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Anti-psychiatry? Maybe.

This blog post (my first in nearly two and a half years and my first ever which doesn’t include a poem) is a response to Dariusz Galasinski’s ‘Anti-psychiatry? Not for me.

I grew up in the 1960’s with madness figuring only distantly in my universe. In 1977 I became worried that someone close to me might be suffering ‘mental health problems’ (whatever that meant I wasn’t sure), and therefore requested a session with my mother’s Jungian analyst. It went very well. But subsequent sessions went less well, and I ended up being recommended by him for psychiatric treatment — voluntary at first — then in 1980 I was ‘sectioned’ in a particularly brutal and underhand way. I was offered a ‘bed for the night’ in hospital by an ambulance driver, which I understood as a voluntary admission. When I woke up the next morning my clothes had disappeared. I asked where they were. By way of reply, I was ‘restrained’ (great word, by the way, and so civilised in its connotations; a bit of an irony, that) and injected, straitjacketed and left in a padded cell for a couple hours. Fortunately that was a one-off. But the dosing with chlorpromazine continued and I was soon dribbling away merrily and doing that shuffling thing with my feet, unable either to keep still or to rest. This went on for a few weeks — but my intense anger and resentment persisted about ten years.

Gradually I learned to let go the anger. Through the eighties I became deeper and deeper embroiled in my own paranoid fantasy life, through which it felt like I was in direct encounter with pure evil — located neither in me exclusively nor in the universe exclusively but somewhere in between. ‘Hell’ is a cliched metaphor but a good one. Because I knew this hell, this pure abstract but immanent evil — by the early nineties I no longer estimated psychiatry as a particular evil at all. It was just misguided. I was homeless 1980-95, and therefore completely out of touch with services (thank God), but I was sectioned for a second time in 1995. This changed nothing. I still thought of psychiatry as simply misguided, and even began to find value in some aspects of the ‘treatment’ I was being given. Over the next 10 years I had some wonderful conversations with people whose job it was to help me.

What does it all amount to now? Am I ‘anti-psychiatry’?

I do think the entire notion of illness and treatment is quite simply a metaphor drawn from the physical realm, which has been somehow concretized into something supposedly literal and objective. We talk about ‘mental pain’ and we all know what it means. It doesn’t mean you’re literally suffering stimulation of the physical nerve endings that cause physical pain. It’s a metaphor. But we talk about ‘mental illness’ and the metaphor suddenly grows wings and flies off into the realm of the literal. So much damage is done by this basic mistake and carelessness. A metaphor is something I *choose* to employ, in order to help me communicate and help me think. But there is no choice in having an illness which a doctor has decided you have. In this sense, I am anti-psychiatry, because I believe psychiatrists to be deluded about the objectivity of their invented constructs. An invented construct can be incredibly valuable, the idea of myself as mentally ill can be incredibly valuable, but it is still an invented construct.

I also believe so-called antipsychotic medication works 100% by placebo. It has other effects of course but none of them are beneficial. To me at any rate. So I’m pretty antipsychiatric in that sense too.

Nevertheless I am also quite anti-anti-psychiatry. I don’t like the unreflecting antagonism that characterises so much of the debate, e.g. when calling out psychiatry for its failings becomes a systematic crusade. I wish the crusaders well in a sense. But I can’t identify with them. It’s unbalanced. Even if psychiatry does more harm than good (I think that’s entirely possible) it’s ungracious to ignore the good.

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in old age

a man’s teenage pain
returns by devious paths
to haunt him — just one
final rebellion left
— the act of remembering!

A week ago I had my sixtieth birthday. Ageing seems to be a constant theme of this blog. Employing a title like this, ‘in old age’, does seem a bit melodramatic of me. I dreamed last night I stood accused of being able to alter someone else’s reality just by the act of remembering. I felt innocent. But at the same time, I did in fact feel as though I had engaged in some kind of subversive act, simply by allowing a certain thought into my head — which was the memory of someone named Howard Pollock, whom I knew for a couple of years in the mid-seventies.

fake

given life itself
is such a two-faced bitch — how
in God’s name did I
ever imagine old age
would bring authenticity?

I experienced some difficulty remembering, once this poem was written, how it connected with last night’s dreams. Eventually it came back to me — I dreamed of a huge seawave washing over myself, my sister and my mother. We were standing together on some kind of jetty. We were very nearly washed into the sea, but not quite. It was an encounter with death, and I was surprised to find my sister screaming with fear, while my mother and I were able to reflect more calmly on what had happened, and to face the idea that, by rights, we should be dead, given the strength of the wave. Awake, I connected this immediately with a conversation my sister and I had had a few weeks ago. We are both finding our mother’s increasing inability to run her own life (at the age of 88) to be very disturbing. I told my sister I had been thinking back to last summer when our mother nearly died, due to fluid on the lungs following a heart attack. The doctor was in two minds whether to refer her to Intensive Care. He warned us that the procedures for saving someone are almost as damaging as the condition itself, and that in old people the result could be that they lose all their independence of spirit and become almost a ‘vegetable’. For that reason, it is sometimes better not to intervene and let nature take its course. However, when we told him that, up to this moment, she had been fully independent and living a full and active life, he felt that meant whatever loss of cognition ensued from the interventions, it would probably leave her with a decent quality of life, just somewhat impaired. In my own language, what I suggested now to my sister was that our mother had been brought back from death a year ago — but we only got some of her back. This I had found helpful to remember when trying to summon the patience to deal with her current dependency. Otherwise we are in denial.

My dream depicts a brush with death, survived by the skin of my teeth. I fell to thinking, awake, about whether I myself ‘ought’ to have ‘died’ at some earlier point in my life. Am I living currently with only a small part of my true faculties? Am I really ‘myself’? I will be sixty years old in a couple of weeks. Have I achieved authenticity? Or am I a fake? And the poem was born.

domestic row

mid-battle, something
fundamental shifts — I can
recreate the terms
of this encounter and give
myself to the enemy

The battle in my dream wasn’t at all like a domestic one — if anything it was heroic, like Beowulf and Grendel — but suddenly in the middle of fighting I felt unaccountably empowered to perform an act of incredible self-sacrifice. It was my destiny. In real life yesterday, Liz and I were arguing (quite mildly, actually) about which items of furniture to bring from my flat when I move into hers. I felt quite sure what I wanted — i.e. to have one of my bookcases in the bedroom so that the top could serve as my dressing table. Yet quite suddenly from nowhere I found myself capitulating, proud in the knowledge that it was because I loved her. I quite like that the dream dramatises this as a heroic moment.

silent witness

merely to hint at
whatever I imagine
amounts to my truth
— is already more than I
am capable of saying

I dreamed I was witnessing the birth of a child — except the whole thing was a dramatic simulation. I kept wondering how the actress felt about how close she was coming to having her vagina exposed to the audience. She was delivering the baby standing up, facing the audience. In the end, it seemed that professionalism had won out, and they managed not to show any vagina. I had great difficulty writing a poem about this. The poem ended up being a poem about the difficulty of writing a poem. I guess writing a poem is something like delivering a baby.

scruples

I never told her
sorry — for the way I judged
and condemned — would she
appreciate that gesture
now, forty-five years too late?

It’s an exquisite torture when scruples pull in precisely opposite directions both at once. I would like to apologise to my stepmother for something that happened in 1972, but it may be the wrong thing to do after so much time. I woke this morning with only the vaguest recollection that I had dreamed of her. Sadly, she was not a reassuring presence in the dream — that was all I could remember. Although I get on with her fantastically well these days compared with in the past, still, even just to think of her, is, in a way, to invoke an area of pain and darkness. In the absence of any further dream content available to memory, I fell to wondering what poisoned our relationship. I first met her in 1970 when I was nearly fourteen. She was my father’s ‘mistress’ and he took me to meet her in a cafe — a deliberate effort on his part (and a laudable one perhaps) not to sweep things under the carpet. Unsurprisingly, she was ill at ease and so was I, and we did not exactly hit it off swimmingly. The second time I met her was in 1973. My parents had separated, I had moved out with my mother, and on this occasion I was using the original family home (where my father was still living) simply as somewhere to stay  — when I chanced to enter the kitchen and discovered his mistress (later my stepmother) stirring some soup on the stove. I exploded in anger. I still remember my exact words: I hope you realise my mother will want a divorce after this! Like a Victorian melodrama. My anger was fraudulent: I was aping the high moral tone which I had heard my gay lover adopt so often. Inside I was utterly at a loss for any authentic reaction at all. I have always known this. But only this morning have I wondered about the impact of my condemnation on my stepmother herself. Perhaps it had none. But I owe her still. I did wrong — and it’s scarcely any wonder, viewed in those terms, if now after forty-five years I can’t dream of her without feeling that she represents a problem. It’s all too easy to dismiss my own behaviour in 1972 for being intrinsically meaningless and a sham, and as being the ravings of a disturbed teenager. But I would prefer to take responsibility for it, and in that case I owe her sorry.

WhiteMinorityEuropean #2

I keep rewriting my post from the day before yesterday — the poem itself isn’t one of my best — but the thoughts attached to it are worth clarifying, and that’s a process that improves as I keep revising the text.