Madness Made Me

Publisher: OpenBox; 1 edition (20 May 2014)

ISBN-10: 0473279800

ISBN-13: 978-0473279806

‘Madness Made Me’ is Mary O’Hagan’s brilliant account both of her madness and of her recovery from it, going on to become a world leader of the mad movement. She uses the words ‘mad’ and ‘madness’ to reclaim them from the negative connotations they have had. She suggests that despite the terror and desolation of madness, there is value and meaning in these experiences. This is implicit in the title both of the book and of one of the chapters, ‘Making Friends with Madness’.

This is an honest and uncompromising book, beautifully written and very much from the peer’s viewpoint. Mary begins with early memories, in an attempt to chart the seeds of her madness. She cites many possibilities, some of which were doubtless significant, especially the accidental death of her beloved brother. But as she points out later in the book, some were probably also the seeds of her recovery – an aspect that can all too easily be lost if we forget to look at people’s strengths, as well as their difficulties.

Mary’s description of her challenges and those of her peers, is harrowing. The treatment she received from the mental health services was variable, to say the least. As often seems to be the case, the most effective support was frequently the camaraderie between peers, who helped each other to improve the situation they found themselves in. She is careful, however, to praise the care she received from some practitioners. She also notes that one of the many medications she was given, ‘worked like magic’. But fundamentally, her recovery began when she herself decided to turn her life around, when she realised she would have to take responsibility for her own wellbeing.

So why was Mary able to recover and go on to be a world leader in promoting new approaches to mental health? The answer is probably in those seeds she mentioned at the start. Mary grew up in a family that discussed things openly. She was a tomboy, who became quite left wing and wanted to be a hippie when young. So she had a healthy disrespect for authority, for all those who told her she would never recover. She also struggled with her sexuality and was influenced by the struggles of the Maori in New Zealand to be fully included as equal partners in society.

The Unfinished Revolution

Towards the end of the book are some thoughts on the ‘unfinished revolution’ of recovery:-

‘Like all the other liberation movements in the history of psychiatry there is a real risk that the recovery revolution will remain unfinished unless some fundamental shifts take place.

Imagine a world where discriminatory attitudes towards madness are not tolerated. … Instead madness is seen as a profoundly disruptive crisis of being, from which meaning and value can be derived – an experience that adds to our humanity rather than diminishes it.

Imagine services that are run like democracies, with power coming from the bottom up. Mad people are the drivers of their own recovery and mental health workers support them from the passenger seat. Mad people also lead in the development and delivery of services. …. Madness is seen as a qualification, not something to be kept in the closet’.

Mary ends philosophically. ‘Maybe I backed the wrong movement. … The rights of mad people have made very modest gains over the last few decades. But as long as we live in societies that value freedom and equality there is hope. Our time is yet to come.’

But she then adds an epilogue, ‘The way it could have been’. It is the responsibility of our whole society to ensure that one day it is that way.

Geof Lynn