Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mental Ilness

The Alan Bennett book, A Life Like Other People's, is quite interesting.

There is a sort of central story, that he chose not to tell to much of anyone until fairly late in his life. His parents retired to a village where they had never lived before--supposedly a dream for both of them, but especially for his father. His mother started to have episodes of severe depression. Unable to do much of anything, tending to sit in one place--often on furniture that was not really meant for sitting, with a touch of paranoia--I can't go out there, they're watching. Who's watching, mother? If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Bennett's father starts taking her to shrinks, and eventually he puts her in various institutions for various periods--generally the periods get longer over time, and she ends up with full-blown dementia, in yet another place where she's never lived before, but not far from Bennett's brother. For years her depression actually responds to some combination of 1. getting away from it all; 2. talk therapy; 3. drugs; 4. ECT or shock. Bennett says he believes ECT really helped, and he's unconvinced by critics of this therapy--too often, they just seem to say the family has to live with whatever it is, no matter how grim.

This whole story opens up another story, about the previous generation. During one of the "intake" type conversations--what symptoms has Mrs. Bennett been displaying, how long, has she been sick physically, etc., some shrink asks: how did her parents die? Alan says without hesitation "her father died of a heart attack," and describes the location and so on. Alan's father, sitting beside him, tries to give him a poke or something to get his attention. On the way to the car his father says: actually, your grandpa Peel committed suicide. The heart attack business, including the location, was a family legend.

Bennett makes it clear he never "figured out" any of his mother's depressive episodes. Did they have external causes, like moving to a strange place, feeling that "everyone was watching her" because she was new in the village, no longer having much to do because her retired husband did so much housework? Was there something chemical/biological going on, which would explain the apparent response to drugs and ECT? Did she have issues her whole life, which came to the surface rather late in life, which might explain talk therapy doing some good? He obviously starts to wonder: was there a genetic component?

Bennett reflects on the fact that both of his parents were painfully shy, and although they were certainly "nice" people, this almost prevented them from having friends. They truly never wanted to be the centre of attention--they almost didn't want to be noticed, named much less asked to speak in front of a group, etc. As an adult Bennett learned the story of their wedding. His mother had two sisters, much more outgoing than herself. As the wedding day approached, it became clear that these two as bridesmaids would take over, and thoroughly enjoy themselves. The bride-to-be said to her affianced that she would almost do anything to avoid a "big" church wedding (not that it was ever going to be all that big). She just couldn't do it. She'd call of the wedding, etc. So the young man--Bennett's father--went to a priest to ask if they could have a small ceremony at 7:30 a.m., so that he could drop his new wife at home and go to work as always. The priest said it was against the law to say the actual vows before 8:00. They eventually worked it out that all but the vows were said before 8:00, the vows themselves sharp at 8:00, then the day unfolded like any other day.

So: painful shyness. Bennett concludes that his painfully shy parents have something in common with his outgoing relatives: they believe wrongly that everyone is looking at them, or is inclined to do so. There is a kind of egomania in both, in comparison to the truth that most people are indifferent to us, most of the time. True, it is possible to do something in company that is so embarrassing, people talk about it for years, but that is very exceptional. Can these fairly common phenomena be steps on the road to mental illness? (Some of the shrinks keep insisting that depression is not mental illness--Bennett thinks they just don't want to admit that something so common is in fact an illness which they know virtually nothing about). Eeyore is sort of the depressive character in Pooh, and in Peanuts, the original children all tend toward depression or anger; the dog is about the only one who's entirely upbeat, and he eventually takes over the strip. Critics have said "the dog ate Shultz's homework." I think Shultz himself had trouble with depression.

Bennett is unable to find out much about the grandfather who committed suicide, except that the whole family kept the secret, and kept repeating the bullshit--even the relatives who would love to show off, and tell a good story. There were external factors to explain the suicide--a couple of bankruptcies, the whole family sliding down the social scale at a time when the Brits were excruciatingly aware of even small degrees of upward and downward mobility. But: it is hard to avoid thinking depression was an underlying problem.

Then there is the aunt. One of the two outgoing ones, she remains unmarried until fairly late--in fact, retired from a job she had always enjoyed. She marries an Aussie who fit in rather poorly in the family. He kept wanting to move to Oz, she clearly did not want to do so. She loses her address book, which she used to keep in touch with many acquaintances, and what had always been her endless stream of talk and note-writing became much accelerated, yet senseless. She eventually wandered out of a home she was in, and died of exposure.

Of course if we start saying that all kinds of "ordinary unhappiness" are mental illness, then we may be re-naming the human condition. Bennett seems to agree with Kingsley Amis (Memoirs--see Aunt Dora in "Family," and the chapter called "Shrinks"; Stanley and the Women) that when you encounter actual mental illness, you know it even if you can't name it. Crazy people aren't fascinating as some authors (including Freud) make them out to be; they don't shine at cocktail parties. (That would be Tourette's syndrome--an actual neurological disorder). They don't immediately raise the possibility that they have some deep insight that the rest of us lack. Rather, then tend to be almost unbelievably repetititious, simple-minded, monosyllabic, and tedious. Their world is limited and grey--and holds out no promise of anything better--and their conversation reflects those facts.

No comments:

Post a Comment