, we are punished only by God! it read.

Lamentation or boastfulness? I stepped out of the car and joined Nedic.

“This is your destination,” he told me.

“Somehow I’m not surprised.”

Graffiti was part of the everyday landscape in Belgrade. Why didn’t you stay home, Christopher Columbus? Can I paint my apartment, or are you going to bomb us? But I had never seen anything like this. It wasn’t graffiti, it was art. Primitive, brutal, naive, entirely honest and uncom­promised. I had never seen anything so unself-conscious. For that reason alone, the work was miraculous in this theatrical nation of OUTS.

The colours were flat and garish, entirely without concern for the modulations of good taste. Every letter of the message was alive and twisting like snakes, and when I took a few steps closer, I saw that the letters were composed of thousands of tiny landscapes and figures. It was a battlefield between figure and ground. A gestalt nightmare. The closer you got to the message, the more the message disappeared, until there was nothing left but chaos. Men with their uniforms on fire, a burning pavilion that could have been this one, creatures that were half vegetable and half animal and that would have given Hieronymous Bosch a run for his money, faces composed of faces, species of fish that had not been discovered yet, a man plowing a field as fields had been plowed before the invention of the tractor, except that the crop being harvested were human heads with the scalps torn away and the minds exposed.
I looked at Nedic. He was wearing a self-satisfied smile. “What do you think of the art?” I asked him.

“I don’t like crazies. They’ve got too much time on their hands.” “If you don’t like crazies, Nenad, you must spend a lot of time dis­liking people. The whole country’s an asylum.”

“Sure, Doc, sure it is. There’s something you don’t get here. These people were crazy before the war. This is a real asylum.”

Creative Writing Assignment I
Imagining a therapist’s point of view, and following David Homel’s model above, write your assessment of Soldier 8, Soldier 9 and Soldier 10. Use the third person and a different setting for each.Homel’s scene is set in Belgrade but you can set it in any war zone today.
Between 400 and 700 words.

Creative Writing Assignment II
From the « Speaking Cure » to the writing cure. Give a name to a soldier (whatever war, whatever historical period),and have his experiences in the first person.
Between 400 and 600 words.

Creative Writing Assignment III
A mental patient has painted a mural on a large stone wall. Choose any painter, with the exception of Hieronymous Bosch, whom the patient may have unconsciously copied to express his feelings, and write your interpretation of the mural.You may use any historical or geographical setting.
Between 400 and 700 words.

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