In which The Author expounds a theory of mental illness
A number of my friends have suffered from mental health problems over the years. I’ve flirted with the dark side of sanity myself on occasions, but never to the extent of ending up in hospital. Some – but by no means all – of the people I know have undoubtedly triggered (or exacerbated) their conditions with excessive drug use. (By this, I’m including my personal old favourite – booze!)
Here’s one example: The last time I saw my pal L— was in the Conway. I was out in the afternoon with Rhian E. and Lucy G., over the Xmas holiday a couple of years ago. At first, we thought L— was with a friend – we could hear him talking animatedly in the upstairs seating area while we were at the bar. But he was on his own, engaged in a furious argument with one or more of his imaginary ‘friends’ who have plagued him since his breakdown several years ago. I tried to talk to him when he was on his way out. He wouldn’t (or couldn’t) bring himself to speak, but mimed furiously for a few minutes. As Lucy pointed out afterwards, he was desperately trying to communicate something – but I’ve no idea what.
We moved on, and I haven’t seen him since. I found out a few days later that he’d returned to the pub in the evening. His voices must have continued to harangue him throughout, as reportedly people were afraid to sit near him. At closing time, the landlord asked him to leave and L— threatened to hit him.
I don’t know the circumstances which led up to the onset of L—’s condition, but he was always a fairly heavy drinker, and I know he liked a smoke or five. While he was a student, it’s a pretty safe bet that he dabbled in other substances as well. He’s subsequently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and has spent several periods in hospital. In between, he tends to vanish from Aberdare periodically, sleeping rough until the police track him down and he gets sectioned again. He’s been banned from the pub since his outburst to the landlord, and I haven’t seen him from that day to this.
Here’s another example: S— was a heavy dope smoker. I mean, lots and lots of it. He’s always been a bit eccentric, and gets quite boisterous when he’s had a skinful, so his gradual descent into madness didn’t strike anyone immediately.
However, he started to behave very oddly in the period leading up to the wedding of a couple of friends of ours. He would turn up at friends’ houses and draw the curtains, insisting that ‘they’ were watching him. His housemate started finding wire coat hangers bent into crosses scattered around the house. S— would play his records at full volume over and over, convinced that there were secret messages coded into the lyrics of pop songs. He told everyone that their dog knew ‘the answers’. On the night of the wedding, S— turned up at the reception and frightened everybody there with his erratic behaviour and rambling speech, before vanishing into the night.
Early on the Sunday morning, his housemate turned up at my house, still suited and booted, with the dog in tow. He told me that he’d been afraid to go home, in case S— harmed the dog – or, worse still, harmed a human being.
I phoned my cousin’s husband, who happens to be a high-ranking police officer, and asked for his advice. After all, this scenario doesn’t feature in the Reader’s Digest book What to Do In An Emergency.
If your house catches fire, you phone the Fire Brigade. If you see someone get run over, you call an ambulance. If someone breaks into your house, you ring the police. That’s easy – everyone knows that. But there’s nothing in the Yellow Pages to tell you what to do when a friend of yours has a nervous breakdown.
Fortunately, by this time, S— had made his way to his parents’ house. His mother kept him talking while his father phoned their GP, and a few hours later he was sectioned. He’s had a couple more episodes since (including a police dragnet around the pubs of Aberdare), but as long as he takes his medication he should be okay.
My friend K—, quite a few years older than me, is a recovering alcoholic and formerly a heavy user of LSD. He lost a very high-powered job when he had his breakdown, and along with the job went his house, his car, his status in the community, and his family, to a very large extent. He’s been hospitalised on a number of occasions, and is lucky to be alive after his liver and kidneys nearly packed in a few years ago. He passed me in the car the other day, looking healthy and happy. The fact that he’s driving again means that he’s still sober. But when he was drinking very heavily, he was getting tattoos and piercings regularly – not the sort of thing would readily associate with a man in his late forties. He’s got a history of self-harming, and it seemed that he could legitimately hurt himself when he paid someone else to do it.
A few years ago I wore a skirt into Aberdare for the first time (see ‘Skirting the Issue’
). That day I’d put a piece on Aberdare Online in which I discussed a theory which I’d been developing for some time. I’ve been refining it for a while, but I only really started thinking about it again on Tuesday night, when I was out with some friends for a birthday.
They’re quite a bit younger than me, and have been immersed in an environment of binge-drinking and casual drug use since they were teenagers. One girl was talking quite loudly and in graphic detail about her sexual exploits with both men and women – seemingly regardless of the fact that not everyone in the pub necessarily wanted to hear. Another girl was alternately egging on and fending off three drunk guys in the beer garden.
I’m no prude; I make sick jokes and throw the so-called ‘c’ word into conversation with the best of them. However, the total lack of inhibition these youngsters demonstrated made me ponder my dark time, when I was getting pissed regularly and acting in a fairly uncontrolled manner.
A few years ago I spent a lot of time in various ropey clubs, mostly in Aberdare but occasionally in Cardiff, trying to summon the nerve to talk to girls I fancied. Instead, I usually ended up potless and/or legless a few hours later, hating myself and the world in equal measure.
The kids I was with reminded me of my younger self, but with one important difference. I knew that there was a time and a place for discussing sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – and in the pub, in front of a load of complete strangers, wasn’t usually it.
There’s no doubt in my mind that drink lowers your inhibitions. It makes you do silly things that you wouldn’t do if you were sober. My friend N— suffers from terrible stage fright, and won’t even contemplate playing his guitar unless he’s had a skinful of Strongbow first. When he eventually plucks up the courage to play, he’s transformed into a guitar genius – but he’s usually too pissed to care. I used to get drunk and attempt karaoke in the Black Lion and other pubs, with varied results. I wouldn’t have done it sober.
When I was drunk, I used to feel almost as if I was being driven to act in an extreme manner. It was as though my conscious mind – my ‘personality’, if you like – had been temporarily suspended under the influence of alcohol. Now, in the pub drinking soft drinks, I can clearly see the way that other people change under the influence of drugs (of any description).
Last weekend, I was out as usual with some mates for the band on the Sunday afternoon. One of the guys, who’s had his fair share of mental health problems and usually sticks to squash, was drinking beer for a change. Even after just a couple of pints, he became very excitable and boisterous, to the extent that we left him to it after a while.
Here’s my original idea, which I date back five years or so. It was loosely inspired by the Eight-Circuit Model devised by Timothy Leary, PhD, and popularised by Robert Anton Wilson in his books Cosmic Trigger and Quantum Psychology. (I can’t find the original piece of writing – the Aberdare Online server crashed and everything was lost. There is a printed copy somewhere, but it’s vanished for the time being.) In summary, my argument went something like this:
The human mind immediately after birth is like a large piece of cloth out of which you can make a pair of jeans. The initial imprinting of the first neural circuit corresponds to the marking out of the design. The first few minutes after birth lay down the basic patterns which will shape the personality.
As the brain develops, more imprinting occurs on the higher circuits, determining both the style of interaction with the external world, and the style of interaction with other people. By the time the child starts to acquire language and becomes aware of the wider culture in which it is immersed, it is as though a pocket has been fashioned in the cloth.
Here’s where my model comes into play: Into this ‘pocket’ we can put our intellectual currency. Our small change is what makes people into individuals – our own personal taste in music, books, food, clothes, and so forth. These small coins can be easily exchanged amongst different people. Larger denominations correspond to our ideas, beliefs, and attitudes, which we pick up from our parents, our peer group, TV and books and films. These high-value notes make up our particular take on wider human culture: our religious beliefs, political ideologies, and our place to society as a whole.
My original theory went on to speculate that, as time goes by, our small change would gradually be exchanged for other coins, acquired during our interactions with other people. For example, one’s taste in music might change as one encounters one’s friends’ personal choices. As human beings move through society, this small change is in constant circulation.
The large-value notes are harder to use as a convenient means of exchange. They correspond to what Richard Dawkins calls ‘meme complexes’. Someone who has been raised as a religious fundamentalist will find it almost impossible to engage in meaningful dialogue with a scientist who believes Darwin’s explanation for human origins. Each ‘note’ is of such high value, equivalent to so much ‘small change’, that it’s almost impossible to transfer the total value from one person to another. The currencies have no exchange rate. A Bible-thumping televangelist’s beliefs can simply not serve as legal tender in the mind of Richard Dawkins.
However, I went on to speculate about the role played by drugs in this model. If the small change of our ideas can be easily exchanged between people, then maybe drugs have the effect of wearing a hole in the ‘pocket’ of our minds. Quietly, slowly, almost without our noticing, our ideas can slip through the hole as the drugs take effect. We don’t notice this subtle personality change ourselves. People around us may notice it, but as long as it’s low-key and gradual, nobody seems to mind. Was this why people acted differently when they were drunk, or stoned, I wondered. Were some of their long-held concepts slipping out through the holes in the fabric of their minds?
I finished by pondering the reality of a so-called ‘nervous breakdown’ – in whichever form it takes – whereby one’s personality changes so radically that desperate remedies are called for. Was this what happens when the hole in one’s neural pocket becomes so big that even the high-value notes slip through? In most cases, the psychiatrist patches up your pockets and off you go again.
In other cases, the damage is so great that a whole new pair of jeans is called for. This is when the vultures descend, crowding around you with offers of cash to see you right on your journey through life. These new ‘meme complexes’, given to the recovering patient by well-wishers are the source of many ‘religious conversions’ which I have seen people undergo after a period of hospitalization. When you’re desperate for cash, you’ll accept it from any source, after all …
Anyway, that was all put down in Cyberspace several years ago. Since then, I’ve been revising my basic model. I don’t wholly subscribe to my own currency idea any more, but I’m still curious about the effect of drugs on the mind. One possible clue came when I read Aldous Huxley’s essay ‘Heaven and Hell’, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
Huxley was writing about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on the brain. He postulated that the brain has an internal ‘filter’ of sorts, which serves to limit the amount of sensory stimulation we can process in everyday situations. His thesis, in a nutshell, was that hallucinogens can turn off the ‘filter’, and allow us to enjoy much higher levels of sensory input than the brain would normally accept.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the brain also has an inbuilt ‘censor’, like Huxley’s ‘filter.’ This would more or less correspond to the Superego in Freud’s model. It would moderate and limit our behaviour as individuals, in order to hold our common culture together. Like Huxley’s ‘filter’, this ‘censor’ could be deactivated by the use of drugs, allowing the Id to determine one’s behaviour instead.
When I listened to my young friends the other night, discussing their sexual adventures with such total disregard for the sensibilities of the people around them, I began to wonder whether Tourette’s Syndrome was, in fact, little more than a medical diagnosis for the deactivation of this ‘censor.’
When I observe groups of barely-civilised teenagers on a train, or in the streets of our towns, I can be pretty certain that they’re used to drinking or using other drugs on a fairly regular basis. It’s part and parcel of youth culture these days. These teenagers, swearing, threatening, fighting, boasting of their sexual exploits, and engaging in other forms of ‘anti-social behaviour’ seem to present textbook signs of Tourette’s Syndrome.
If my theory of the deactivated ‘censor’ has any validity, it would certainly explain why so many young people are so driven to pursue their own selfish ambitions, regardless of the consequences for society as a whole. Today’s youth culture regards taking drugs in the same way as my teenage peers regarded smoking. You just do it and give no thought as to the long-term consequences, even though the warnings are there for all to see.
It seems to me that we’re heading into a future where Tourette’s Syndrome will no longer be a mere curiosity, fit only for psychology textbooks and Channel 4 shockumentaries. It’s going to be considered ‘normal behaviour’ by – and for – a large percentage of society.