The Gift of Mental Illness

The Gift of Mental Illness

The fact is, I am mentally ill. Not many people wish to admit it. But it has plagued me my whole life since I was a child. And continues to do. So, I might as well be open about it, since so many are not. Oh, don't get me wrong. I am not going to stab a stranger, nor push somebody in front of a Tube train. I don't think. Though I am often tempted. Aren't we all?

No, my form of mental illness takes a different, somewhat insidious form – and the main threat is to myself, you'll be relieved to hear. But where did it start and how did it develop? Good question. I have been melancholic, full of self-doubt, hyper-sensitive to criticism, with no self-belief and sometimes crying on my own ever since I can remember. I used to hide under my bed, the dining-room table, in the shed and so on as a child. I prefer to be on my own, though I am at the same time wildly sociable. It makes no sense.

At The Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, Ireland, in 1978 with my beloved late brother DermAnd I have no answer when it comes to the nature vs nurture debate. I am the middle son of three boys, born to Irish parents in west London in the late Sixties and early Seventies. My brothers don't/didn't share my gloomy disposition, certainly not in the sense that I do. I found myself crying frequently, as I say, and tended to be a loner. As I hit the teen years, I became the joker of the school, and developed lots of friends. I turned to alcohol and drugs. I got in trouble with the police. I was frequently suspended from school.

When I was 16, I was arrested and put into a cell. I could hear my friends upstairs stamping on the floor of the waiting room, singing "Free-ee Eugene Costella" to the tune of Free Nelson Mandela. They kept me more or less overnight. I told the coppers they were fucking wankers. It didn't really help my situation.

As a result of this, I was ordered to see a Sgt Pickett the following week. He was a kind enough man. He said, "This has to stop". The next thing, I was referred to a social worker and an educational psychologist. The latter said, "You have a very high IQ, you should be doing so much more with your life." The former was a bit useless – on the second occasion I was there, I lost it and climbed out of her second-floor window, dropped to the floor and legged it to Ealing Broadway. Running away has always been my go-to defence. She sent me a letter saying, "Dear Eugene. I am so sorry you felt unable to continue your session"... I burnt it and put the ashes in the bin.

Recently, I have been referred to a psychotherapist on the NHS following a calamitous year that continues to be fraught and full of pain with shades of light from my love for my parents that has grown stronger. She is very good and takes no nonsense from me. I have also attended two sessions of family therapy with my ex-wife and daughter. In both, I ended up walking out, much as I did many years ago. 

This has caused me to reflect. My anger and frustration is only hurting me. A very good friend wrote to me today. He is a wise, kind, funny man. He told me to "work at life". 

It reminded of a poem I loved as a teenager. It is called Note to the Hurrying Man and it is by one of the "Liverpool Poets", a chap called Brian Patten. It speaks of the alienation from society that some of us labelled "mentally ill" feel. So I sent him it. He replied "I like wise lyrical Eugene. You should do more of that!" So I am. Here it is and I beg forgiveness for any unintended breach of copyright:


All day I sit here doing nothing but
watching how at daybreak
birds fly out and return no fatter
when it’s over. Yet hurrying about this room
you would have me do something similar;
would have me make myself a place
in that sad traffic you call a world.
Don’t hurry me into it; offer
no excuses, no apologies.
Until their brains snap open
I have no love for those who rush
about its mad business;
put their children on a starting line and push
into Christ knows what madness.

You will not listen.
“Work at life!” you scream,
and working I see you rushing everywhere,
so fast most times you ignore
two quarters of your half a world.
If all slow things are useless
and take no active part in nor justify your ignorance
that’s fine; but why bother screaming after me?
Afraid perhaps to come to where I’ve stopped
in case you find
into some slow and glowing countryside
yourself escaping.
Screams measure and keep up the distance between us:
Be quieter –
I really do need to escape;
take the route you might take
if ever this hurrying is over.


The line "Until their brains snap open, I have no love for those who rush about its mad business" really resonated with me. "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents", says Luke in the Bible (great book, a roller coaster of a read). Closer to my political beliefs, though, is the much-misunderstood Karl Marx. He is often quoted about religion being "the opium of the people", as though he is excoriating it. In fact, the previous line gives more context, and reveals that his view was more nuanced: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." I sometimes visit his grave, above in the restful Highgate Cemetery, a peaceful corner of north London, and I recommend others to do the same.

Another of my heroes is the Dean of Belfast (whose Cavehill was the inspiration for Gulliver in Lilliput, its shape said to have inspired the vision of the sleeping giant), Jonathan Swift. He expressed Brian Patten's view another way when he wrote: 

“I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell...”

This dichotomy between hatred of man's inhumanity to man, coupled with love for individuals, often seems to me to lie at the heart of what professionals calls "personality disorders". To me, it's not a disorder, it is a sane and reasoned response to the madness of the world with which we are confronted. And while I am madly sociable, I am also paradoxically very private and solitary. It is this side of my diametric, warring sides to which this lovely poem, by another Liverpool Poet, Roger McGough, speaks. Its great simplicity belies the bursting strength, the roaring cascade, of the feelings that it charts. It is called,  simply, Vinegar. I love it: 

"Sometimes
i feel like a priest
in a fish & chip queue
quietly thinking
as the vinegar runs through
how nice it would be
to buy a supper for two."

Beautiful. Roger McGough, left, is a fine chap. His Poetry Please programme on Radio 4 is a joy, and – along with Countryfile and Father Ted – should be prescribed in place of antidepressants. And the fact that he looks like another of my heroes, Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, and to whom I have often been compared, only serves to make me love him all the more. For a similar ragingly potent, though simply expressed feeling of yearning, let me refer you to this beauty by the prolific Anonymous, written in the very early 16th century; the impotent scream of longing still speaks to us compellingly down the centuries:

"Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne down can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
and I yn my bed Agayne"

And since we are choosing poetry, let me choose another treasured truffle I rootled out. This one is by the American writer Elizabeth Bishop who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956. She wrote this extraordinary testament to the crippling pain of loss and the determination of the human spirit to overcome (think of poor little Anne Frank) in the most testing of conditions. It is called One Art and was written for The New Yorker in 1976. Enjoy it, savour it, don't gulp it down:


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.


Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.


I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.


—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


I shall leave it there for today. I have to write for money now. It's what I do. It's who I am. But I will leave you with some wise words from Kazimierz Dąbrowski. He was a Polish psychiatrist, best known for his theory of Positive Disintegration, also known as "splitting", charting the fragmentation of psyches of those labelled as having personality disorders, such as I apparently do. He exhorts sufferers to embrace their unique position and view of the world. It reminds me of when Roy Batty meets his maker Tyrell in Blade Runner (the good one). Batty knows that he is nearing the end of his programmed life, and, just as Goethe cried out on his deathbed, wants "More light! More light!" Batty tells Tyrell that he has done questionable things, to which Tyrell replies:

"But also extraordinary things! Revel in your time... The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!"

To which the philosophical killer Batty asks, "Can the maker repair what he makes?" And then takes Tyrell's head in his hands, crushes his skull and forces his eyes to bulge, bleed and pop out (below). Incredible cinematography and screenplay, famously including self-written lines by the late, great Rutger Hauer.

But back to old Kazimierz. He called those with personality disorders "psychoneurotics". He spent 45 years studying patients with so-called psychiatric disorders. In 1970, he wrote "Psychoneurosis Is Not An Illness", a collection of poems published under his pen name Paul Cienin/Paweł Cienin. This is, simply, great. If you "suffer" also, revel in it! Live among the shades and the vivid colours you see during your episodes. See them as a gift, not a curse. Others sleepwalk in a monochromatic world. Think of your "illness" as your special gift. It is what makes you unique... 


"Be greeted psychoneurotics!

For you see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world, uncertainty among the world’s certainties.
For you often feel others as you feel yourselves.
For you feel the anxiety of the world, and
its bottomless narrowness and self-assurance.
For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt
of the world, for your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations, for your fear of the absurdity of existence.
For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them.
For your awkwardness in dealing with practical things, and for your practicalness in dealing with unknown things, for your transcendental realism and lack of everyday
realism, for your exclusiveness and fear of losing close friends, for your creativity and ecstasy, for your maladjustment to that "which is” and adjustment to that which "ought to be”, for your great but unutilised abilities.
For the belated appreciation of the real value of your
greatness which never allows the appreciation of the greatness of those who will come after you.
For your being treated instead of treating others,
for your heavenly power being forever pushed down
by brutal force; for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you.
For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways.

 Be greeted!"


If you are struggling, please call The Samaritans on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org