A Journey through Madness

The government green paper on mental health wants to prevent people coming off medication if they get out of psychiatric hospital - the purpose of the story below is to show that if people are always forced to take psychiatric drugs, they will never fully resolve the issues that drove them mad and have no chance of ever becoming whole people again. This is not to say that anything about coming off drugs is easy or risk-free. It is very much a matter for the individual, and is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

A close friend of mine, a young white South African woman, went mad about 10 years ago. I know her because we used to live in the same squatting community in Hackney where she had come to live after leaving South Africa (she left because of police harrassment resulting from her opposition to Apartheid and because of a problem with another family member). We had fallen out by the time she cracked up so I don’t know what led her down that path, but without going into details I think it was partly what happened in South Africa, partly the circumstances she was living in here, and partly taking a lot of acid. At any rate she went crazy and was dragged off to the loony bin. I became involved because I’d previously supported people through madness and was (at that time) involved with a small magazine that campaigned on mental health issues, Asylum.

She asked to see me so I went to visit her. She was drugged up to the eyeballs with Haloperidol, an extremely unpleasant drug once used on Russian dissidents, and could only whisper, as she’d screamed and shouted herself hoarse. We put pressure on them to release her, which they did after a week. If they hadn’t we would (with her permission) have kidnapped her.

I told her that if she didn’t stop taking the drugs that she’d be a zombie for the rest of her life. I said that she would probably go mad again, but that this time we would try to give her more support.

She decided to go for it, and had a very bad few days coming off the drugs - feeling disorientated and wretched. For a week after that she was back to ‘normal’.

Then she cracked up again. I tried to get her into the Arbours Crisis Centre in North London but while I was doing that someone took her to visit her mother, who had come over from South Africa and who was staying in a hotel. Unknown to us, her mother tried to kidnap her back to South Africa but my friend had a fight with her mother on the tube and disappeared. Her boyfriend rang police stations and psychiatric hospitals and eventually at 3 am the police told us she was in a police station in Hastings. To this day, none of us, including her, know how she got there from London. She was picked up in a pub after the landlord called the police.

Her boyfriend and another friend drove down to get her, but when I went down to visit her the next morning she was as high as a kite, all the people in her house were completely shattered, and her mother had spent the night with her very aptly named psychiatrist, Dr Stoneman, who said he was going to re-section her and give her mother the authority to take her back to South Africa.

I suggested bringing her to my house for a few days space. We put her in a room with not much stuff in it and I asked squatters in the area (none of whom knew her previously) if they would take it turn to be with her and look after her. People asked me how they should be, and I said just be yourself. I think one of the people who did her the most good was Andy Tuck - she spent a whole night just staring into his eyes and he just smiled gently back at her. At that time she was very far gone - completely out of it, couldn’t even speak. The police had injected her with a large amount of Largactil and it took several days to wear off.

After a few days we brought her to see a radical psychiatrist who I knew. I’ve recently fallen out with this pompous, shallow fake of an individual and am reluctant to say anything good about him but the visit did do some good, perhaps because we set him up as judge of the situation and he reassured us we were doing the right thing. He did manage to communicate with her and ask her what she wanted, which we had nearly given up on, because she was so out of it. I said it was difficult for her to stay at my house, partly because the situation was freaking out someone living there and partly to reassure her boyfriend that I had no designs on her - he put a lot of trust in me. She decided to go back to her own house - the people there had had a rest and the men in white coats hadn’t shown up. From that point on things gradually calmed down and she slowly came back to earth. She did various things to sort her life out, which included moving out of that house but inviting everyone she felt had screwed her head up to a party and telling them in no uncertain terms, what she thought of them. It was quite something, that party.

She basically emerged from the whole ordeal a much stronger person, and decided to return to South Africa and to fight against Apartheid. Her mother had very courageously gone back and left her with us, which meant she was free to return of her own will instead of being forced back.

That was all over 10 years ago - since then she became a journalist, working in the midde of the civil war in Namibia, then Cape Town and Johannesburg, where she now lives. She has also worked as a teacher, and was head of an English department in a school for (mostly) black kids in Johannesburg. She is happily (re) married to another journalist, with two wonderful children.

The point about this whole story is that the proposals in the government green paper would outlaw everything we did. She would never have been allowed to go mad, and find her own path to freedom through the various things that were screwing her up. She would have been kept regularly injected with drugs, no doubt lapsing into madness every time she stopped taking them and could well have ended up in the back wards of the loony bin.

Yes, to allow people to go mad, to be mad, is frightening ad dangerous, but drugging people or frying their brains with shock treatment is simply social control masquerading as medical science. Life is dangerous - anything can happen, but is better than the half dead ‘safety’ of George Orwell’s 1984, which is what this government has in store for us.

Donnard White