BY ANDREW MOODY
I don’t like Randle P. McMurphy, the anti hero of Ken Kesey’s classic anti establishment novel set in a psychiatric hospital. I prefer Jack Nicholson in the movie, which was the 1975 Oscar smash, the type of visionary epic that will sadly never be made again. The novel is written like an LSD trip from the point of view of a giant deaf mute Indian chief faking his condition out of a feeling of inadequate masculinity. He sees McMurphy as a giant of a man, the only one who can save him from the castrating Big Nurse Ratched. A battle of wills ensues, which sees Chief Bromden escape and McMurphy attack Nurse Ratched and wind up lobotomised in a corner of the hospital. Both the novel and the film were made during times of great upheaval in the psychiatric community, against the backcloth of the experiments of R.D Laing and the Californian healing communities that were often held in the nude.
The fact remains: I don’t like McMurphy. I’m currently writing this on my half an hour allotted phone time in a secure unit in Woolwich, so it will take a few days to finish and submit. I have spent the past seven months in two secure units after I stopped taking my medication and was arrested for criminal damage.
I’ve spent seventeen years in the NHS psychiatric system, and patients like McMurphy are aggressive, immature bullies often with sexual problems. It’s a lesser known fact about the story that McMurphy was originally arrested for statutory rape of a fifteen year old so it could be argued that all Ratched did was lobotomise a paedophile.
I understand that people need rebels and people need heroes, but psychiatric units serve two functions: preventing suicide in the vulnerable and encouraging regrowth of their lives, and warehousing dangerous, mentally Ill criminals.
I have had ECT like McMurphy and it was a horrible experience, but it didn’t give me brain damage and it didn’t kill me. I don’t recommend it, but I survived.
There is a genre of anti psychiatry literature which claims the pharmaceutical industry has taken over and medication is the only treatment now used for mental illness. This is untrue. The staff in the unit I am in are all well trained and, on the whole, care about moving the patients on to acute wards and eventual freedom.
Medication plays a part: I can admit I am Bipolar, but see this as a mental health condition rather than a mental illness. Like Kanye West and Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, Bipolar can be a gift as well as a curse, if the energy levels can be controlled and warned away from manic dysphoria (a sense of impending horror). There’s almost no limit to what the bipolar patient can do. Schizophrenic sufferers like the science fiction writer Philip K Dick are able to see and experience things that few humans can, alternate realities and intellectual concepts that border on genius. But schizophrenia is also a curse, and medication is desperately needed to prevent the voices and hallucinations.
I take medication for my condition, and I eat well, don’t drink, don’t take stimulant drugs and smoke only three cigarettes a day. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written by a revolutionary socialist on LSD back in the 1960s to destroy psychiatry, but I think as the Conservative government reforms the Mental Health Act of 1983, psychiatry should be closer to therapeutic medicine (as it often is) rather than a weapon of the state.
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