I am an ‘expert’ on madness. At least I would like to be.
Not because I used to be a mental health social worker for many years.
Not because I have a few useless certificates in three different types of counselling.
I believe I am an ‘expert’ because I have been struggling against madness in myself since I became an adult.
Perhaps I can get extra qualification to call myself an expert as a relative of people with (occasional) mental health problems. My father and my sister normally had a ‘normal’ life, but occasionally had a breakdown. In fact my father had a successful carrier as a Sociologist in Hungary. My sister managed to finish a 5 years university course and she had three children. Unfortunately both my father and my sister were given the diagnosis of ‘manic-depression’, or bipolar as it is called today. They had a few admissions to psychiatric hospitals. Although it is fashionable to call family members ‘carers’, I would never use this term about myself in relation to my father and sister. I find the term patronising and misleading. It is well known that families can easily drive one (or more) of their members mad. Everybody knows it, but strangely, even the official experts had admitted it long time ago. Occasionally they deny it, and I believe the term ‘carer’ is a (perhaps unconscious) attempt to deny the tensions, the harm which can be caused by a family to the person who goes mad: before their breakdown, during the breakdown, and afterwards. – I was never really the ‘carer’ of my father or sisters, especially not when they gone high or manic, I don’t think anyone has a chance to be a ‘carer’ for an extremely high person: they slip out of your hands. They are too high to be ‘cared for’, unless they are sectioned to a hospital and the ‘care’ they don’t want is forced on them. And then, they might not perceive such a treatment as ‘care’, more like imprisonment.
I witnessed them going high, becoming ‘manic’, and I also witnessed them becoming depressed, very depressed on occasions.
I am not an expert on madness in the sense that I fully understand it, or I know how to ‘treat’ it. I do not believe anyone really understand what madness is. A few reasonable psychiatrists have occasionally admitted that they do not have a clue neither. But they still continue ‘treating’ their ‘patients’ as if they knew what to do. In order to look like a professional, it is essential to pretend to be confident. To look uncertain, to feel lost, to hav emroe questions than answers – that is the dangerous world of madness. And mental health professionals know exactly why they don’t want to go to ‘the other-side’.
I don’t like the term ‘treatment’. ‘Treatment of depression’, ‘treating schizophrenia’, ‘treating the condition’. It already implies that madness is an ‘illness’. It implies that understanding and healing these extreme states belong to the domain of medicine. It implies that the understanding and healing is NOT, and can not be, and should not be, in the hands of the people who are going through the mental difficulties. It implies, that priests, gurus, natural healers, Homoeopaths, yoga teachers and psychotherapists are all amateurs in these matters. It implies that ordinary people have NO CHANCE of understanding and really helping people who are going through serious mental agony. They have no chance, because once the phenomena is considered to be an ‘illness’, then it follows that you have to go to a medical college for 5-6 years in order to start to understand illnesses, learn latin names for it and fight it with medication, ECT, perhaps brain-surgery. Tools doctors have. The ‘illness’ concept also assumes some form of biochemical causation, although this has never been proven. However research has established that – not surprisingly – people who were sexually abused as children are likely to have mental breakdowns later in life. Could the biochemical model be a cover-up, so we don’t have to face up to the epidemic of sexual (and other) abuse in modern societies? (In addition to the well-known financial links between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession).
Many people who went through the psychiatric system as ‘patients’ would testify that psychiatrists are the least likely people to understand and help them. Only a minority of people do get better when they are admitted to psychiatric hospitals, or as a consequence of seeing a particular psychiatrist. But research carried out by Mind showed that only a tiny percentage of ex-mental patients believed that their psychiatrists were listening to them. Most of them claimed their nurses or social workers helped them much more. When I used to work in a psychaitric hospital I observed, that certain cleaners and adminstrators were the people who were most trusted by the patients. They were much happier to tell the cleaner or the administrator if they had a bad day, a nightmare, a fear of this or that, than opening up to their doctors or nurses. As for the psychiatric medication – this is a big taboo, which I will talk about another day.
This subject of trying to understand madness has been the ghost of my life and also the centre of my studies and work for twenty years. One of the reasons why it is so important for me is because I have always been attracted to ‘mad’ people. Since my teenage years I had friends who were considered mad by others. When I was 16 I made a strong friendship with a 15 years old girl (J.B.) who had already spent many years in Hungary’s worst psychiatric hospitals. She had talked about brutal punishment and torture in the hospitals and her stories about her amazing escapes captured my imagination. Around tha ttime I read ‘One flew over cuckoo’s nest’ by Ken Kesey, and her perspective was similar. Sadly after each escapre attempt she was either captured, or if she decided to run back to her family then her own father or step-mother returned her to the hospitals. I felt dedicated to be her friend, in fact more than a friend, because at the point when her last ‘saver’ (a well known Hungarian writer) decided to return her to the last psychiatric hospital, from which he saved her as an ‘interesting person’, I offered to ‘look after’ her, I wanted her to move in with my family. But no one listened. Her life-story (whether true or exaggerated) proved to me beyond doubt, that families, institutions, psychiatry, and writers were all fundamentally rotten, dangerous institutions, which/who should not be trusted.
Later, while I was still living in Hungary, I started to read R.D. Laing by chance. I went to England for my summer holiday in 1974, and a friend (A.F.) asked me to buy him Laing’s famous book, the ‘Divided Self’ (these kind of books were not available in Hungarian bookshops in the 70’s). I read the book on my way back to country (those days we were travelling by train), and it had a major influence on me. This book helped me formulate my anti-psychiatry feelings into something I could start to talk about, instead of just experiencing it as a suffocating feeling in my throat. As a teenager I visited my father and a few friends in psychiatric hospitals. I hated the buildings and the atmosphere with a burning passion and a feeling of dedication that I should do something against it. Seeing my otherwise healthy, energetic father in a hospital bed filled up with tranquillisers, sleeping for days on end, his face becoming someone else’s face, made me angry. At the same time, I became very interested in the theories of psychoanalysis. I started to attend special seminars held by a psychologist who had psycho-analytic training. The seminars were held in a tiny office in one of the largest psychiatric hospitals (Lipótmező) in Budapest. thsi psychologist’s interpretations sounded revolutionary for me, I could not understand why they tolerated her in that oppressive institute.
In 1978 I emigrated to England. For the last two years prior to leaving the country I was studying History and Philosophy in a University in Budapest. However gradually I became so much interested in Psychology that I decided to drop my original subjects. I choose ‘Social Psychology’ and went to Sussex University in 79. However the course was so bad and so ‘american’, we were using text books which had no content, no meaning, nothing to say. I decided to give it up after the first term.
When I came to England in 1978 one of my first steps was to find the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement. I got in touch with a small Survivor Organisation, which organised a conference. This conference was a very interesting new experience for me. People were friendly, informal, knowledgeable and radical, I learned a lot from them. I remember a homeless older man spoke and I listened. I have to admit that he looked like the type of men I would have avoided on the street those days. He had a red face, possibly the effect of alcohol. His clothes were dirty, and he looked very confused. I still remember him saying – on the stage – that he could not understand why police picked on them and why people were afraid of them – they don’t want to harm anyone. His words shocked me, because I belonged to the people who assumed that people who looked like him were a danger for me, and I had to realise, that he knew this, he ‘‘saw through me”. I never thought about this before I heard him speaking, and I had to look in the mirror he held up for me. A few months later he said a big hello to me on the street, and I was walking with other people who assumed he was actually harassing me. They were surprised to realise that we knew each other.
Soon after moving to London I found a cleaning job in Hampstead. The flat belonged to a writer who told me that he used to work with Laing. He gave me the contact details so I could join Laing’s organisation. Unfortunately I had to give up my cleaning job because I was pregnant, but soon I enrolled on a seminar-series in Laing’s ‘Philadelphia Association’. I was new in England and I could hardly speak English but I understood almost everything. I had £13/week social security benefit and I was almost starving. They charged, I think about £10 to become a member. I did not have the confidence to tell them that this was equivalent to a week’s food money for me. They looked so rich in their beautiful houses in Hampstead, I thought, they would not understand. So I did not even ask for a discount and paid the full fee.
I attended a few seminars of Laing’s ‘Philadelphia Association’. I got disillusioned in no time. It was a frustrating, ppainful experience. I wanted to learn from them but they were annoying me instead. I remember sitting in their beautiful houses where the seminars were held. I listened and wanted to respond, but only Hungarian words were coming to me. I could not express my thoughts in English. I remember sitting there, feeling awful. Listening to them, and feeling: bullshit. I knew that much in English, but I could not have explained what I meant.
Bullshit meant, that these people had no authenticity in my eyes. I could not take seriously their words. Or perhaps they lacked real commitment. I also felt angry for having had to sacrifice a week’s food money to enrol, and getting nothing back for it! I could not find anyone among them I really trusted, either on a personal level, or as a professional. (That time I had not met Joe Berke yet, who used to work with Laing but after a major disagreement they separated and he started his own ‘Arbours Association’. I met him years later on a Conference which was held at the University of Essex, the subject was: Psychosis and Psychotherapy. I heard him talk and I liked him from the first second: I trusted him as a therapist and as a person).
When I was 9 month pregnant I went to a workshop where Laing himself was present. It must have been at the end of June or the beginning of July of 1978 and it was in a Church-hall near Swiss Cottage. I had high hopes. Unfortunately the workshop did not meet my expectations. It was not completely useless, I remember it was fun, people kept laughing, perhaps to cover their embarrassment. We were doing exercises and some people went through something called ‘re-birthing’, which looked completely fake for me. But I had a relatively interesting experience that day. I met the woman who became famous for co-writing a book about her own journey out of madness with the help of Joe Berke, who was her therapist. I think she was called Mary Brown. She approached me, asking questions about my huge stomach, as I was very pregnant. She told me how sad she was because she never had children. I remember feeling privileged that this woman talked to me. But I don’t think anyone else has ever noticed my existence during the different seminars and workshops I attended at the Philadelphia Association.
I gave upon them. I was anyhow getting increasingly depressed and I think, my disappointment with this organisation must have contributed to it. But I had many other reasons during the first two years of my immigration to be depressed: I was virtually homeless, I had no immigration status, did not know if I could stay, I had very little money, I was expecting a baby, I was completely on my own. I also isolated myself from most Hungarians, and they also did not care about me – it was either mutual dislike, or an understanding that it was better to avoid each other. I had an increasing number of friends, but they were from all over the world, very few Hungarians. And I preferred this.
The next experience was even worse. When I returned from Sussex University to London in January 1980 I moved into a Council flat in Islington. I wanted to continue to study and found a training course nearby which I felt enthusiastic about. I don’t remember it’s exact title, but it promised to combine psychotherapy training with social thinking in a way, which I liked. I applied and even managed to secure a grant for it, which is usually an impossible task.
The main person who organised the course happened to be a Hungarian man who was a Psycho-dynamic Therapist and a lecturer. When he interviewed me he insisted that the interview should also become a kind of therapy session, asking intimate details about my family background, making notes in a way which suggested to me that he simplified complex things to simple diagnostic categories, although he was using analytical boxes. I did not like him or his approach. He insisted that he should also become my on-going therapist, as students were expected to have psychotherapy while attending the two-year part-time course. I protested, although I liked that he could speak Hungarian, and my English was not yet good enough to enter therapy with an English speaking therapist.
I went to the first training afternoon and I decided never to return. The reason was simple. A second year student, a young man, made a case-presentation using a tape of a recorded session with his first client: a 28 year old woman,. According to him her ‘presenting problem’ was that she was still a virgin. During the taped session she presented her discovery, that this was not the problem, she was not the problem, it was society which made her into a near-outcast for being a virgin at age 28.
I found her discovery, her enthusiastic presentation really fascinating. But the following debate made me run, run as fast as I could. He said the woman fall in love with him. The students, many students, responded by encouraging him to start a sexual relationship with his client. He said, shyly, he could not do it, because he had a young wife and a baby, and it would not be fair to the wife.
I was absolutely shocked. I could not believe that people, young students, who looked OK for me, could consider it, even for a minute, that such a sexual relationship would be OK.
And I was even more horrified when I observed that the experienced therapist, university lecturer, and the organiser of the course, was just sitting there, not saying anything against the suggestion that the therapist-student should start a sexual relationship with his client, especially with a client, who went to therapy to talk about her problem of being a virgin. I think it was even suggested that he would do a favour to her, because she would not have the problem any longer.
While sitting there I remembered the story my friend told me in Hungary. She knew this girl who went to a Gynaecologist to complain about some sexual problems, and the Gynaecologist put her on the couch and raped her. (I guess in his terms he had sex with her, or even ‘made love to her’). Afterwards he told her that she was cured. In Hungary no one bothered to report this kind of abuse to any authority – because no one trusted any authorities.
Not waiting for the discussion to finish, I walked out of the seminar and never returned. I phoned up the other organiser of the course and told him that I thought the course was rubbish. I also lost my grant. After this experience, I did not feel like studying therapy, psychology, or going to a therapist, for many years to come.
I turned to other things.
(To be continued)