Wednesday, 13 February 2013

What does it Feel like to go Mad?

I am very enthusiastic just now about writing a novel.  I have not quite finished my recovery book, but I think a break from it might not be a bad thing - the more perspective the better, for a book of that sort.  I will finish it though - there's nothing more annoying than leaving loose ends.

Anyway, the novel hopefully will do a similar job to the recovery book, only more subtly - show people that there is hope for a fulfilling life after serious mental illness.  The advantage of fiction of course, is that you can reach a larger audience - or to put it a different way, preach without appearing to do so. 

The novel is coming on beautifully - or it was the last time I looked at it, several days ago...  It is light-hearted in tone - at least it is intended to be.  I think everything in life benefits from being leavened with humour.  And it is certainly more enjoyable to write a funny book for a change.

I am still trying to juggle several other tasks at the same time.  I don't mind this though - I like variety in life, it makes me feel more free.  Hopefully a couple of my other projects will be tied up soon, and I will have more time to devote to this one.  Although I am taking on something else new in a couple of weeks' time - a writing group, which I will be co-ordinating for Rethink, the mental health charity.  I am looking forward to running another writing group. 

Back to the title of this post.  I was thinking about questions, about how questions from children especially can somehow get to the nub of what matters.  And I thought this question - what does it feel like to go mad? - is something that a child might ask, and that the answer, honestly given, might be illuminating.

This is how it felt when I went mad when I was nineteen years old:

I was very scared.  I thought the world was literally caving in around me, and that I was powerless to prevent this happening.  At other times I felt that I had superhuman power, and that everything which happened was about me. 

I thought I was being followed.  I also thought I was a spy.  When I looked at the newspaper I could not read it - when I did eventually manage to decipher the words, they made no sense.  But on occasions I felt that I understood everything about Life and the World. 

I was a very quiet person.  Yet suddenly, with the onset of madness, I talked non-stop.  At times I knew I was incoherent, and yet I could not regain control of myself.  But sometimes I enjoyed suddenly possessing the power of speech - the ability to speak loudly, and to make other people laugh (because I was funny some of the time, quite deliberately so)  pleased me, after feeling so hemmed in and shy for so long. 

Some of the sensations were quite physical.  For example, I was convinced that I had been shot, and my heart would flutter painfully whenever I thought about this, for a long time afterwards.  But in some ways, my body was silenced - I didn't need to eat (unusually for me, I'd always had a huge appetite) and I don't remember paying any attention to my other physical needs. 

So, being mad is strange, and contradictory.  It is not a constant state - even in my maddest days I had some lucid moments.  Madness was a terrifying state, and yet an exhiliarating one too.  It was not all bad.

It only became all bad when I was hospitalised.  The brutality of the treatment, and the pain, and the sheer shock of it all - there was no up side to all that.

I keep going back to something Chrys Muirhead wrote on Mad in America - that people can't bear to see others suffering and not try to help, which is why those who have mental breakdowns are treated forcibly in hospital.  I think she is right.

But if only more people realised that the suffering in mental hospitals is worse than the suffering outside them.  If only there was better understanding, and more proper therapy in these places.

If only mental hospitals were not places of fear and shame, but of listening and learning; therapeutic environments where people could acquire the life skills that they lacked.  Safe havens that people would leave healthier happier, and better equipped to face the world.  

Failing that (and maybe it is a big ask for any institution, especially government-run ones) if only people did not have to be incarcerated in these places at all. 

It would help if the issue of violence was separated from that of mental illness - as it should be.  If people are violent then they should be treated in the criminal justice system.  Those who are 'just' mad can be treated in the community - it has been done in the USA in the Soteria houses, it is being done in Nothern Finland under the Open Dialogue system.  In Finland, mental hospitals are now practically non-existent - I've said it before and I'll say it again - because first episodes of psychosis are treated so effectively that they never recur.

A country without 'schizophrenia' is a reality.  How long will it take our country to acknowledge that reality and to learn from it, and to implement such a system here?


  1. Don't think I could agree more about the issues of care in hospitals and the community. The first hospital I was in, I had unfeeling nurses being patronising or even rude most of the time and I became worse rather than better. After all, when another patient has just thrown you to the floor and you start crying and shaking about it, how would they have felt to have been told 'You need to pull yourself together, the ward is usually a lot worse than this!' and having a nurse shake her head in disgust at you? I know it upset me, I'm sure it would have upset them!

    But care in the community here is also lacking. After spending months asking for extra support, I was finally listened to in October and was assigned a care coordinator to see on a weekly basis, I saw her twice and then she went off sick. It took three months of phone calls, where I'd had a duty worker slam the phone down on me, and a visit to the team where a male manager told me to 'keep busy' and then made out that my crying was due to my time of the month but finally I was seen last Tuesday (2 days ago). I dread to think what would have happened if I'd been an emergency. CMHT says to go to A & E, A & E tell you to phone CMHT or out of hours, CMHT and out of hours repeat the go to A & E. I worry more about what would happen as a result of CMHT neglect if I relapsed rather than the relapse itself.

    However, our mental health system is a lot better than other countries so I shouldn't really complain. But there is so much room for improvement that I can't help but complain! If I did relapse it would probably be because of all the stress I've had to endure from my CMHT!! :)

  2. Wonderful post. Clear and lucid description of the confusing feelings and sensations that accompany going mad, so to speak...Thank you!

  3. Thanks, Pamela.
    I have just had a quick look at your website, which I will go back to later on today, when I have more time. It looks fascinating! I have heard of you, and read about you, so i am honoured that you have found my blog and commented on it. I hope to be in touch again soon. All the best, Louise.

    Hi Katy
    Hospitals of all kinds are pretty grim, aren't they? I am just about to write a post about a frustrating experience I had this morning. I suppose all we can do is concentrate on the things that are within our control - how we process what happens and how we react to it and feel about it. But once we are out of control - 'mad' - things become even more difficult, because we are more vulnerable to others, and their behaviour towards us becomes even more upsetting/annoying or comforting, depending on what sort of person they are or how they behave at the time. I think psychiatric staff should be selected on the basis of their character and personality, capacity for sympathy, etc. But then those qualities matter in all human beings...
    Anyway, I am going on a bit. I'll write that blog post now, and hopefully make myself clearer. Always good to hear from you.