The Locked Ward details Dennis O’Donnell’s seven years on an Intensive Psychiatric Care Unit in a large hospital in Scotland. Initially, the chapters are divided mostly by condition: neurosis, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, sexual disinhibition, bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, erotomania, drug-induced psychoses, and then they take a loosely structured timeline along the more dangerous incidents that lead to O’Donnell leaving the ward.
Each condition is illustrated by anecdotes concerning one or more patient, O’Donnell’s intention being to have the reader better understand these illnesses. On his first day, his first few steps into the ward lead to encounters with Gus bawling ‘…into my face, at a blood-curdling level, ‘They’ve killed him! They’ve fuckin’ killed him!’ and Archie with ‘…his burning gaze’:
‘I had never encountered anything like them. But that is the source of most people’s problems with mental illness. It is the unknown that terrifies us in life, the unfamiliar and the unpredictable. People fear what they’re not sure of. What they cannot control.’
O’Donnell makes it clear, without being preachy, that these are people with families, jobs and homes who have an illness that has been triggered either by a series of incidents that many of us would find difficult to cope with or a reoccurring condition that is deeply rooted.
However, this is not a medical book – although it contains information about the illnesses and their various treatments – it is a memoir and as such is an enjoyable, engaging and often very funny read. It feels wrong to say so about a book that deals with such serious conditions but O’Donnell never pokes fun at the patients. Occasionally, he has a joke with them but mostly the joke is on him.
When Alfred – ‘a giant of a man, built like a linebacker and with a hair-trigger temper on him when he was unwell’ – gets close to release, he’s allowed a half-hour time out. Dennis is asked whether he’ll take him to the filling station to buy cigarettes:
‘You be careful the big man disnae throw you onto that garage roof,’ chortled John.
‘Aye.’ Luke laughed. ‘He could land you up there with one of his punches.’
‘Mind,’ urged John, ‘if he runs away, dinnae chase after him.’
‘Fear not my government,’ I said.
Luke laughed again. ‘But run like hell if he starts chasing you.’
‘If he chased me he’d never catch me.’ I said emphatically.
‘How no?’ said John. ‘You don’t look that athletic to me.’
‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘But it wouldn’t matter. Because he’d be slippin’ in my shit all the way along the road.’
As befits its subject, sometimes the book isn’t an easy read. Some of the incidents that occur are violent and disturbing – more so the self-harming, in all the forms it takes – and the discussions that are reported between patients, patients and carers and the carers themselves can be brutal. But this rarely seems unnecessary – it is not done for effect but to show the reality of life on a psychiatric ward and those living with conditions that debilitate and destroy.
Any Cop?: This is a worthy addition to the memoir genre which should help to remove some of the fear and stigma surrounding mental health conditions.