Sectioned: A Life Interrupted is a recent memoir by John O’Donoghue, a man who spent his teens and twenties (in the 1980s) in and out of psychiatric hospitals, squats, halfway houses, hostels, streets and (briefly, once) prison. His story is one of what would have long ago been called a “down and out”: he lives amongst drug addicts, homeless people, hippies, petty criminals and – a surprising amount of the time – Scottish men.
To be honest, I went into this book hoping to have a harrowing experience through discovery of the sense and feeling of multiple severe breakdowns. O’Donoghue was sectioned five times. However, the strength of the book lies not in the evocation of a single personality, but in the way he creates the world that surrounded him as he – rather than fell apart – failed to “get himself together”. I think that’s a phrase he uses in the text.
And it’s good, and it’s exciting – the politics of squat-living, a brief sojourn to a Hare Krishna colony in the south of France, the ins and outs of the halfway-house system, the fostering system, treatment in remand prisons, treatment in asylums, treatment in hospitals, and different hospitals – there is a lot of detail, a huge amount of detail, in what went on around O’Donoghue. But what I would have liked more of was how he actually felt.
The period detailing is great, the large cast of characters are drawn well, and O’Donoghue always comes across as a good, nice, person whose illness is genuine and difficult. I’m not criticising the writing or the piece as a whole. My disappointment comes from a completely different place.
My problem is that I’m not the happiest or most balanced person in the world and, to be honest, I was hoping that this book would reassure me of my own, for want of a better word, normalcy. But it didn’t. Almost every “dangerous” symptom of mental illness O’Donoghue describes himself exhibiting, I have too, and the depth I felt was lacking was in making his experience feel more severe than my own. I know this isn’t the way one is meant to read it, but Sectioned made me feel far further down the path of long term illness than I had really liked to consider myself before. The way he writes about his younger self thinking is the way I have thought, some of the treatments he receives are treatments I have received – now, I know, that being able to hold down (……insert things that mean I’m not completely outside of society……) means that I am not hospitalisable due to mental illness, but I wanted O’Donoghue to reassure me that the point where one gets locked away is a much bigger, darker, more horrible state of mind than the one I’ve managed to get to. But he didn’t.
I could relate to a lot in here. And I did not want to relate to this a lot. The plaudits given to this book imply that it evokes mental illness well: strongly and clearly. But that it felt so much like my own mental state made me more than a little worried.
But, yeah, it’s good. Though don’t read it for the reason I did.
Here’s a picture to prove I’m happy: