In the summer of 1985, I flipped my lid: went mad, had a breakdown, or embarked upon a depressive illness, whatever your preferred terminology is. Depression, though a euphemism, is probably the best available description of what the condition looks and feels like to the person going through it, and to others. Madness is fascinating to read about in literature, where it seems to provide a royal road through tragic downfall to moral salvation. But this is, of course, the world of art, where everything works out in the end, for better or worse, and everything fits together. Life, need we say, is not like that, since it just keeps on going on until one day it stops, generally of its own accord: and for this reason, among others, madness (or depressive illness) in reality, as opposed to literature, is boring as well as upsetting, and seems to lead nowhere and prove nothing. There are many consoling clichés abroad about breakdown: one is that it is ‘like breaking your leg’. Another is that it can make you a better person. Neither of these statements is true. Anyone who tries to tell me them again will end up severely mutilated.
I suppose it is the unredeemed pointlessness of the whole thing, as well as the way it goes on long beyond the initial crisis, that induced ‘Them’ to coin the hollow euphemism ‘depressive illness’ in the first place: that, and the fact, which nobody can deny, that modern drugs (‘anti-depressants’) play a significant part in getting patients out of hospital and back – on their crutches – to functioning in the ‘real’ world, even if they are a bit ‘ill’. The difficulty lies in identifying what the illness is (as opposed to simply treating the symptoms), what caused it (all too often regarded as largely irrelevant), and predicting the outcome. This is because mental illness is bound up with the person who suffers from it, and people in life are much more mysterious than people in literature. Any self-respecting student can tell you what King Lear’s madness was all about, or Lady Macbeth’s, or even Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ (true madness or feigned?). But I have ransacked the resources of Freud and Jung, cognitive and transactional therapists, Gestaltists, not to mention a highly pragmatic member of the ‘official’ psychiatric profession, to try to find out what went wrong in my case, and, indeed, how to put it right, or righter than it is.
Some of these authorities were more use than others. Freud must have exercised an irresistible fascination for his patients, reviving, as he did, a whole Pandora’s box of rich mythologies just for them, and handing them out like expensive chocolates: but the ersatz doctrinal authority of his work, and even more so of Jung’s, makes one more than a little uncomfortable. What is the status of a theology without a religion? Moreover, one cannot help wondering about the legitimacy of taking the better part of the lifetime of a patient, and a considerable chunk of their income, in order to ‘save’ them. Of course, if one hadn’t very much else to do, and plenty of cash, and was not inclined to write one’s memoirs or ‘read, much of the night, and go south in the winter’, keeping one’s appointment with the charismatic Dr Freud five times a week for years on end might well have been much more rewarding than watching East Enders or equivalent divertissements of the ‘modern’ world anathematised by T.S. Eliot in his great poem of breakdown, The Waste Land. I am inclined to agree with ‘official’ psychiatry that Freud and Jung have little to offer the acutely ill, fascinating as they are to the moderately well. On the other hand, it is important that your National Health chemotherapist, the keeper of the drug cabinet, should be able to make use of some model of the therapeutic relationship. ‘My’ psychiatrist likes to make disparaging remarks about psychoanalysis, cognitive approaches, Rogerian therapy – virtually everything, indeed, except his own brisk and witty discourse.
It isn’t hard to say, after the event, why one might have been expected to crack up, in terms both of immediate pressures and of formative influences in one’s past: this is the ‘I always knew there was something funny about X’ syndrome. But many of us come under severe pressure in professional and private life, and emerge intact – nay, strenthened. And there is also the ‘decorated war hero’ syndrome, the tale of the courageous soldier who cracks up when it’s all over. A lot of us have lousy childhoods, or like to think we did: if you’re Kafka or D.H. Lawrence you can make the most of them, and turn all that guilt and repression into pure gold; and even if you’re not a Modern Master, you may rightly feel that you’ve succeeded in putting quite a distance between early defeats and present victories. (Note for Freudians: we only start to cast our minds back over early traumas and humiliations when we are already depressed. We are, in a sense, putting into the mind of childhood the experiences we want to find there. A healthy mind, most of the time, thinks moderately well of itself.) Most of us get upset from time to time; we may dislike the government, or neo-colonialism, or nuclear weapons; or hate leftists, freedom fighters, and disarmers. Our families may, as we say, drive us crazy, or our jobs may bore and irritate us. But few of us end up ‘inside’, because there is always something to restore psychic equilibrium, some sort of mental space to retreat into (even if we have to work hard to create it). What is it that singles out some of us from the rest and takes us over the invisible but definable boundary that divides sanity from insanity, turning a lively mind into a bowl of porridge, sociableness into paranoia, a general sense of cheerfulness into self-lacerating guilt, even suicidal tendencies? What wipes out a sense of humour overnight and makes every new day a new torment to be endured, as if one were living, in Sylvia Plath’s tragic image, inside a bell jar? Is it refusing to accept that, as the Buddha so aptly put it, ‘life is an ill-fitting chariot wheel’? Or could it be drinking and smoking too much, or not getting enough Vitamin B, protein or magnesium, or not enough (or too much) sex? Planetary influences? Not taking life seriously enough, or too seriously? The death of God? Television soap operas?
The academic year 1984-5, which I would be happy to erase from the calendar, started rather well: I should have known something was up. My wife and I had got through one or two rather rocky patches in our relationship (details upon receipt of SAE), and were, as far as we or anyone else could see, on course for a bright future: we even had a couple of joint academic projects in hand. It looked like an expansive phase, and when I was asked to become chairman of my department (a large English department in the rather prestigious School of a ‘new’ university) I was certainly more pleased than apprehensive. The disruption of our lives, and my career, consequent upon my working for the British Council abroad – a happy three years for the whole family, we were all in it together – seemed to have been overcome.
You are not logged in
- If you have already registered please login here
- If you are using the site for the first time please register here
- If you would like access to the entire online archive, buy a full-access subscription here
- Institutions or university library users please login here
- Learn more about our institutional subscriptions here