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, strengthened. 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.
Looking back, though, with the benefit of hindsight (and this bit should be read with care by anyone who has been feeling funny lately), I can remember some incidents, beginning in the autumn of 1984, that might have served as warnings to anyone who had the slightest notion of what clinical depression can mean, or how it manifests itself. A woman friend from our time abroad, someone whom I had found particularly fascinating during the three years when we had been close to her and her husband, came to see us with her daughter. For some reason (!) her presence made me easily impatient with my wife, and I made some offensive remarks to her about her brief involvement with a senior colleague. She threw a pot of tea over me: only the contents, not the pot, but I literally shook for about half an hour. I think it was the worst violence that either of us had ever shown to each other, though over the years we had had some splendid rows and some magnificent reconciliations.
At Christmas, when I was very tired and fluey, we were to travel across England to spend the holiday with my brother-in-law, a Professor of Medicine. We decided to drive rather than go by train, and packed the car. Then I decided that, because I was tired and the weather was bad, we’d go by train. We unpacked the car. How silly, I said, to have a car sitting outside, and then pay train fares. We drove, and arrived in good shape and good humour: only I did spend most of Christmas reading Plato, by way of preparation for the following term, and I didn’t feel inclined to sit up late drinking mine host’s Cognac, which surprised him somewhat. The strange episode of dithering was forgotten: there was no special reason to remember it. The Spring Term was hard work, made worse by ominous noises of cuts in the offing, cuts which I would have to play a part in administering. In February my wife, out of the blue (or rather the grey drizzle), said: ‘I can’t go on living in this little terraced house much longer.’ This frightened and upset me out of all proportion.
I suppose I’d always thought it was a nice house, if a bit small: now it seemed like a matter of life and death to move (I realised that, with prices rising, there was some genuine urgency about it, if we were to do it at all). I also got the strange idea that I had somehow obliged my wife to live all those years in a quite inadequate house: we had talked, as everyone does, of moving, but had never tried very hard to do it. I set out to find a better house, found one she liked, and we embarked on the horrid round of nerve-stretching events leading up to the actual move. By Easter I was very tired again, and had the flu again, and had discovered all sorts of reason for not buying that house: some of them may have been very good ones, who knows? But for some reason I could not bring myself to say: not now, later. I was certainly very busy – over-working, in fact. I was writing a book, doing a big piece of research, designing a schools examination paper, training to become a piano teacher, and a dozen other things. The University was exhausting and demoralising: I remember the relief I used to feel when I came home, like a good male chauvinist pig, to the wife slaving over a hot stove, and slumped in front of the television with a drink, eating supper, then going off to my study, or out to play the cello. I had discovered that the house next to the one we wanted to buy had been ‘done up’ as flats by the old chap who lived there, and I was overcome by paranoia. Instead of reassuring myself that he wouldn’t sell it for years, if ever, which was the truth, I imagined it filling up with rowdy dossers. I immediately started looking at other houses, and persuaded my wife to do so: actually, she couldn’t really have cared less, because she still quite liked the original house we’d found.
I was already in some strange sort of flap, an obsessive state of mind, but one which was perhaps not different in kind from the sort that sane and well-balanced people get into when they try to move house. My problem, however, was a special sort of paralysis: I had decided neither to move nor not to move (I have deliberately phrased this so as to make it sound as crazy as it felt). I had sort of decided, if you like, not to make a decision, but the decision not to make a decision was one which I could not leave alone. It was like Seven Types of Ambiguity, only for real. The benefits of a literary education? By this time, I suppose I was only going through the motions. The whole business was complicated by the fact that my wife, with my encouragement, had been applying for jobs abroad, having despaired of ever getting the right kind of work at home. I found this unsettling, but told myself not to be unreasonable. I was unpleasantly aware that my concentration at work was weakening; I wondered if it was eye-strain; and I came home, I remember, complaining that I ‘couldn’t seem to focus on anything’. This didn’t seem altogether surprising, given the quantity of tedious rubbish one has to sift through in any administrative post, a task that doesn’t come easily to a literary mind. Kafka was right, I savagely thought, administration is the ultimate reality. But I still enjoyed, as I always have, teaching and writing. And with lots of coffee, vitamins, cigarettes and alcohol, I forged on. I had the distinct impression of never touching ground, as if I were walking through the School on a cloud. It was that end-of-term feeling of being on automatic pilot, but it never went away (in fact, it is still with me).
The next, really alarming, symptom – and one which is documented extensively in the literature of breakdown – was that I started finding that wine or beer, instead of relaxing me and making me more mellow, seemed to just make me irritable. I was probably drinking too much, but not spectacularly so; I had been through that when we were living abroad, and vowed never to do it again. I also began, as spring drew on and the weather got warmer, to sleep rather badly, waking more and more often at the hour of the wolf filled with gloom and anxiety, worrying about the University and about the future. Consequently, I got tireder and tireder; I have never mastered the Thatcherite technique of deciding the fate of millions on three hours sleep, or whatever it is she does. I was prescribed sleeping pills. The time was coming round for the big music festival in the small town where we have a cottage: I asked my wife to come with me, but she was too busy. So one sunny day – it seems like a century ago, and in, as they say, ‘another country’ – I invited one of my students, a girl I’d already been seeing perhaps too much of, but who shared my musical interests, to come with me. We had a good time; my wife was apparently neither anxious nor resentful, and had met the girl and liked her – she even thought she might be good for me, since the job was obviously getting me down.
The day the house we hadn’t bought was auctioned, my wife and I left for a holiday in Paris, but as we left I had a terrible sinking feeling (and nervous vomiting attacks), and all the time I was in France I was in a kind of anxious stupor (perhaps partly due to the sleeping pills). We got home, and looked, in a kind of fog, at one or two more houses. My wife was due to leave shortly to teach on a course abroad, while I would stay at home, mark schools’ examination scripts (a job I’ve always enjoyed, in a funny way), look after the children, and carry on writing my book. She left, and after a few days I was in a state of collapse. Her mother came to the rescue; I couldn’t say much more than ‘we should have bought that house,’ ‘she’ll leave me,’ and ‘I’ll lose my job.’ I hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night for weeks, even with pills, and I began hearing voices and seeing strange little grinning faces. I couldn’t read, or listen to music. I could hardly get out of bed or wash. The fairies had got me. I felt like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians in Swift’s melancholy masterpiece. The most frightening thing was the sense of helpless ignorance and fear. I could not believe that this was a condition that, however awful, one might recover from. My mother-in-law tried to restrain me from moving house instantly, and took me off with her to her home: a humiliating experience, though done for my own good. I still couldn’t sleep. My wife came back and found me in this sorry state. ‘Acutely depressed’ is the official description, as I now know; ‘burnt out’ would be a fairly accurate way of saying how it felt. If only I could have rested or relaxed, but the sleeping pills seemed to have the opposite effect: as they wore off (which wasn’t till mid-day) I got strangely excitable and talkative. Thoughts of suicide preoccupied me.
I went off, reluctantly, to a meeting of the schools’ examination board, where I discovered that the marking I’d done in a sort of trance was more or less spot-on by the computer curve; I’m not sure what this proves. Back home, my wife took me to the GP, who prescribed amytryptilin; then she summoned psychiatrists; but with my verbal gifts (years of effective teaching) I managed to persuade them that I was not, in the jargon, ‘sectionable’ (that is, a subject for compulsory detention in hospital); and I probably wasn’t, but I was beside myself with exhaustion, and could not rest. I also had vivid, sometimes sadistic, sexual fantasies, and a conviction that some woman, somewhere (mother?) could solve my problem. Another psychiatrist: this one took the trouble to ask more searching questions, reiterated the diagnosis (‘You are depressed. Sooner or later the despression will lift’). I still didn’t really understand what it meant: and I would not, or could not, respond to his injunction to give up trying to move, at least for the time being; it had become an obsession, the only way of assuaging my feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I tried again to move, and made a mess of it (and messed up other people, I’m afraid – the details now become so painful that I prefer not to think about them). My wife and children couldn’t stand it, and decamped, leaving me with a colleague, who almost went bananas after forty-eight hours. He summoned another colleague (whose father had had a ‘depressive illness’), and he took me off to his father’s psychiatrist, who admitted me to hospital. There was probably, by this time, no alternative.
At first I was filled up with large doses of tranquillisers, kept on amytryptilin, and given a less pernicious sort of sleeping pill (not one of the benzodiazepines). I learnt to trust the consultant psychiatrist, and take what drugs I was given. After a week I was beginning to notice the world around me a bit, after two weeks I was doing some desultory work on a volume of Polish short stories, after three weeks I was playing the piano, and after four weeks I was out: but still off the rails, with wild mood swings and extreme behaviour (usually involving overtures to women).
Unfortunately, my leaving hospital coincided with my wife’s departure for another summer school abroad. I felt abandoned and miserable but I survived, dutifully taking my drugs and avoiding alcohol (the drugs at this stage were amytryptilin, chloral hydrate and largactyl). I drove off down to our cottage probably a bit of a menace to myself and others – where I tried to carry on with the academic writing I was doing, wrote instead the lurid opening chapter of a novel, and took up for a few days with a woman I met in a pub, until she sent me back to my wife. I toyed with the idea of moving out and living alone; I could have done any sort of stupid thing, since I was quite sure that I could, in one way or another, run away from my problem. By Christmas, and after a holiday with a former colleague in France, I had more or less settled down, though I had been put on a rather heavier drug, an MAOI with the admixture of a major tranquilliser. I had reduced my consumption of alcohol to a tiny fraction of what it had been, though it would probably have been better to have cut it out altogether.
All that autumn, I was on sick leave; in the spring, I went back to work, feeling reasonably confident, but on a slightly reduced timetable. Lecturing made me apprehensive, but I did it, even quite well. Seminars were a pleasure. Soon I began to build up a funny sort of manic energy. I went abroad three times in close succession, running a workshop, attending a conference, giving lectures, in three countries very far apart and with quite different working conditions and needs. I did pretty well, I thought. But at the University I would spend my lunch hours lying down and brooding. My psychiatrist was not altogether happy about my condition, but with his approval my wife and I had decided to try again to move to a larger house, when Fate intervened in the most bizarre fashion. He (the psychiatrist) had himself decided to move to a bigger house, and while my wife and I were locked more and more hopelessly in doing, glumly, the grisly round of agents, lo! a wonder. My psychiatrist offered to sell me his house: a very nice place, Victorian, with a big conservatory and large garden, and just within our means.
This is it, I thought, and with that fondness for forms, ‘closure’, and life’s little ironies, that characterises the literary mind, it seemed to me only just. He did warn me that there was another buyer in the offing, but not that I was being set up, as it were, as a second string, in case his first buyer backed out. All’s fair in love, war and house-buying, I suppose. But when he sold his house to the other buyer, I was really rather upset. To stop myself brooding I threw myself once again into the house-hunting business, came up with a large, distinguished but shabby Edwardian villa, and began negotiations. No sooner had contracts been exchanged (after a long period of getting caught in chains) than I went wobbly again; buying and selling really is a strenuous business, quite apart from the trauma of actually moving, for someone like me who has about a million books and records, piano, spinet. By a curious irony, this second collapse coincided once again with my wife going to work on a summer school abroad.
Again, I was in a batty state of panic, and was dumped with a colleague, who found me hard to deal with. Again, my mother-in-law had to come to help with the children. Repetition-compulsion is, of course, not unknown in Freudian psychology: one returns to the scene of the crime in order to do again the thing which had initially brought one down; the irrational reasoning behind this is that one acts in order to wipe out the first offence by replacing it with a new one. Perfectly ‘normal’ people do it all the time, especially in their sex life. This lovely neurotic mechanism had lured me into its trap. I had to make a decision: should I go abroad and join my wife, commit suicide, or go back into hospital? These all seemed, you must understand, equally valid alternatives.
In my trusting way, I rang the clinic where I had formerly been incarcerated, to speak to a psychiatrist and take expert advice about the issue of whether life was worth living or not a matter of very legitimate concern and interest, I thought. He invited me to drop in, to pursue this fascinating theme further. I went, but with my papers for the trip abroad: I really could not make up my mind what was the best course of action. They sectioned me. It was the most terrifying experience, and made me much worse. When you are sectioned, you are knocked out with a powerful sedative and put in the equivalent of a padded cell, under surveillance. They also take your clothes away, in case you try to make a dash for freedom. The power of psychiatrists who can do this to people makes you wonder: psychiatry must be the only line of business in which the customer is always wrong. Since you are mentally ill, everything you do or say is naturally seen as suspicious. The Catch-22 here is that it was you (or your nearest and dearest) who went to the shrink in the first place: tough luck. There is a nice story about an old lady who went to a psychiatrist complaining that every time she got into her car, she had this terrifying feeling that it was going to run away with her, and that she wouldn’t be able to stop it. Some sort of phobia? The sensible psychiatrist thought he would first check out the car. The brakes didn’t work, it hadn’t been serviced for years, and there were inches of play in the steering. But this isn’t clinching, either: if my psychiatrist had ever taken the trouble to visit our former house, he would doubtless have thought it much too small, and seen only too clearly why I wanted to move.
I decided to do something about being on the section: it was too much, really. Summoning up all my eloquence again (I have plenty of it), I lodged an appeal. I managed to persuade a tribunal that I was no danger to myself or to others. I didn’t really know if I was or wasn’t; on the whole, I rather think not, though wandering around your home town in a sort of trance doesn’t do wonders for your image. However, it was certainly the case that I was becoming institutionalised: the hospital not only seemed the safest place to be, I could hardly imagine leaving it. I went home from time to time, and did what I could around the house, but since I was full of tranquillisers this wasn’t a great lot. Then I would scuttle back to the hospital for safety. ‘The world is going about its business out there,’ said my psychiatrist sternly. I suppose I have never been a great lover of reality, and rather agree with T.S. Eliot, for whom I now have a much enhanced respect, that human kind can’t stand too much of it. I have come to wonder whether literature drives you crackers: maybe it isn’t good for you to live in other people’s imaginary worlds for too long, overpopulated as they are with the creatures of their neuroses and psychoses (if Freud is to be believed). Things did not seem to be improving much, or only very slowly, so I reluctantly agreed (after I had discharged myself) to have ECT. The initial effect was extraordinary. Not much happened before the fifth occasion, but then suddenly the world clicked back into place, the sun shone, my books and record smiled invitingly at me from their shelves and cabinets, I started writing. I couldn’t wait to get back to work, everything I’d ever done – especially moving house – seemed to have been blessed with divine grace. I slept the sleep of the just, and if I couldn’t get out of bed, it wasn’t so much depressive retardation as just a lovely sense of comfortable relaxation. This euphoria lasted for about three weeks, then faded into the light of common day: what the hell was I doing in this big unloved heap of brick and mortar, struggling to maintain it and myself and my sanity and my family?
Now the dust has settled a little. No house is worth having a nervous breakdown over. Actually, to my surprise, large as this place is, we have managed to fill it, and we can afford it. Indeed, everyone tells us we were terribly clever to buy it at just the right moment, since we must have made a lot of money. Which is, Heaven help us, quite true, if you believe in the fairy gold of ‘investments’. I am writing this in my spacious music room, watching the sun shift slowly round, and hoping that eventually the wounds will heal completely. I take 40 mills of imipramin a day, which they tell me is not a large amount, and one mill. of diazepam. Last term I taught four seminars, gave five lectures, and published two shortish (but not bad) pieces in journals, both concerned in different ways with Eastern European literature. I also didn’t get promoted again (for something like the 11th time). I still tend to be broody, left to my own I devices, and although I read and write with something of the old professional expertise, I have to work harder to maintain my concentration, feeling further away from the matter in hand: this could be the effect of the drugs, or of middle age, combined with that sense of there not being much to look forward to which has also beset many of my colleagues, and with the business of children growing up and going away. I play the piano a lot (in public I play spinet and cello with a little Baroque orchestra).
Expert as I may be at self-deception, I do know, now, that one does not quickly get back to what one was before so severe an accident as this. I also have enough literary awareness to know that there is more than one way of telling a story. I have told no lies, but I have deliberately softened the most harrowing episodes, partly to spare the sensibilities of the other people involved, and partly to spare my own. I have also exercised a certain self-censorship: is not every author in a sense a fictional construct, the sum of what s/he chooses to be? All of it will come out some day, when I have the courage to fictionalise it (i.e. to subject it to stricter criteria of truth). You will also have noticed, dear reader, that precise information in the form of names and places has been systematically suppressed, for the same reasons, and because the attitude to mental illness among people who ought to know better is still, by and large, moralistic.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.