A review of Barry Dickins memoir, Unparalleled Sorrow
1962: a prelude to reading Unparalleled Sorrow
In 1962, towards the end of my second year at university, I applied for vacation for work at the Royal Park Mental Hospital. Several factors contributed to my decision. I was studying psychology at Melbourne University; I was fascinated by the subject, but frustrated by the academic focus, and the strong Behavioral bias. I was going through a deeply religious phase, and was driven by idealist zeal. I didn’t want to just study psychology; I wanted to help people; I wanted to do good. I was 18, naïve, idealistic.
The administrator I spoke to was dubious. They didn’t normally employ university students to work on the wards. It was confronting work, he explained. I explained my desire to have first-hand experience in ‘the real world’, my desire to work with psychiatric patients and to see the practical applications of psychology. He asked me to forward a written application, and he’d let me know; but it didn’t sound promising. I recall feeling a bit deflated, but I sent off my letter anyway.
As it turned out, they did employ me. I was made a ward assistant. I was to work in the Reception ward, the ward to which all incoming patients were first admitted, and where they remained while they were assessed. There were chronic alcoholics, people suffering depression, people who had had break downs, schizophrenics, manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics – it was a very diverse ward. It was also a locked ward. The psychiatric nurse who was given the job of explaining to me how things worked was very clear: ‘You MUST keep the doors locked at all times. Some of the patients are dangerous – either to others or to themselves. We’ve got to have them within our sight all the time.’ His name was Dave; both he and his wife worked at Royal Park; both were English migrants.
I was issued with a key, and told that I must keep it with me at all times; never, under any circumstances, give it to a patient; and always lock the doors when leaving the ward and after returning.
We worked according to a strict roster: two days on and two days off. On the days we were roster ‘on’, we had to clock in at 7 am, and we clocked off at 8 pm. We worked thirteen hour shifts. They were long days. The hospital provided all our meals on our rostered on days; we’d have an hour’s break from the ward, during which we’d walk over to the Dining Hall. There food was pretty good, as I recall. I especially liked the Oyster Soup.
It’s almost 50 years ago that I worked there, but some the memories are written into my brain cells with an indelible pencil.
There was ‘John’. I met John quite early in my time there. The nurse, Dave, warned me to be extremely vigilant with John.
‘Why is that?’ I asked. ‘Is he dangerous?’
‘Not to you,’ Dave said. ‘He’s only 24. He was training to be a doctor. He was in his fourth or fifth year of training, I think. Had a break down. All too much for him. He’s suicidal. He’s tried to kill himself several times.’
Over the first few weeks I spent quite a bit of time with John. He liked to walk around the gardens, out in the sunshine, and I was entrusted with being with him. He was quiet, but took an interest in my study, I remember. He talked to me a bit, and the nurses took this to be a good thing.
Each morning, in the hour during which our rosters overlapped, we’d be briefed by the outgoing staff on any developments during our days off: new patients, patients to be watched carefully, problems that had arisen.
On one of the days I was off-duty, John had found a door open. He’d escaped, and had thrown himself in front of a truck on Pascoe Vale Road. He was dead.
The old alcoholics sometimes presented us with problems. Some suffered from the DTs – delirium tremens, the shaking illness, brought on as a result of their withdrawal from alcohol. One of the more unpleasant aspects of the work was cleaning soiled beds; it was usually the alcoholics who shat in their beds.
One of the daily duties I dreaded was the morning ablutions. I was troubled by the level of responsibility I was required to bear: I had to supervise the men as they shaved. Each morning I had to collect a tin of razor blades and razors from the locked cupboard, and issue them to the men. I had to keep a careful count, making sure that all the blades were returned to the tin after shaving was finished. While many of the patients were doped into dull docility, some were nonetheless dangerous. I remembering thing at the time: ‘Who in their right mind would entrust the supervision of razor blades and shaving to an 18 year old boy?’
I alerted Dave.
‘Bugger,’ said Dave. ‘Why couldn’t he have waited twenty minutes?’
I looked up at the clock. It was 7.40 pm. Our shift would be over in 20 minutes, and then this troublesome patient would be someone else’s responsibility.
‘Oh – fuck! Just keep an eye on him,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
When Dave returned, he had three burly ward assistants with him. It was a scene from the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. When the old man saw the five white-coated hospital staff approaching him, he became abusive and began screaming angrily. He retreated to the head of his bed; as we approached, he lost control. He lifted the heavy metal bedside table. The cabinet was very heavy, but he raised it almost above his head and threw it at us. Luckily, no one was hit.
Dave flashed a quick glance at me.
‘Stay out of the way – be ready to help.’
The four others grabbed the man – by the arms, around the chest – and dragged him to the ground.
Dave shouted to me, ‘Get the door of the Isolation room open.’
I ran to the other side of the ward and unlocked the ‘Isolation Room’. As the other dragged him across the floor, he was screaming in Dutch and roaring like a demented animal, and trying his best to kick and shake himself free.
‘Get a mat,’ Dave called. There were mats leaning against the padded walls of the isolation room – this was indeed a ‘padded cell’. I threw the mat on the floor, and we wrestled him to the ground.
He was not a young man – I guessed that he was in his late 50s or 60s. But he was incredibly strong – a strength summoned by his fear, I suppose. It took all of us to hold him down.
‘Get his legs! Stop him kicking! Use a mat,’ Dave shouted.
I grabbed another mat, threw it over his legs, and threw myself on top of him. Another nurse arrived – with a hypodermic needle. We somehow rolled him over. Someone pulled his pajama pants down, and the other nurse pressed the syringe of the hypodermic, forcing the heavy sedative into his buttocks.
When he stopped writhing and kicking, and became still, we let him go. He lay on the floor, unconscious.
‘What got into him? ’ one of the other ward assistants asked.
‘Buggered if I know,’ said Dave.
# # # # #
Late one evening, perhaps five minutes before it was time to knock off, I was walking up a corridor when I saw Dave approaching me. I saw, even though we were in dim light, that something was wrong. Dave wasn’t walking so much as lurching. It was as though he couldn’t keep balance; he was like a person with a middle ear infection, who had to lean against a wall to retain balance.
When I got closer, I saw that his eyes were glazed over.
‘Dave,’ I said, alarmed. ‘Are you okay?’
When he spoke, it was with the slurring speech of an alcoholic.
‘Coursh I’m alright. Why wouldn’t I be alright?’
He looked me in the eye, and I could see anger – almost hatred – there.
‘I’m fine. You just keep out of my way.’
And he was gone.
I clocked off and drove home, but felt troubled by what had happened. It was so unlike Dave.
When I arrived for work two days later, Dave was nowhere to be seen. I was told later – by one of his friends – that he had been stood down. He had been pilfering drugs from the drug cabinet, and had been caught. I knew nothing of drugs of addiction in those days. I hadn’t even heard of pot. Nor had any of my friends.
# # # # # # #
The patient’s whole body would convulse. Sometimes they pissed themselves, and later I’d have to help them change into clean clothes.
When they came round some time later they often complained of a dull headache. I would walk them to the tea room, supporting them on my arm as often as not. If they spoke at all, their speech would be slow and slurry. Their eyes looked dull and almost lifeless. They would sit like caricatures of mental patients from every movie you’ve ever seen about mental hospitals.
“We don’t know why it works,” one of the doctors explained to me. “ But we do know that ECT can help people suffering mental illness.”
Hours later, the patients would still be lethargic. They wouldn’t remember anything of their ‘treatment’; they would still be slurring their words and they would still be claiming of feeling ‘dull headed’. I concluded that ECT produced a kind of low to medium level migraine in the patients.
I heard what the doctors said, but thought the whole thing barbaric. It seemed more like torture, and a way of producing docility.
Of my eight weeks of working at the Royal Park Mental Hospital I could say many things.
Almost 50 years later, my memories of that time still disturb me.
I did a lot of growing up in those eight weeks. When I finished up, I was a lot less naïve than I was when I started. The death of John, the pain of my Dutch teacher and the danger that he was, the hopelessness in the eyes of many of the old alcoholics, the crazy stories of the deluded, the piss and the shit and the wild eyed men to whom I handed razor blades each day – all were deeply confronting. I learned a lot.
The experience was also significant in breaking me of the comfortable habit of my religious beliefs and practices. I missed church several times because I was rostered on, and had to work, and realized two things: I didn’t miss church; and it now seemed a little irrelevant. The church – as I knew it at least – offered no answers to the tumultuous lives of the people locked behind the heavy doors and kept behind barred windows at Royal Park. Nor did it seem to be of much help to any of the doctors or nurses or ward assistants who worked there. Of course, Jesus had said: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ And there was lots of love there – lots of simple humanity and caring. But nothing more.
When I sat down to read Unparalleled Sorrow, these memories formed the backdrop; they were the backstory that I brought, as a reader, to my reading of this deeply moving account of a man’s suffering.
2008: His year of living precariously
The American transcendentalist, Emerson, once wrote that he foresaw a time when fictions would be replaced by memoir – when writers would write directly of the life experience, honestly, without artifice. Unparalleled Sorrow is such a book.
The book is in three sections. The first deals with his months in The Clinic – the hospital to which he admitted himself for psychiatric treatment, the place Dickins describes in his dedication as ‘that wretched clinic’ where he spent ‘six awful months’.
‘That kind of bastardry’ took many forms. He describes his psychiatrist as ‘the epitome of haste’, a man convinced that he is right. ‘His Trinity College voice is superior to my Keon park voice. He is always impatient, and never listens to me.’
The routines of the hospital are torture. He is woken at two in the morning by the nurse doing her rounds. One of the things that has brought him to this low ebb has been his insomnia and anxiety; and part of the hospital’s regime is enforced insomnia. When he doesn’t eat, he is bullied by the nurses.
The second section traces the origins of his ‘illness’. Barry describes his origins as working class. It’s true that he grew up in Reservoir, a working class suburb, but his father’s occupation was that of the skilled artisan. Len Dickins was a printer, and – from Barry’s account – a skilled and hard working man who set up a printing press in his back yard shed and worked weekends as well. From his time of growing up in Reservoir, it traces his leaving home, and the years he spent in communal living in St Kilda, and the shocking events he witnessed there. From Barry’s account, the family seems a pretty stable, reasonably happy one. But what family is truly happy? And for how long?
It was a path he too would follow: ‘I caught the bug to drink alcohol at twenty one and drank pots of beer with anyone I met… I began to adore it, whatever it is it seems to cure life or loneliness. But alcohol is loneliness. I grew up in a drinking culture. You drank or were considered a bore if you did not imbibe.’
In his early twenties, away from the steadying influence of home, he joined a commune in Windsor. Many of the people living there were ‘homeless’ people. The house is ‘taken over’ by two men from a religious cult. One murders one of the other house-members by smashing her head on the floor again and again. This incident seems to have been the central event in destroying Barry Dickins’ spirit.
He later marries, but by his own account is too unreliable, to easily distracted – or perhaps just too troubled by the terrible memories that haunt him: his mother’s mental illness, the murder of a woman he liked very much. He and his wife have a son whom Barry clearly adores.
Despite the breakdown of the marriage – it occurs just before Barry goes into the Unit for treatment – Sarah and their son visit him regularly in hospital. And in time, he recovers sufficiently to ‘resume’ his life. And this book, Unparalleled Sorrow, bears witness to this resumption.
The final section, ‘And now …’ is a summing up.
He begins the book with a quotation from van Gogh, who wrote:
‘With this mental disease I have, I think of the many other artists suffering mentally and I tell myself that this does not prevent one from exercising the painter’s profession as if nothing was amiss.’
I don’t that Barry would say that he is exercising the writer’s and artists profession ‘as if nothing is amiss.’ For much is amiss, and this book is testimony to that.
There is a moment at the every end of the book that will speak to every aging man, and perhaps every aging woman. He writes:
‘One of the aspects of aloneness that is unbearable in never to be touched. The intimacy of being touched is almost beyond my remembrance these days as I go to bed alone and always sleep alone, dream and nightmare alone, never being kissed by anyone else and listening to one’s breath … To be willingly kissed and caressed and kidded and made love to without ever tiring is what I am after each day without success.’
Dickins ends his book by saying: ‘people are hard now and frightened of not being hard.’
I think Barry would say he is now a better man, a more aware man, for what he has been through. His book is deeply moving, deeply touching. I’ve read many of his books. This is his best. We can only hope that the unbearable loneliness will pass. For ‘without it, there is … life-hating cancerous vile depression. It devours happiness…’
It is that unbearable loneliness that each of us fears most – more than death even. It’s why so many of us drink or drug ourselves into ‘that best wisdom, which is not to know.’ At times I have been dubious about the claim that writers are courageous people. It sounds a bit too self congratulatory, too self promoting. But it must have taken incredible courage for Barry Dickins to write a book that is so honest, so free of artifice.
It is a book that deserves to be read, written by a man whose honesty and courage are inspiring: this is his finest work.
Barry Carozzi 2010