I like counting. I enjoy watching as the digits blink at me and change as I glance at my bicycle computer perched on the handlebars of my bike. How fast (and how slowly) I’m going. How many miles I’m clocking up – even when it’s on an unspectacular, familiar ride into town, or to the station. I clock the number of miles I ride in a week, and this year I have tried – with mixed results – to track how many miles I cover in a month. For someone who has made his peace with the numeric arts (we don’t get along) I am still drawn to those fiendish figures that track cyclists’ progress in the Grand Tours. They may ride in excess of 200 miles in any given stage, for example.
Then there are the steeply rising rates of diagnosis of serious mental disorders since the publication of the 4th edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual in 1994 which listed 297 mental disorders, up from 292 in the previous edition first published in 1980 (revised in 1987). There has been much muttering in the media about the unrelenting rise in prescriptions of chemical constraints (sorry, anti – depressants and the like) in the U.K., U.S.A. and elsewhere, especially the increasing readiness of the medical community to prescribe mind – altering drugs to children because they are behaving like….children.
The numbers can keep me up nights sometimes, too. Well, not so much numbers, but the bone – rattling mumbo jumbo that clatters through my mind….morning, noon and night.
I am writing this edition while on holiday visiting family in South Africa. Earlier this week we visited the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, which is built on the site of a prison established by the British in 1904, and a notorious apartheid era prison which closed its doors in 1983. Before working in the mental health field I used to work in the criminal justice system, first for the Criminal Prosecution Service, and later in the probation service, working with ex offenders in the community, as well as with those awaiting trial for crimes ranging from shoplifting to rape and murder. So, prisons have featured in my life quite a lot for someone who has never been inside. Well, not literally. The first book I ever read about depression after I was first diagnosed back in 2001, was by the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe. It was called ‘Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison’. I highly reccomend it. Her choice of imagery is stark and to the point.
Although I have not been plagued by disturbing dreams much since I began taking mood stabilising drugs every evening, I used to be plagued by nightmares, which had a recurring theme. I would dream that I had been convicted of a serious offence, and in a Kafkaesque twist, although I knew I was guilty, and had been justly convicted, I had no idea what the charges were. On one particulary disturbing occaision I woke up (in a Bed and Breakfast in Hull, as it happens) after such a dream in which I was – as usual – condemned to death. I lay there, staring at the flowery wall paper, convinced that I had woken up in the Death Cell on the morning of my execution. I’ll go into what those dreams meant another time. I relate them here because of what I read and saw in the wing of the women’s section of the prison which housed political prisoners in solitary confinement.
In 1981 an anti apartheid activist and member of the banned African National Congress (A.N.C.) Barbara Anne Hogan was arrested, held in solitary confinement for 12 months, and tortured. Visiting the wing of the prison in which she was held, I stood in a cell like the one in which she would have been incarcerated and read her account of what it was like to be locked up in such a place for so long, with no knowledge or information about whether or not she would be charged with an offence, and if so what that might be. She wrote of how one of the ways she tried to cope with these harsh conditions was to lie on her matress and look at the ceiling and count the lines of button – like designs, row upon row, upon row upon…..
I don’t pretend to have been through what Barbara Anne Hogan was subjected to, but standing by the bed, looking up at the ceiling, I was transported right back to the bedroom of that Bed and Breakfast all those years ago.
Even though the house is deeply silent
and the room, with no moon,
is perfectly dark,
even though the body is a sack of exhaustion
inert on the bed,
someone inside me will not
get off his tricycle,
will not stop tracing the same tight circle
on the same green threadbare carpet.
It makes no difference whether I lie
staring at the ceiling
or pace the living-room floor,
he keeps on making his furious rounds,
little pedaler in his frenzy,
my own worst enemy, my oldest friend.
What is there to do but close my eyes
and watch him circling the night,
schoolboy in an ill-fitting jacket,
leaning forward, his cap on backwards,
wringing the handlebars,
maintaining a certain speed?
Does anything exist at this hour
in this nest of dark rooms
but the spectacle of him
and the hope that before dawn
I can lift out some curious detail
that will carry me off to sleep—
the watch that encircles his pale wrist,
the expandable band,
the tiny hands that keep pointing this way and that.
Billy Collins (1941-)