Tag Archives: mental health

Inhibitions and Exhibitions

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.

Musings on the Loss of an Old Friend and the Misplacement of Another

In which The Author attends a funeral or three

This week, my brother will be going to three funerals in two days.
I will only be able to attend one of them – but it still means that between us, we’ve lost five people in as many weeks. Death stalks the streets of Aberdare and it seems that nobody is safe from his malignant glare. There was even a false alarm when a rumour started that Huw the tramp had been found dead – but reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. I’m glad to hear it. Not everyone was. They’re cold-hearted bastards.
First, the father of some schoolmates – an old friend of my father’s, and latterly a friend of mine – passed away just before Xmas. No sooner had I learned the arrangements for his funeral, than my mother told me that an old acquaintance from various pubs around town had been buried the day before.
Peter died after what used to be called ‘a short illness’ on 16 January, just two months after he first visited his GP to complain about a pain in his leg. By this time, cancer had spread through his body to such an extent that only palliative care was available. Nine weeks from check-up to check-out – yes, that’s a fucking short illness all right!
Last week, another old friend named Dean collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was younger than me, and had a young child. It’s his funeral on Tuesday.
The other funeral that day is that of Billy’s father, who passed away while Billy was on holiday in Poland. I never met ‘Tâd Bill’, as the boys called him, although Billy often told me that I should have called around to his house. He was a railway fanatic, and had a huge collection of memorabilia. I would have loved to have seen it, and chatted to him about the heyday of the GWR. Now I never will.
Trying to get hold of Paul E., one of the old gang, to let him know about Tâd Bill’s funeral has been a challenge, to say the least. He was last seen in Cardiff several months ago. Since then, given his track record, he’s probably been ‘asked to leave’ his rented accommodation at least once. His last-known mobile number is dead. He could be dead as well, for all we know.
Paul is one of the most intelligent and inventive people I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the most unreliable fuck-ups who’ve ever walked the earth. If Delboy had been born in Wales, rather than in Peckham, he would have looked like Paul. Tall, athletic, handsome, with a resounding voice and a confidence which sometimes bordered on the arrogant, Paul has been a good friend for nearly twenty years. Unfortunately, as in Peter’s case, his liking for alcohol has conspired to fuck his life up. We’ve got pissed together on more occasions than either of us can remember, but somehow I managed to hold things together, while he let them slide.
We’d only known each other for a short time when he managed to lose his job in Sony in Bridgend; an all-dayer in the Carpenters resulted in his deciding not to turn up to work. Up to this stage, everything had seemed to be going well for him. He had a very attractive girlfriend, his own place, a well-paid job; he had an idea to get a band together with some mates – it was all happening for him.
Ten years later everything had changed. He was sofa-surfing through a succession of friends’ places, pausing only long enough for them to get fed up with him before moving on, leaving chaos in his wake. I’ve always said that we should put his name forward for Big Brother – it’s the only house he hasn’t been evicted from yet.
He moved from Aberdare to share a house with an equally fucked-up girl in Swansea, then to a caravan in Carmarthen, then to the Philippines for a while. His father was working out there, and Paul went there to look for work. When he was there he hooked up with a saloon girl, and they got engaged. He used to send money out to her every so often. I spoke to her on the phone once. She wasn’t a figment of his imagination. They’re still engaged, as far as anyone knows.
When he returned to Aberdare, he drove taxis for a while, sober for once, but usually fairly stoned instead. A couple of years ago he got a job shifting gear for bands. He was making a good living and doing something he enjoyed. He roadied for the Who and Roger Waters, among others. I saw him last on my birthday in 2007. We had a drink together in Kitty Flynn’s, in the lunchtime. My brother saw him last summer; he’d moved to Grangetown, and was working on a building site. I emailed Liz, a mutual friend of ours, tonight. I hope she’s got his number so I can let him know about Tuesday. I don’t hold out much hope. He could be anywhere by now.
Peter lived the same lifestyle for years. He was a qualified painter and decorator and a very well-educated man, but his fondness for the booze caused him to wander from job to job, place to place, partner to partner, without any long-term stability. Mother and I cleared his bedsit today. We brought out two bags of clothes – mostly shirts bought from charity shops – and shoes, a handful of books, some shaving stuff and toiletries, umpteen packets of cigarette papers, a tiny pocket radio, a heap of loose change, and a stack of letters from the Department of Work and Pensions. It wasn’t much to show for fifty-nine years on the planet.
Peter wasn’t even sure if he and his wife were still married. He’d left that part of his life behind. He has a daughter somewhere, apparently. We don’t know anything about her – if she’ll be coming to his funeral on Wednesday, or whether she even knows that her father’s passed away.
I’m sitting at home typing this at just after midnight. In less than seven hours I have to get up for work. Not a hobble on a building site somewhere, sneaking out of the house before daylight in case one of the neighbours spots me and grasses me up to the DWP.
I’m talking about actual paid work, with tax and National Insurance, and a monthly train ticket of £90+ to buy in the morning. It pays my mortgage and my council tax and my utility bills and my food and my clothes, and leaves me a bit over to buy DVDs and books.
I could so easily have gone down the route that Peter and Paul decided to follow. Instead, I bought my own place, and I stick in a job that I don’t entirely hate so that I can hang on to it. I can go to bed in a few minutes’ time, knowing that the bed is mine, the house is mine (in a sense), this computer is mine and isn’t used by a bunch of strangers in a library or a cybercafe somewhere, the food in my fridge and the razor in the bathroom are mine.
I can have my meals when I like and take a bath when I like. I don’t have to make polite conversation with the bunch of fuck-ups I’ve ended up sharing a house with, or watching crap on the TV or listening to other people’s music until stupid o’clock. My 1,000+ books and my 400+ records and my CDs and my DVDs are safe behind a locked door with only one set of keys. It’s going to take a lot more than two trips in a Ford Ka to clear out my stuff when I finally check out of this life.
Paul’s off the grid. If Liz hasn’t got his number, we won’t be able to get hold of him at all before Tuesday. He’ll miss Tâd Bill’s funeral. I couldn’t live like that. I like to be connected. I use my phone and my mobile and Facebook to keep in touch with people. I’ve had the same phone for five years, and the same number for longer than that. I don’t see the point of continually changing it. You only spend a shitload of credit sending everyone your new number.
I love this world and my life upon it (as the song says) and I can’t imagine the sofa-surfing lifestyle any more. Twenty years it seemed so appealing. Now I just want a girlfriend to stay over once in a while, and enough time and money to finish the jobs that need doing.
If that means (as my friend Mike B. would have it) that I’ve become bourgeois, then so be it. I’d prefer to know that my friends will turn up for my funeral, rather than finding out by Chinese Whispers weeks or months later.