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Phone Me at Nine Just to Say You Are Alive

Linda Hart
Picador, 1998. 354pp
ISBN: 0 330 35180 X

review by Ann Skea

"I am sitting in my own shadow. Dark as the seamless cloak of night.
The sound of keys makes timpani, reminding me of the clink of the
blacksmith at home, only there I do not have my toothbrush taken away for safety."

Linda Hart is an intelligent, determined and humorous woman. But she wrote these lines in the locked ward of a mental asylum.

From a 'Wonder Woman', who held down a responsible job, looked after her home and family, was active in local politics and theatre, and was on the local school's board of Governors, she became, in 1985, a woman whose deteriorating mental state lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Linda saw holographs of vermin on her kitchen floor. She was convinced that her stomach was filled with maggots. And, worst of all, she heard her dead father abusing her, laughing at her and telling her to commit suicide.

According to one specialist in neuropsychology*, schizophrenia is a "common form of mental disease" which affects between one and two percent of the population. It affects people from all levels of society. But because it is an illness of the mind, we label its sufferers 'insane' and 'mad' and fear and shun them.

Linda Hart's book began as a journal which she kept during her nine months of compulsory legal incarceration in a psychiatric ward and a mental asylum. It shows how narrow our usual perception of mental illness is and how fine a line exists between sanity and madness. It is painfully obvious that she is well aware of the bizarre nature of her mental and physical symptoms but that she cannot control them without help. She kicks against the powerlessness she daily endures in her enforced detainment. She jokes about ward regulations which are, themselves, illogical and mad. And she describes how she feigns normality in order to gain her release, even whilst knowing she is still quite sick. But don't we all feign normality at times? Don't we all hide crazy thoughts, obsessions and antisocial habits? So, what is normal?

"I suppose the difference between sanity and madness is akin to the difference between a simile and a metaphor."

This sane comment was written the day after Linda had been forcibly restrained from leaving the ward with staff who were going off duty. It was written on a day when she felt physically ill from the medication she was taking and thoroughly frustrated by her continuing symptoms.

So if sanity is a simile for normality and madness a metaphor of it, then, again, what is normal?

It is clear from this book that there *is* no absolute normal - only a statistical term which covers a wide range of behaviours. And rarely are we given such insight into the difficult decisions which must be made by doctors, patients and their families and friends. When, for example, does normal excitement at the prospect of freedom and going home become a symptom of mania? How much of a patient's depression, frustration and anger is a result of being locked up with strangers and the indignity of enforced powerlessness? Any normal person would find this intolerable, so why should an intelligent but sick person feel any differently?

But what better defence against frustration, institutionalisation and loss of identity is there than humour:

"I'm not allowed to have my hairbrush but they've let me keep my toothbrush and toothpaste. If I was a lateral thinker then maybe I could come up with a hundred ways to self-harm with a plastic hairbrush."

Linda Hart writes well and her sense of humour keeps a fine balance in this book between pain and laughter. It was her humour and determination, as well as the help she received from her "team" of doctors, family and friends, which enabled her to regain her health, her freedom and her job. Let us hope that she keeps writing and that she never has to go through this trauma again.

*Professor Richard Gates is a specialist in neuropsychology. He is joint editor with Robyn Hammond of When the Music's Over: A journey into schizophrenia (UNE Press, Armidale, NSW. 1985 ISBN: 1 87578 000 9). The book is an autobiographical novel written by Ross David Burke, with notes by Professor Gates.

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