Besides his spells in asylums, O'Donoghue recalls sharing dorm space at a St Mungo's hostel in London with a hepatitis-ridden former bouncer, in his boho squatting days, and a stint on Pentonville prison's hospital wing after being caught shoplifting when his benefit claim was botched.
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He describes Sectioned, half-jokingly, as a "homage to catatonia", but adds that, having set out to write a therapeutic essay, he soon realised he was addressing bigger themes - the demise of a paternalist welfare state and the dawn of a new "self-help" era, characterised by the closure of psychiatric hospitals. At one point in the 80s, nearly all my friends had trouble with jobs, housing and, in some cases, mental illness.
Sectioned, however, ends on a sunnier note.
In , aged 30, O'Donoghue moved out of sheltered housing into a wholly contrasting environment at the University of East Anglia, where he spent four years reading for a literature degree. Academia proved his saviour, propelling him through an MA and PhD into lecturing and a flourishing parallel career as a writer of poetry and plays. And then his mother dies in Ireland, thus precipitating his collapse and failure at his studies.
'Homage to catatonia'
He is sectioned and enters four different mental institutions in and around the borders of the city: Claybury, Friern, Banstead and Whittington hospitals. Here, we find him unable to live up to independence and manhood and to the cold, Thatcherite expectations of society: Because of forces beyond his control, John moves self-destructively, angrily and guiltily through life, ensuring his failure at menial jobs he does not want and dooming his relations with women.
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He has finally hit rock bottom. Yet from these depths John is finally able, at the age of thirty, to rescue himself through his love of literature, the one thing that had kept him going throughout his life.
‘Sectioned. A Life Interrupted.’ John O’Donoghue.
I must admit a vested interest here. The glimpses offered here are mostly benign, though the prospect of the long-term wards hover as a threat.
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Like any other society, there are moments of humour and companionship as well as the darker aspects. There is a sense in these old institutions with their sprawling grounds that they did offer some respite. People break down when their sense of identity is not longer sustainable.
It is no accident that there are higher incidences of mental illness among minority communities. For both, the wider support structures had already been ruptured.