They come to me as to confession, good Irish Catholics, whispering the sins (not only their own) that can no longer be ignored. Twenty-three hours a day, sober and straight, in their own little boxes: the real punishment not being able to escape the confines of their minds as blows and blood and guilty pleasures are given voice or, more often, hang unspoken in the air, desperate to be quenched by a strip of Hail Marys or a single, holy moment of Benzo-induced absolution.
His was a different penance, though, a fortnightly injection: complied with, although unasked for, but with little obvious impact; what drugs had created, drugs seemed to have little power to undo. Even in our sessions he couldn’t sit still and would wander around the room, pausing occasionally to make the superhuman effort to settle on a chair, looking at me earnestly to explain how the Queen could change her face to look however she wanted, that he could too and make himself huge, even though it was for his size that his brothers sent him on the burglaries that brought him back to me. Then he started to take down his trousers to show me an abcess that’s developed on an old injecting site and I had to tell him yet again that I’m not that kind of doctor.
‘He shouldn’t be in here,’ his mother raged, querulous and seventy, ‘Can’t you tell them that?’
And I search for any hint of culpability, any chink of guilt, behind her belligerent tirade as I dutifully expounded specialist unit criteria and reports submitted at sentencing, only professional confidentiality (more slyly double-edged than the confessional’s seal) held me back from asking her how it felt to be raising two grandchildren in a council flat in Kilburn, when half the heroin in Dublin used to pass through the family firm.
He said ‘I don’t mind being back here’ and described the hostel where they had put him; the reports depicted him fishing bloodied needles out of sharps bins and knocking on doors in the night, but he says the people liked him: seeing the way he freely doled out the cigarettes his mother had brought him to the crowd that quickly gathered, it wasn’t hard to see why. Social Services wouldn’t consider another B&B after the incident with the chip fryer, and his mother’s clamouring for a flat fell on deaf ears.
‘I needed the break,’ he continued, as did his veins if those wild and imprecise puncture marks were still the best he could do.
Of course schizophrenia doesn’t really exist, some people will tell you, just a pick’n’mix of symptoms, a little from column A, a little from column B, and medication only manages behaviour, instead of promoting recovery, and is that all I’m doing? Providing a comforting medicalised veneer to the consequences of sin.
It was his restlessness that did for him, wandering into another man’s cell, rummaging through his stuff. When I saw him in the hospital afterwards he explained the tobacco in his hand had been a present he was leaving, not something he was taking, but he said he understood. They announced that it was liver failure, a later complication: his mother refused to believe it and demanded to know whether I had seen evidence myself but they didn’t involve me in those last rites, I’m not that kind of doctor.
By Neil, 21 June, 2006; direct link.