After her journey through madness, Mary O’Hagan realised the mental health system and society did more harm than good. Madness Made Me is a myth-busting account of madness and our customary responses to it through the lens of lived experience.
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I’m locked inside a black box. I’ve hidden the blackness all my life hoping there is a purpose to everything. I’ve painted the walls with false windows and a view of a grand universe. I’ve drawn fake pictures of a life worth living. I’ve built a pretend door that leads into a promising future. Now all the decorations are gone.
Sanity is the dominant culture of the mind. Like the dominant culture of a country, sanity is usually blind to itself, until it notices a different culture in its midst. Sanity only starts to have meaning when it is breached through madness, just as day only has meaning because there is night.
The conventional wisdom says madness and sanity can never meet over the wall that divides them. But I cannot see the origins of my madness and my sanity as two parallel stories; they are one story in two dimensions. Madness and sanity are not two different garments; they are the warp and weft of the same fabric.
Most of the stories of those who look on, seeing only snatches of madness, portray it as all bad. My story is fuller than the stories of those who looked on. As well as being the most intricate story, it is the only unbroken one, the only story that had a witness present from start to finish and every moment in between. That witness was me.
Recovery is not just a phase that follows when madness has subsided. The seeds of madness and recovery can be sown in the same soil of inheritance and experience. And recovery starts to take root as soon as madness flares. Madness rages through the internal landscape like a bush fire. But well before the last plume of smoke has risen, new growth is getting ready to rise from the ashes.
It took around fifteen years for me to make the transition from being a chronic psychiatric patient to becoming one of New Zealand’s three Mental Health Commissioners. It wasn’t so much the achievement I enjoyed but the irony of it. Sometimes I imagined saying to Dr L’Estrange or Dr Lackland, who had pronounced career death on me, ‘You’re wrong, I’m going to be a national and international mental health leader one day.’ They would have told me I had grandiose delusions and doubled my anti-psychotics. But truly, I would have been just as gobsmacked at this prediction coming true as they.
The history of psychiatry is like a concerto. Every historical phase or movement differs but they are all variations on a theme. Psychiatry has always been both an agent of coercion and of freedom. The dark music of coercion has dominated its history, particularly in institutional and publicly funded psychiatry, but the tones of freedom break through now and then – when Philippe Pinel took the chains off the asylum inmates, when the early asylum superintendents promoted kindness and work, when social psychiatry developed community based services and when the mad movement advocated recovery, freedom and equality.
‘This memoir sucks the reader in from the first page. Mary’s story, from the psychiatric ward to the United Nations, offers hope to the millions who are told their emotional pain is an irreversible brain disorder.’
‘An incredible tour de force. Mary replaces the narrative of psychopathology with the subversive idea that there may be value in madness. Everyone should read this beautifully written, ground-breaking book.’
‘Mary invites us into her life on her fascinating path from serious distress to thriving. A privilege to read with a brilliant ending.’