A nurse came over to my bed and said: “Well done you!” It was a balmy midsummer evening. A little while earlier I had been strolling around the hospital grounds when I found a fellow patient sitting against a wall. She (I think it was a she – it was another life ago) had clumsily cut her wrists and was gushing with bloody despair. I childishly took her by the hand and led her back to the ward where I passed her off to the first nurse I saw. “Well done you!” A pat on the back, a gold star. For who though? The nurse’s TV-induced voice was intensely annoying. It embodied a language of agonised self-consciousness combined with deluded self-entitlement: a uniquely ugly prosody. But I still felt a spasm of childish pride at her recognition of my good deed (civic duty) and probably slept well that night.
Tim – an eponym – was my doctor. He wore glasses, had a scraggly beard and appeared permanently flustered as he did his rounds. Most importantly, he seemed nice; a man I could trust. I eagerly awaited our brief, weekly meeting to find out what was wrong with me, to get the lowdown, to hear the slightest hint of a plausible diagnosis. One morning (not our weekly meeting) he was hurrying through the ward when he saw me reading Sartre’s The Reprieve (I’m pretty sure it was that one). He stopped and told me that he had liked Sartre when he was my age (I was 20). “Have you read Being and Nothingness? No? You should!” And he dashed off, further reinforcing my growing suspicion that psychiatry was an industry, a repository for all the psyches that post-industrial civilisation had shattered and couldn’t put back together again. Even when Tim admitted that he couldn’t effectively say what was wrong with me, I still liked him. He was a Tim that I could have been: well-intentioned, socially useful, nice.
Will Self wrote: “There’s a prejudice against people called Tim; true, it’s not on a par with racism, sexism or homophobia but there’s little doubt that your life chances will be constrained should your otherwise risk-averse parents have had the temerity to Tim you.” I do indeed cringe at the sound of my name but it was unpleasant hearing it from a writer who embodies much of what I dislike about England. His impressive turns of phrase (“[…] plantations of rhododendron, the quintessential Victorian colonist, splashed mauve and purple about with floral abandon.”) and use of obscure polysyllabic German compounds belie his glibness and parochialism. I remember squirming with Fremdschämen when I saw him playing to the audience on a show called Room 101, a term coined by Orwell, whom Self would later dub a “Supreme Mediocrity”. Self is an exceptionally talented writer but he may as well have changed his name by deed poll to Will Ipseity.
His persona – what else can you call his ubiquitous media presence? – is a virtuoso balancing act. On one hand, dazzling verbiage, a modern-day Tristram (post-postmodern), ever on the cusp of the rolling coverage of the story. On the other hand, a healthy dose of televisual Vaudeville, Selflessness in the guise of humour, fulgurous witticisms to stoke the hysterical laughter of the audience. Orwell was mediocre and overrated as a writer. But when I was sleeping in doorways and fields in Spain six months after I discharged myself from hospital, reading Down and Out in Paris and London was a lifeline. Tellingly, it is easy to imagine Self becoming what is known as a “national institution” if he keeps up the good work. No matter that the term is thrown about a bit casually these days, Self fits the culturally prescribed bill: a reformed drug user, ready line in repartee, and hack-like prolificness.
Back in my institutionalised state, I despondently pondered over my name. What was in it? Not me, I concluded after writing the following:
“Tim didn’t like his name. He liked the “T” of it, because it was cruciform, but not the “im” of it, because it made him feel stunted. Whenever someone addressed him by his name, he fleetingly felt suspended in the air. Tim just didn’t really seem to embody him. Hearing his name said aloud always took him aback, like hearing his doorbell unexpectedly ring. Nor did it make any difference how many thousands of times he heard it. Nothing could reconcile himself to it – not even time itself. As a child he had been briefly excited to discover that he shared a name with the telephone service known as T.I.M. (Time in Minutes), which one could call by dialling 123. But the thrill soon wore off. By adolescence he was firmly convinced that his appellative fate was a cruel one. He occasionally considered going by his full name of Timothy but that felt almost as uncomfortable as its diminutive form. Timothy was far too theatrical for him with its “Oh” and its “Thy.” And besides, it possessed certain uncomfortable socio-political connotations which only further increased his dislike of it. Alas for him, he was no more a Timothy than a Tim.”
A surprising number of visitors came to visit Tim, sorry, me, in hospital. Aunts and uncles, cousins, family friends, friends. Even my father visited and we weren’t even talking (he would sit there in silence while my mother spoke). When my brothers came to visit me, they both had a very different theory as to why I had voluntarily checked myself in for observation.
Brother 1: “You’re only here for the free food and to escape your responsibilities.”
Brother 2: “You did it to get some good material for your writing, right?”
They were both wrong. I was there, at the hospital of my birth, out of pure despair. I was 20 and had no idea how to understand, much less cope with, the emotional devastation I was experiencing. It wasn’t so much a breakdown as an all-out collapse of reality. Every belief I had was levelled. Language – the fabric of my being – had ruptured along syntactic fault lines. I had prematurely boomed and busted. In retrospect, it was a quaintly old-fashioned despair borne of a heady excess of pathological sensitivity, earnestness and disbelief. But at the time I did not know that. I was unspeakably miserable and in unbearable pain. I turned to the hospital as a last resort.
They were both right. As a child I had spent several prolonged periods in hospital thanks to a medical condition. Being there made me feel safe and gave me a desperately needed sense of reality. Sometimes, it was true, I would look at my fellow patients’ beds and think they looked more appealing than my own. But it was reassuring to be under observation. I also retained a vague hope that the hospital might be able to cure me of my misery just as they had stemmed my internal bleeding on several occasions. Despite my many doubts, I still half-heartedly hoped that my salvation lay within the power of institutional care.
Perhaps that is why I feel strangely at home whenever I find myself sitting in the corridors of official buildings. Institutional corridors just feel right goddamit. They are the belly of the beast, the peristaltic organ of power. A sense of relief washes over me as I sit there flicking through a magazine. As I wait to see a doctor about a lump in my pride. Or to obtain yet another impossible document for my foreign residency. I thrill at my proximity to what I most fear. The doctor, the tax agent, the woman behind the counter with the stamp: they can all crush me. If I ever found myself on trial, it would be terrifyingly easy to condemn the official version of me. The prosecution need only invoke my questionable mental health: “The defendant spent six weeks in a psychiatric ward when he was 20 years old…”
The weather was unusually hot which only added to the feeling that I was in a sort of summer camp. It was easy to ignore the fact that I was in a place for the sick and the desperate. A general air of infantilism pervaded the ward, from the condescending voices the nurses adopted to deal with patients to the childish pictures on the wall. Art as therapy. Art as catharsis. Art as a repository for the ills of post-industrial civilisation. There is a long and dubious history of culture (with a big C) compensating for social suffering by romanticising it in the guise of art. Byronic unhappiness instead of socially induced despair. Dickensian poverty rather than systematically induced privation. The history of madness in England is told through rhyming couplets, blotchy watercolours and pronounced dramatic pauses.
I felt sufficiently composed to write a few poems. The one I was most proud of was called Yellow. It was inspired by a flowy dress one of the auxiliary nurses was wearing. The poem was about how I hated the colour yellow, the way it oozed obscene optimism and glowed like gaudy pus. Anna (a family friend) came to visit me on a painfully sunny afternoon. I hammily paused before handing her my ham-handed poem to read. She seemed sincerely touched and said it reminded her of Wordsworth. I forlornly glowed in my bed. Another gold star.
I had fresh visitors every day. They brought me fruit, bickies and chockies (my aunt even brought me a Big Mac one evening). They talked with me in an exaggeratedly normal manner, as though I were merely in hospital with a broken leg, or tonsillitis, or some other good old-fashioned malady. I appreciated their visits but was also painfully aware that they were a part of the problem. Their words no longer issued from them but from a generalised cacophony that I could not decode. The exaggeratedly shrill voice of an aunt was indistinguishable from the plaintive murmur of a chair. Jokes crackled. Platitudes whirred. Words heaved. Crows purred.
For the first time I became aware of how power forms and codifies meaning. Every word is politically charged. Every utterance is historically skewed. My troubled state was somehow linguistic as much as it was physiological. But I couldn’t yet put my finger on it. Instead I shook my uncle’s hand as he cheerily said hello. The same uncle who would later try to kill himself…
There was a prominent advertising campaign at the time for a new health service called Saneline. Posters (many, revealingly, at bus stops) and billboards dramatically proclaimed that 1 in 10 people suffer from some form of mental health problem at some point in their lives. That number has since risen to 1 in 4 (www.mind.org.uk). This is scientifically beyond belief. If it were true, mental illness would be a new Black Plague. No, sir, this will not do. Your chronic confusion and debilitating sadness and niggling sense of worthlessness are not mental defects. They are inevitable in the highly charged linguistic scheme of things.
The fans whirred, the patients dutifully babbled and dribbled. One of the biggest dribblers I met was Warren. I had gone to Middle school with Warren in happier, leafier days and was surprised to bump into him there. Although I was increasingly sceptical about most prevailing notions of mental disorders, there was no denying the fact that Warren was hopelessly gone. He walked around the ward all day long in bare feet, mumbling incoherently to himself and sporadically attacking the walls.
I had never been close friends with Warren but we were on nodding terms and I had been to his house a couple of times. We both appeared in the same scene of our school’s production of Alice in Wonderland when we were 10 years old. I played the March Hare while Warren made a decent Mad Hatter. The play was a resounding success with the parents who gave the star-struck young cast two encores at the final curtain. I had very little dialogue and the only line I distinctly remember is: “Have some wine!” Little did I know how prescient those words were: I’ve been self-medicating with the stuff for the last 15 years.
The other connection I had with Warren was that I had once slept with his sister, a large-breasted and bucktoothed girl called Heidi who had a penchant for being taken from behind. “You can feel it most that way,” she explained as she raised her rosy cheeks in the air for me. I was 15 at the time.
I met another former schoolmate in the hospital. Ashish was a stocky young man with a deep voice and kindly chuckle. At school he had a fearsome reputation due to the reputed power of his punch. When I asked what he was doing there, he nervously shuffled about in his chair and explained in a bashful manner that he had started his own business a couple of years ago but the stress had got to him and he had a breakdown. Like most of the patients on the ward, there was nothing clinically wrong with Ashish.
Jackie had her own room. It was always full of flowers, fruit and Get Well cards (whose messages were no doubt intended for other injuries). She was about the same age as my mother. When I asked her why she was there, she said: “No one had warned me how hard life would be.” Jackie and I were probably the least obviously troubled people in the ward. Her family lovingly surrounded her every evening and did their best to comprehend her invisible ailment. I liked Jackie although her voice was a bit annoying. She didn’t so much speak as lightly groan in a grating nasal tone. In that regard, she was not the least bit like my mother, a no-nonsense sort of woman who hung up the phone on me when I called her about admitting myself to hospital, on the recommendation of the psychiatrist I spoke to, when I first walked in there, dripping with despair, on a grey, humid, midweek afternoon.
The interview with the psychiatrist (that’s what it felt like) took place in a small sparsely furnished room. She asked me what was wrong. “Everything,” I said. She asked if I heard voices. I laughed and shook my head. She asked if I took drugs. “Not anymore,” I said. She asked a lot of questions and I answered them as honestly as I could. At one point we played a game of word association. She told me to say the first word that came into my head starting with whatever letter she said. “F,” for example. Fuck. “Floccinaucinihilipilification,” I said. A non-word, really. But I quickly added “frivolous” to show that I wasn’t serious.
Forty minutes later she still wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. She recommended I voluntarily stay there for a couple of weeks so the doctors could observe me and come to a proper diagnosis. I agreed without a second thought. An almost childish sense of relief came over me: at last my misery was temporarily out of my hands. The doctor also suggested I call my family to let them know what was happening and nudged the phone on the desk towards me. I dialled home. My mother shouted. Down the phone. At me. She told me to get out of there at once and hung up. I had been a source of great worry for her and was sorry to cause her even more suffering. She loved me but had a distrust of psychiatry and what she called “psycho-babble”. For her, an extra teaspoon of sugar in your tea was all you needed to lift you out of a funk. Naturally, she came to me visit me every day and tried her best to understand her pathologically sensitive son.
I have a Scottish acquaintance who knows a thing or two about madness. A highly intelligent man, we once discussed notions of mental illness over several beers. He proudly told me how his father had once “walked off his depression” by furiously pacing around his Glasgow apartment for a few days. I see a glimmer, a flicker, a twinkle of madness in my acquaintance’s searing blue eyes. This endears him to me. He lives in a perpetual state of nervous excitement (like myself) which plays out through various obsessions, from amassing rare books to collecting Star Wars figures (there may be a commercial aspect to this). His kind of madness is quaintly old-fashioned just as his shock of thistly hair is timelessly impressive. He would never seek out therapy or antidepressants because he understands the powerful emotional forces that daily negate him are elemental and natural. Madness is, to varying degrees of tolerability, the price we pay for self-consciousness.
My acquaintance is fortunate to have a Scottish accent with which to narrate his way through life. He wholly inhabits his earthy, melodic voice. English accents, on the other hand, are a source of untold suffering. They have to negotiate so many social pitfalls and booby traps that they are a veritable assault course for the tongue. I grew up naively believing that class was becoming a thing of the past. How wrong I was. Jackie’s suffering was painfully manifest in her vocal hesitance as she strove to speak with a modicum of phonetic decorum. Personally, I find so-called Received Pronunciation a risible and ugly-sounding charade, a flatulent stream of what Martin Amis called “poncey affectations”. Poor Jackie. Poor mother. Poor anyone who is not wholly at one with their voice.
I remember when Will Self (whose timbre of voice was faintly reminiscent of Jackie) appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight in a discussion about class. If I remember correctly, he described himself as a “classless intellectual” (I couldn’t find any record or transcript of the debate in a cursory online search) and repeatedly joked about Tony Blair’s cufflinks. Like most debates in England, it went nowhere. I came away from it feeling incredulous that class was still so rife and depressed it was being treated so glibly. Inasmuch as there is an epidemic of mental illness in England, much of it surely results from a self-splintering feeling of social, political and vocal alienation.
The BBC, that most prominent of all national institutions, is a hotbed of culturally sanctioned madness. I grew up, for example, watching BBC Children’s TV. I was fond of Jackanory, in which people would read stories in ridiculously exaggerated voices. And like most kids I saw a lot of Jimmy Savile (I liked Jim’ll Fix It for the silly reason that it rhymed with Tim’ll Fix It). Savile: “Now then, now then!”, “Goodness gracious!”, “How’s about that, then?” Savile, the knighted serial rapist, paedophile and coiner of catchphrases. Because the English love their catchphrases and light entertainment. The whole nation was taken in by this vile individual thanks to his catchphrases, quirky appearance and fucking charity work. As a teenager I instinctively viewed popular entertainment (sitcoms, chat shows etc.) with a pained cross between a grin and a grimace. It felt wrong but I couldn’t explain why. The hysterical laughter of the audience, the crass quips and sexual innuendos, the otherworldly gaudiness of the set designs: it made me queasy. TV had not yet settled into its smug, post-postmodern incarnation. It was mostly drab, televisually naive and still operated along conspicuous lines of class (as opposed to the far more mercurial stratification of lifestyle). For a time, Savile was the face of popular entertainment, of children’s modest dreams, of the innocence of ignorance. For more than 40 years he was in our living rooms, an eccentric uncle but welcome guest. That, I think, makes him a quintessentially English pervert. Predictably, there was merciless public outrage when it all came out: his grave defiled, his name reviled, his awards and honours revoked (he could not be stripped of his knighthood, however, because the honour ceases with the expiration of its beknighted holder).
The BBC fully cooperated with the far-reaching police investigation into sexual abuse in the wake of Savile’s death (codename Operation Yewtree, itself eerily reminiscent of the name of a Doctor Who serial). There were inquiries and lawsuits (i.e. apportioning blame). There was salacious media coverage (posing as indignation). But all the soul-searching missed the point. Savile was an icon, a national treasure, a womanizer, a man with a colourful lifestyle. We had created the euphemistic language that embedded him in fame. We, the audience, were complicit in the madness. Just as the issue (or /ˈɪsjuː/ according to many BBC newsreaders) of mental health had been characteristically swept under the rug (except in the occasional film or TV drama), Savile was the rug, woolily pulled over our eyes. How’s about, then?
As a keen amateur lexicologist, I was always struck by the vile in Savile. Vile: extremely unpleasant, morally bad/wicked, of little worth or value. I once drunkenly wrote a poem in which I rhymed ‘vile’ with ‘chamomile’. And as someone who knows a thing or two about vileness, I was fascinated to learn that the word appears embedded in many Lithuanian female names: Vilė, Jovilė, Mažvilė, Tautvilė, Radvilė, Deivilė, Eidvilė, Erdvilė, Gaivilė, Norvilė, Povilė, Rimvilė. I had moved to Lithuania ostensibly to live and work but in reality I was an existential refugee fleeing suffering. My name, which I disliked, sounded less tinny there. Over the years, I came across a few –viles: (x2) Akvilės who hated me (fairly), a Živilė who hated me (unfairly), and a Dovilė who looked at me suspiciously. Given time, Tim’ll fuck it up.
Back in my summer holiday camp, I was visited regularly by my Aunt Theodora (the one who brought me the Big Mac). Dora was a boisterous and exceptionally good-natured woman with a fondness for catchphrases. “Hi-de-hi campers!” she used to say at family get-togethers (voted the 35th most popular comedy catchphrase in a poll). She also regularly proclaimed herself “the hostess with the mostess”, although I have no idea where the phrase came from. I spent a lot of time during the summer holidays with Dora and adored her for her oversized meals. One summer she took me along with her family to a holiday camp in Cornwall. I was euphoric because my family never went on holiday (holiday camps would have been especially hellish for my father). One memory-blanched day I came into the caravan just as Dora was changing out of her bikini: hers were the first breasts I ever saw in the flesh. There were other milestones: the first time I saw the sea, my first cigarette and my first encounter with jellyfish (a creature I feel a morphological kinship with).
Dora was a fair woman but she had no tolerance for unemployment. Everyone except the severely disabled, according to her, should work. That is why Dora was delighted when the doctors gave me permission to go back to my job in a local warehouse. I had been in the hospital for three weeks and they still hadn’t diagnosed my condition. Tim thought it might be good for me to “get back out there into the real world”. Reluctantly, despairingly, I would leave the hospital early in the morning and return there early each evening. Dora lived nearby and told me to come to her house for lunch. I politely declined.
I had recently returned from living in New York for a year in the lowest imaginable spirits. I was not talking to my father, I was penniless, I was still suffering from a broken heart, and I was living in a flea-infested house. The job in the warehouse was the first thing I could find and involved picking and packing small metallic valves that got shipped all over Europe (I had no idea what function they served). Every Friday I would receive my wages in a small brown envelope with my name written on it in Biro. I remember very little about my brief time there. The supervisor would always take a siesta during the lunch hour in an enormous leather swivel chair; another colleague wore Dr Martens boots and hardly said a word to anyone; the radio was on all day playing upbeat music (BBC Radio 1); the time passed with excruciating monotony.
The job did not last long; it seemed absurdly unfair to be working in a dull, dead-end job and be a patient in a mental hospital at the same time. The lack of diagnostic progress was making me increasingly suspicious of the hospital’s capacity to help me and restless to get out of there. As I was a voluntary patient, I was free to come and go as I pleased. I began taking a walk every afternoon to nearby Harrow-on-the-Hill, where I would sit in the cemetery and think about my life, and how it had led me to be sitting in a cemetery while staying in the psychiatric ward of the hospital I was born in.
One afternoon I read a poem by Byron that was inscribed in a commemorative stone in the cemetery. Byron had gone to Harrow School and wrote a poem glorifying his days there entitled “Lines Written Beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.” For me, it was a sickening assault on language:
Spot of my youth! whose hoary branches sigh,
Swept by the breeze that fans thy cloudless sky;
Where now alone I muse, who oft have trod,
With those I loved, thy soft and verdant sod;
With those who, scattered far, perchance deplore,
Like me, the happy scenes they knew before:
Oh! as I trace again thy winding hill,
Mine eyes admire, my heart adores thee still,
Thou drooping Elm! beneath whose boughs I lay,
And frequent mused the twilight hours away;
Where, as they once were wont, my limbs recline,
But ah! without the thoughts which then were mine.
How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,
Invite the bosom to recall the past,
And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,
“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”
A tick of my discordant mind is the habit of muddling reason and rhyme. Thus, I felt the time was right to reclaim what was mine.
If my acquaintance’s father “walked off” his depression, I can honestly say that I cogitated my way out of it. I had been in the hospital for six weeks and the weather was oppressively muggy. During our weekly meeting, Tim repeated that he still couldn’t definitively say what was wrong with me. The one thing he could say, however, was that he was worried I might have a relapse at some time in the future. His words had an unintentionally powerful effect on me. More than anything else, they shocked me out of my stultifying state of self-pity. Over the next few days Tim’s words kept swirling around my head. They terrified me because they threatened me with the one thing I feared above everything: becoming a noun proper. If I were to have a relapse “at some time in the future” it meant that I had to be officially ill. But I didn’t want to be officially ill – that would have been against everything I believed in. I didn’t mind being emotionally deranged, philosophically suicidal, or hopelessly miserable, but there was simply no way I could accept being officially ill. And so it was that Tim’s words inadvertently helped me to take my first tentative steps towards a new life. I solemnly vowed never to question my sanity again.
Jarrow is a small but historically significant town situated on the River Tyne, England, with a population of around 28,000. A Roman fort was built there in the 1st century, which was later occupied by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. The town derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon word “Gyrwe” (marsh or fen). The famous Monastery of Saint Paul in Jarrow was once home to the Venerable Bede, whose works include The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the translation of the Gospel of John into Old English. Bede is often referred to as “the father of English history”. The introduction of heavy industries, such as coal mining and shipbuilding, led to a boom in Jarrow’s population. Charles Mark Palmer established a shipyard there in 1852 and employed some 80% of the town’s working population until it closed in the 1930s. Around 1,000 ships were built at the yard during its relatively short but productive existence. In 1935 the Olympic (the sister ship of the Titanic) was partly demolished there. The catastrophic closure of the shipyard led to one of the most famous events in Jarrow’s history. On October 5, 1936, around 200 men walked the 451-kilometer distance from Jarrow to London in order to protest to Parliament against their dreadful social conditions. The march was popularly known as the Jarrow Crusade or the Jarrow March. Local people provided them with food and shelter over the course of their epic walk. When they finally arrived in London on October 31, a petition of 12,000 signatures was handed to Parliament by Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP for Jarrow. However, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet with the marchers’ representatives.
Jarrow has nothing whatsoever to do with me other than it rhymes with Harrow, which is the town where I was born and grew up.
After six weeks in the hospital, I discharged myself against the advice of Tim and the nurse in the yellow dress. The only glimmer of hope I had was that I might one day be able to write myself into existence.
My mother’s philosophy of life was “get on with it.”
I got a job (in a pet store), a place to live, a sturdy pair of walking boots.
I got a lot of books.
I got a voice.
I got love.
I got well.
Well as I’ll ever be.
I was carrying a plastic bag with me as I slowly made my way away from the hospital. The only thing I remember for sure was in it was a toothbrush. The weather was oppressively muggy. The surroundings were oppressively ugly. The light was cruelly revelatory. Left, right, left. That old pendulum swing has disappeared. There is no meaningful distinction between left and right anymore. England is another country. It has slicker television, for one thing. It is, I believe, a less compassionate place. It is, I feel, permanently pitched on the brink of hysteria. As I crossed the enormous roundabout, my old school came into view. I was lucky at school. Never bullied. Good at football, quick with quips. Still, I couldn’t wait to leave when the day came. No nostalgia there, no reinventing the past to give me a leg up. Although it was still the summer holiday, I saw my old English teacher, Mr McManimon, through the metal railings. He was getting out of his car, presumably there to prepare for the new term. I had always liked Mr McManimon, partly because it gave me enormous pleasure to pronounce his exotic name. It was like wrapping my lips around a harmonica. I also liked him because he had given me an ‘A’ for English (I got terrible grades in most other subjects). He seemed genuinely pleased to see me as we stood there speaking through the metal railings. I felt grateful and relieved: I was of a time, a place, with a recognizable face. He asked how I had been. I gripped the plastic bag in my hand and dryly lied that I was fine. After all, those were my first tentative steps towards a new life.