Madness of all colours

Napoleon once said that The great proof of Madness is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means; life-enhancing ambition or delusion like Don Quixote.


Napoleon crossing the Alps by David

In America, the expression to be mad, means to be angry.  In this country it might refer something ridiculous or fun.  There is even a pop group called Madness (who are excellent by the way).

What we are really looking at, is mental illness which is not so fun and difficult to understand from the outside.  In the worst case it leads to suicide which is often seen as a personal choice rather than the end stage of a debilitating illness.

Shakespeare was fascinated by mental illness which had little effective treatment in his time.  You see delusions in MacBeth and Hamlet and paranoia in King Lear and Othello.  Here is a little quote from MacBeth;

Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor: Not so sick, my lord, as she is troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from rest.

Macbeth: Cure her of that! Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon her heart.

More recent literature is also littered with characters who are `insane’ like the attic bound wife in Jane Eyre or Cathy in Wuthering Heights.

For myself, I best like writing that is closest to the subject.  The Diary of a Madman by mentally-ill Gogol is painfully realistic even if it did breed the archetype of the `Napoleon Complex’.

Chekhov wrote the insightful, dark Ward six and The Black Monk.

In modern times sufferers write even blogs and meet on internet forums.  We are in a different world, fortunately and there are effective treatments.

As late as Victorian times, I might have had my head shaved and dunked in cold water according to the teaching of ancient Greeks who thought that internal heat (unbalanced humours) caused the problems.  Oddly though it was ancient Greeks who unwittingly hit upon our most effective medication.  As early as 200 AD they noted that a certain spring helped patients with mental illness, recently it was found to contain Lithium.

Apparent cruelty in the past was sometimes due to the fact that people simply did not know what to do.  Mental illness untreated tends to worsen.  Modern treatment combines medication and a host of targeted psychological therapies which are monitored and adjusted where needed.

I enjoy a few benefits of being bipolar (short mild manic bursts) but for the most part mental illness is a frightening experience that affects your whole body (after all the brain is the body CPU), all your waking hours and fitful sleep.  With proper management, you can enjoy life, take control and do things you didn’t think possible.  I haven’t of course, mentioned the continuing stigma of mental illness.  Mockery, derision, contempt, fear and rejection are not unusual at all.  I asked some bipolar friends whether they would say put on a job application that they were bipolar (forms ask about mental illness) and all said no.

However, I am glad to live in this century and get up feeling OK most days.