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Am I Mad?

Mental Health

Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 143[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] January 1985[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

[image, unknown] INSANITY & YOUTH: Liverpool [image, unknown]

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Am i mad?
It’s Tony asking the question. He is in a mental hospital
outside Liverpool. In the past his decisions have included
whether to heave a brick through a shop window. Now he is
deciding whether to throttle Staff Nurse Boyle.

The adolescent unit is detached from the main hospital. From the outside it looks like a nice, big old house. But inside, one whiff of that mix of pee and disinfectant that you only seem to find in looney bins, and you know that this is nobody’s home.

But people live here. I’ve lived here almost a year now, since I was seventeen.

Sometimes I see it burning down, I throw petrol bombs through the windows and stand laughing as it burns. I’m scared sometimes I’ll do it. I hate it here. But they don’t listen. No-one listens to you when you’re bonkers.

‘That’s an interesting hallucination. Why do you feel this urge to destroy by fire?’

I don’t, it just scared me. But no-one listens to me.

My palm is full of pills. I won’t take them. I did at first, but they made me sick and shaky and the voices in my head and the things I saw became blurry and more frightening than before. So now I spit the pills down the bog. I tried to tell them but they just change them; trying this, trying that, and I got sleepy and sores on my face, so now I spit them down the bog and no-one notices.

‘Swallow your drugs, Tony, right here in front of me, like a kid who can’t be trusted, because that’s just what too are, aren’t you?’

Sarcastic bugger. But nurses are never wrong. It’s always you and your sickness and if you complain you’re paranoid and if you’re sarky back you’re aggressive. You learn the rules fast in here.

Mr Anderson is down the bog, as usual, floating beneath the pills and the sick, nattering the way he used to in school assembly:

‘You’ll amount to nothing, Newman, if you’re unqualified. Exams, good job, nothing. Swallow the drugs, swallow the lies,’

I won’t. I did Joint Matriculation Board. ‘This is to certify’... nothing. The dole queue. Shuffle forward, sign your name and everyone shuffles forward and swallows their pride and there’s nothing but flames bursting out of windows and the colours are running and melting like ice cream and it’s warm and free and I’m laughing and happy...

Whatever it was they gave me made me sick for days. My hands shook so I couldn’t come to therapy and work on my ornament that I’m making for my Mum. I modelled it in clay and now I’m painting it. Poor old Mum, she’s had it rough, eight kids and a boozy old man. Sometimes I think I’m him, sometimes I’m no-one. I lose track, one day... the next... empty... Mum at home, kids at school, Dad at work, me with no job.

‘Where hate you been all day’?’

‘No where’.

Looking at things, shops and cars, not for me, nothing. And I was angry. Doors opening in my head and I walked in and through doors and doors but never the right one. ‘We regret that your application has not been successful’ then all the doors were closed and I was angry and lost.

‘Look, if you want to work on your model, then work. And if you don’t want to, go back to your ward and let someone come down who does.’

Not listening.

‘No, you never do bloody listen, do you, Tony?’

Did I speak’? Or did he read my mind’?

‘All we awant to do is help you but you won’t be helped. You don’t really think you’re sicj, do you ? (natter, natter). Well you are, and until you accept it you won’t get well. We can’t know the cause of your sickness unless you tell us what goes on in your head and you won’t (put my hands over my ears; shut up his natter). See? I try to help you and you just cut out, You want to stay sick That in itself is sick"

Silence, the crash of the ornament against the wall shut him up. But the ornament lay bust in bits on the floor. And the anger bursts through my head and I couldn’t stop hitting him and then my hands were round his neck and he gagged and choked and then I felt a pain in my groin so I folded and then they dragged me away.

So here I am, having a ‘little chat’ with the shrink, and the social worker, and the charge nurse, and a couple of students, all scribbling down notes. The same old questions, over and over.

‘You could have seriously hurt Staff’ Nurse Boyle, why did you want to hurt him?’

I didn’t, I couldn’t stop myself.’

‘Do you feel that you cannot control your actions?’

‘Course I can, but he was on at me nattering.

‘He was trying to help you.’

‘He wouldn’t give over! I am not paranoid!’

‘Do you feel that you are paranoid?’

There’s no point.

‘Why do you want to hurt things.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘ You tried to hurt Nurse Boyle. You destroyed your clay model. You hallucinate about destroying thhis house. Do you sometimes feel that you want to hurt yourself?’

‘I don’t want to kill myself.’

‘You said kill, Tony, I didn’t. Do you sometimes feel you want to kill yourself?’

There’s no point. And they’re all scribbling like mad. They won’t let me read it.

‘Why did you want to destroy your child?’

Can’t let that drop, can you, Dr bead-jiggling, candle-lighting, bloody Flynn?

‘It seemed best I’ve told you before.’

‘Why didn’t you use contraception?’

‘That’s down to her, not me.

‘ You did not want to accept that responsibility?’

I knew what you wanted me to say, I’d say it.

‘You didn’t want the responsibility of a child either, did you?’

‘Nor did she. She went to her doctor but he doesn’t believe in it and she didn’t know where to go. It was her too, I don’t want to destroy things.’

‘Destroying things brought you here.’

‘Drop it, for Christ’s sake,’

‘Are you angry at me Tony?’

No. Swallow it. You can’t beat them.

‘You were smashing windows in the shopping precinct. Not taking things, just smashing windows.’

‘There was nothing to take, it was an ice cream parlour. My mates were doing it, you have to stick to your mates, so they’ll look up to you. Bloody hell, no-one else looks up to kids who haven’t got jobs.’

Are you angry at me Tony?’

There are flames in my head, flames -


‘You were so angry at the magistrate, weren’t you. So angry the solicitor recommended you for psychiatric reports.

‘I was entitled to be angry. He said I was a lout and a thug. I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m not angry, I don’t want to hurt things. Can I leave now please?

‘Of course, you can leave any time you like.’

Leave, Magic word round here, that. We ~ all say it. even some of the nurses. One nurse left quicker than she wanted to when she wouldn’t give someone shocks and they gave her the boot to make the others toe the line. I’ve said I want to leave since the first day I came in. But what’s outside’? What’s at the other end of the drive’? Another interviewing room with three other people in it, another line to stand in, and empty, aimless days going on forever. I’ve got no mates outside now; they laugh at me when I go home at weekends. I’ve got mates in here. And people don’t blame you when you’re sick, not even when you smash things, not the way they blame you for being on the dole. Me and my mates used to come here to have a laugh at the loonies and we’d look at the gardens and this big house and say they were bloody well off. I’ll go home one day. when things are better and I can get a good job and a place of my own. But not yet. not yet awhile.

Christine Hughes was formerly a community volunteer in a mental hospital.

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The Facts

[image, unknown] . Out of a population of 56 million in the UK, at least 5 million people consult their doctor for emotional and mental problems every year. The numbers of those classifies as mentally ill is increasing

. Approximately 10 % of the UK population are likely to be admitted to a mental hospital sometimes during their lives.

. In 1980 there were 76,000 people in mental hospitals; 1,000 had been there for more than 25 years.
Source: ‘People with mental illnesses’ by S. Hebditch

. Mental illness and Class : such disorders occur far more frequently n the lower social classes. An American survey of New Haven found that the 18% of people in the lowest social class contributed 38% of mental patients; the 3% of people from the highest social class were represented by 1% of patients
Source: Hoolingshead & Redlich, 1958

. Treatment and class bias: psychotherapy is most frequently given to middle class patients, while drastic organic treatments like electro-convulsive treatment and drugs are disproportionately given to patients from the lower social classes. Working class patients are also far more likely to have been simply given any specific treatment
Source: Myers a & Bean, 1968

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[image, unknown] So the courts put Tony into psychiatric care for vandalising a shopping centre. You make his decision seem so logical. But most young people aren’t destructive. Why excuse him?

No-one is trying to excuse Tony and he certainly never claims he has done no harm. The point is that seen through Tony’s eyes there are reasons for his choices. If the assumption that his every word is suspect because he is a psychiatric patient is left aside, his behaviour, even if it cannot be excused, is logical.

[image, unknown] Why so you mention his background, the seven brothers and sister, the ‘boozy’ old man?

I gave a little information so readers can understand his social origins. His psychiatrist is from a more affluent background and this sets up a barrier between them. The doctor cannot leave aside his middle-class values when considering Tony’s behaviour. Tony’s failure to use contraception is interpreted by the psychiatrist as a fear of responsibility. But in Tony’s working class milieu, it is a widely accepted belief that contraception is a wholly females responsibility.

[image, unknown] All these hallucinations about flames in the head and destruction generally, what’s it all about?

Tony’s hallucination express his rage, frustration and sense of resentment. He is angry at his psychiatrist and at the world, which he thinks has duped him telling him that if he passed his exams (which he did) he would get a good job (which he can’t), despises and punishes him (because he is unemployed) and denies him the glittering prizes he sees in shop windows. Another reason for the hallucinations is that, as Staff Nurse Boyle says, he wants to stay ‘sick’. He finds that life in a psychiatric hospital has as much to offer him as life in the world outside but without the condemnation. Which says a lot for the world outside.

[image, unknown] 'Dr bead-jiggling, candle-lighting, bloody Flynn'; why insult the Roman Catholic faith like this?

Tony mentally ridicules Dr Flynn's Catholicism because he realises the doctor's determination to view Tony's and his pregnant girlfriend's mutual choice of abortion, as an urge to destroy. That determination arises from Flynn's own inability to see beyond his own Roman Catholic beliefs rather than any inherent pathology in the decision itself.

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