Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’


there’s no need to prove
sanity or madness — truth
is the faculty
of compassion, discovered
in myself — of all places

I quite like this poem. It just manages, by the skin of its teeth, to avoid pretentious moralising. I dreamed of my maternal grandfather, who sang bass for many years in Carlisle Cathedral Choir. He was a working class lad who left school at fourteen, had a wonderful singing voice, but was also perhaps too fundamentally scared of life to make good. In my dream, I saw him going off somewhere to practice his singing, and prove himself, and I felt sad because I knew his efforts were doomed. He would fail to break through the barrier of his own neurosis. Apart from that, I also dreamed of my mother’s Jungian analyst, Fred Plaut. Yesterday evening I worked quite late on a talk I will be giving this week, on spirituality and mental health. Central to the talk, is my own ‘mental illness’, and also the experience of hallucinating a flood of gold light pouring from Fred Plaut’s eyes when I first met him. I’ve analysed this experience quite successfully I think, in the talk. But unless I can talk with compassion (towards myself) it will end up with me hiding my vulnerability behind the analysis.


absolute beginners

two men in a room —
one mad and the other sane
— we’re actually
paying them to occupy
those roles — what is wrong with this?

The doctor gets a salary. The patient gets Disability Living Allowance or God knows what. A relatively meagre amount — but payment all the same, made for no other reason than because of a perceived ‘mental illness’. See my post here about being a professional schizophrenic. When Bowie’s song Absolute Beginners came out, I remember not understanding the title or lyrics, and making a decision to think of it as referring to human civilisation as being still in its infancy (even though we tend to think of it as having reached a peak). I called this poem originally kindergarten. In a way, I would prefer to leave the ambiguity of the question (what is wrong with this?) intact. But whether the poem’s called absolute beginners or kindergarten, it’s just a way of saying in effect that you would have to be a two-year-old in order not to be able to see that something’s wrong with those two men being paid to occupy those two roles. My dreams last night were somewhat confused, but I had the feeling of being a psychiatric patient in hospital — a memory of the weekly ‘ward round’ where the psychiatrist reviews your case in the presence of all his colleagues. The power imbalance in those situations — particularly if you happen to be under ‘section’ at the time — is surreal. I had a conversation on Wednesday night with a colleague where I put it to him that the idea of the mind being ‘ill’ is simply a metaphor and nothing but a metaphor. He had great difficulty grasping this. To do him credit, he tried. I too had great difficulty, trying to grasp what was his difficulty, and trying to elucidate exactly what I meant. Even now, I feel like saying to him in exasperation: ‘How can you not see that “illness” (as in “mentally ill”) is a metaphor?’

adult themes

created by hand
overflowing with colour
— this child’s picture book
tells of how a prostitute
advertised sex and found love

Actually, although the picture book in my dream did show a prostitute on one particular page (and I was hunting for that page) — there was nothing to indicate it was a child’s picture book other than my waking prejudice — that a story told entirely in pictures must be a child’s book. But once the incongruence between ‘prostitute’ and ‘child’s story book’ had occurred to me, it became the subject of the poem. Two things to be clear about. Firstly the pictures themselves had a compelling quality of self-exploration, which I suspect probably derives from my familiarity with the work of Charlotte Salomon. Secondly, in the dream I saw myself both as customer and lover for the prostitute, and this fusion of roles derives from real life, when I spent twelve months or so in the late eighties wooing (unsuccessfully) a stripper whom I knew only on stage, because I was a regular member of her audience. It’s an odd fact that, in all the many drafts of my autobiography and in all the many verbal testimonies I have delivered telling the story of my ‘mental illness’ — somehow this stripper/prostitute/sex worker whom I imagined I could love, has so far managed to stay out of the picture completely. Considering her huge impact on my life this is very curious. Maybe in some misguided way I am trying to shield my own audience as though they were children.


I hold my breath — swim
underwater — re-emerge
again and again
— what is the sea? — a place of
death — or life — or both at once?

Diving underwater as a Jungian symbol of encounter with the unconscious, has been a constantly recurring dream image throughout my life. Four or five years ago, I heard Janice Hartley give a brief talk about her understanding of how The Hero’s Journey (a recurrent theme across all the world’s mythologies) can help make sense of so-called mental illness. I was deeply impressed. When I was a child I had a paperback by Rosemary Sutcliffe with illustrations by Charles Keeping, which was a retelling of Beowulf. It should have hit me sooner than this morning, that my lifelong-recurring dream of diving (in which I feel myself to be the hero) connects with the myth of Beowulf. Isn’t it about time I got to grips with Beowulf, the original poem? Sadly I find I seem to have culled my copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation!


the Queen of England’s
power — a contradiction
in terms — the shadow
of history lingering
wistfully in broad daylight

A colleague wrote me an email yesterday using the term absolute relativism. Without going into what she probably meant, the context had to do with our work providing peer support alternatives to the existing dominance of medical models in the understanding of so-called ‘mental illness’. In my dream, the Queen was dismissing me as a crazy person or ‘nutter’ — almost as though she had been the voice of the tabloid press. It seems likely we will look back on the 20th century psychiatrist from the vantage point of the future, much in the same way that we look back on the absolute monarch of mediaeval times. I wonder whether, by then, we will be able to cherish the emasculated psychiatrist for the heritage he represents, as most English people do the Queen. It’s a serious comparison. The absolutism of a psychiatrist who believes in the objective scientific truth of his subjective judgements, bears direct comparison with the monarch whose absolutism means a belief in his or her divine right.


seventies heartthrob
David Soul — look at him now
barely able to
walk — so old, so old — more like
a wizened tree than a man

I don’t really have much to add to this by way of explanation. Dreaming of the name Soul must certainly have been suggested by the chapter of the book I’m reading by Charles Nicholl called The Chemical Theatre. It’s about the influence of 16th century contemporary alchemical publications upon the imaginations and writings of Shakespeare, Jonson and Donne. I was reading about Donne yesterday, with examples from his poetry. There was much talk of souls.

The theme of old age — or at any rate late middle age — i.e. the age I am now — cropped up yesterday in the course of my delivering a testimony of lived experience of paranoia as part of my job. I succeeded quite well, better than usual when I do these talks, in getting across the general shape of my life (as it appears to me), as being largely a story of homelessness and mental illness with just a little coda of the most recent ten years spent being ‘normal’ with a job and a relationship. My audience, during questions, kindly asked me how difficult must it have been to adjust to the ways of society at such a late age.

Arising out of my blog two days ago about Stendhal, I was reflecting that he died aged 59, the age I am now. Shakespeare and Beethoven both died in their late fifties too (actually Shakespeare was 52). In that sense, I am an old man.

life skills

the older I grow,
the more I blame myself for
deficient life skills —
no longer claiming status
as a moral invalid

I’m struggling hard in this poem. And not sure exactly what with. Remember one of the labels once in fashion to describe the mentally ill? Morally defective. I just googled ‘morally defective’ and came up with a classic example. An article in The Lancet (a prestigious British mainstream medical magazine) from 1904:

THE PROBLEM OF THE MORALLY DEFECTIVE by W.A Potts B.A. CANTAB., M.D. EDIN. & BIRM., M.R.C.S. ENG. — A paper read at a combined conference of the National Association for the Feeble-minded and the National Special Schools Union on Oct. 13th, 1904.

Morally defective covered both mental illness and learning disabilities, at this point in history, I think. Anyhow, in my poem I suspect what’s happening is that I’m speaking with the voice of a certain side of me which is simply the voice of 19th century moralism. I’m trying to express a sensation of having spent my whole life convinced that, by having low expectations of myself (e.g. never expecting to develop any social skills, always thinking of myself as a vulnerable recipient of psychotherapy), I could somehow dodge the bullet. Recently, and particularly thinking about last night’s dream, I’ve begun to feel as though my own shortcomings really do matter, and I can’t dodge the consequences. In fact this is thoroughly 21st century. The feeling of culpability draws energy from a punitive element in the collective attitude which hasn’t disappeared at all. It’s merely learned to disguise itself more skillfully. Take the phrase life skills. It’s a relatively new piece of jargon but, in proposing a standard to be met (or fallen short of), serves a purpose not so far removed from morally defective. The severity of the superego reveals itself anew, in fresh language but fundamentally unchanged, with every generation. This severity also seems to reveal itself internally with increasing clarity, the older I get. Not only that, but the tendency to identify with it is increasing — like a force of nature, fruitless to resist. In my dream last night I was trying to heal my friend of a sickness apparently incurred by my misdeeds. I felt the full weight of responsibility for the state he was in, and for bringing him out of it. I thought I might succeed with this, by putting my arm around his shoulders and holding him like that. The friend in question was in fact my best friend at Cambridge.