My Friend Sundance and Me (Nov/Dec 2004)Friday, 01 April 2011 07:52
OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND
My Friend Sundance and Me
From infancy I’ve had a chronic disease, bronchiectasis, where the lungs produce a sticky mucus which, if not coughed up, accumulates and so destroys the tissues of the lungs. With a daily routine of antibiotics, inhaled steroids and postural drainage, and outpatient care from the Royal Brompton Hospital for Respiratory Disorders and my wonderful GP I’m able to lead a very busy life, but every two or three months the bacteria in my lungs go on a wild rampage and produce a number of symptoms which are hard to deal with. Because the oxygen is not getting easily from my lungs to my blood stream my body becomes suffused with a tiredness which no amount of sleep or rest can assuage.
This tiredness doesn’t affect my mind. I can think, read demanding books, and get on with my writing. Staying in bed would be fine, but I live alone and need to work, so I have to drag my leaden body out of bed to shower, dress, shop, and keep my appointments. It’s not a happy time.
I was in the midst of one of these bacterial rampages and starting to feel very sorry for myself when I got a phone call from Sundance. I’ve known Sundance for some 13 years. When I first met her at a conference she was slim, beautiful and vibrant. She was a university graduate but she’d had a period of psychosis and had been in hospital. She told me she’d found my books helpful. We kept in touch by letter and phone, and met occasionally when I was visiting the city where she lived. Over these years her life deteriorated as she found it harder and harder to keep a firm and constant grip on herself and on reality. She went in and out of a typical psychiatric hospital while the psychiatrists prescribed bigger and bigger doses of more and more drugs.
In our letters and conversations Sundance and I always talked about her plans to paint, to write poetry, to study music, and further her passion for mathematics. In the first years of our friendship she would start to put these plans into practice and then there would be some unfortunate event in her life, she would become shaky, and the mechanisms of the psychiatric system would roll over her and put paid to all her plans. Nowadays her attempts to paint, write poetry and play her guitar are brief, and when she learns of courses that she would love to do she knows she can’t. In her phone call to me when I was ill she spoke about madness and creativity and said, ‘How can you be creative when the drugs you’re given stop you from thinking?’
Sundance and I have chronic problems that affect us in opposite ways. My body becomes tired and wracked by coughing but my mind is clear. Sundance’s body has thickened and she moves slowly, the result of the drugs she’s been forced to take. Had she not taken these drugs she’d be physically fit. In her mind there are terrors and confusions and the awful numbing mindlessness of her drugs. I would not exchange my problem for hers.
We do have one thing in common. If we’d been given the appropriate treatment when we each became ill we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in today. My parents didn’t seek any treatment for me because, as they would say, they ‘didn’t believe in doctors’. There were no antibiotics when I was a child but bronchiectasis is one of those diseases which, if diagnosed early, can be kept in check by a regular programme of some very simple measures. I received no treatment at all until I was thirty and no adequate treatment until seven years ago.
If, when she first got into difficulties, Sundance had met a psychiatrist who knew how to listen to a person’s life story and understand what the events in that life meant to that person she would never have been given a diagnosis which set her on such a terrible path. If, from the beginning of psychiatry, psychiatrists had known how to listen like this to a person’s story they would never have invented the mental illnesses, their biochemistry and their genes. The lives of all those people deemed to be mentally ill are such that no one could have lived any of these lives and interpreted the life’s events in the way that the owner of the life had done and not become emotionally disturbed. We’re free to change our interpretations, but to do that we have to be able to think. Sundance told me about how happy she feels when, through the drug-induced mental fog, comes some painting or poem that she can see clearly. She said, ‘If you’ve got mental stimulation you can change.’