Monday, June 16, 2008

Idling With Ivor 3



There's nothing you can do when you're on a roll except to keep right on going.  Hence, another entry in quick succession.

Illnesses have a way of working out for our good in oftentimes strange and unexpected ways.  I remember years ago when reading the Romantic English poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley that I came across a wonderful insight in this regard.  Indeed, one scholar suggested that I read a book or article entitled something like "The Creative illnesses of the Romantic Poets."  This title is not accurate as I write this totally from memory, but I'm sure the reader gets my point.  I have recalled many times in these posts that I suffered a nervous breakdown and had to spend some seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital when I was forty.  In a strange and unexpected way, this experience has been life-shaping for me.  It allowed my creative wells to become full and teaming with watery life.  I wrote two books within a year or two of this major "set back", one of which I managed to get published.  Indeed, since forty I have been writing with greater and greater intensity.  Whether these writings ever get published or not is immaterial.  Most artists and painters follow their craft for the love of it and if they manage to publish or sell their work all the better.

Now back to Music and Madness and Ivor Browne.  Likewise for this marvellous man and brilliantly unique psychiatrist he, too, had a creative illness which kept him from college for two years.  The illness in question is TB.  I'll let Ivor speak for himself here:

It was during the two years I was sick, with plenty of time to think, that it came to me that fear of failure was worse than failure itself.  So, when the time came to face the world again, I said to myself, "From now on I will try things, and expose myself to not getting them right the first time."  It was a very painful but important learning experience, for, although I did have many failures and often made a fool of myself. from then on I tried new things and stuck at them.  To my surprise I gradually started to succeed, where before there was only avoidance and a feeling of failure.  (Op. cit., 36)

Ivor did his first six months as intern after qualifying  in the neurosurgical unit in the old Richmond Hospital.  As a young intern he often had to sit with dying patients as they passed away.  Another thing he had to do was assist with the now long-abandoned practice of lobotomies:

the most serious recollection I have of that time was of having to assist one of the surgeons on Saturday mornings in the operating theatre.  Nearly every Saturday morning one or two patients would be sent down from Grangegorman  to have their brains "chopped."  this was a major lobotomy procedure developed by Freeman and Watts, where burr holes were drilled on each side of the temples and a blunt instrument inserted to sever the frontal lobes almost completely from the rest of the brain.  At that time, in 1955, there were literally hundreds of very disturbed patients, both women and men, in St Brendan's Hospital...and this operation was seen as an almost miraculous method of calming their disturbance.  Indeed, it did succeed in doing this, but in the process many patients were turned into vegetables.  (Ibid., 50-51)

One can also marvel at Ivor's perseverance in study and his refusal to give in, to the point of being able to get honours in his Master's in Community Medicine at Harvard and even to being asked to stay on as a fellow of Harvard Medical School.  One begins to question how good any education system is if students who fail at secondary level can blossom at third level.

I loved Ivor's take on working at Warnesford Hospital in Oxford where practically all the mentally ill staff and students of the university were hospitalised.   There he was quick to see that both staff and patients could think for themselves.  Oxford has always been the home of independent thinking and research.  A consultant psychiatrist at Warnesford, Dr Richard Thompson gave Ivor a piece of advice which he was never to forget, and which obviously he put into practice throughout his long career in psychiatry:  "Don't accept any of the current theories or belief systems in psychiatry.  keep and open mind and listen to the patients themselves.  Eventually, you will form your own opinion about these questions." (Ibid., 55)

I loved Ivor's take on psychosis and schizophrenia because I know several people with the latter.  he informs us that the textbooks describe schizophrenics as being emotionally blunted (Ivor's term) and as having very flat indifferent personalities, almost expressionless. (My words and my own observations, not Ivor's):

Since then, , I have had a number of similar experiences with people who were apparently emotionally blunted and I have come to realise that it is not that schizophrenics are incapable of feeling but rather that they are unable to maintain the normal boundedness between themselves and others, as they are far too open and vulnerable to being invaded by others in their vicinity.  The are unable to control the influences in their environment and their way of dealing with this is to take the drastic step of cutting off all relations with other persons.  My understanding of this inner world of the psychotic only developed gradually over the years. (Ibid., 59)

And, then, we have this marvellously astute observation after some years of practice:

It was the first real lesson I had in family psychiatry, for the truth is that, as a rule, the whole family is involved in psychiatric illness, although the main pathology may be channelled into one member.  Not only is the patient as a rule not able to stand up for himself, but also the families are not competent either.  (Ibid., 63)

To be continued


View in Parc Montsouris, Paris, August, 2007.

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