A prison without walls

A prison without walls
Mind on Fire: A memoir of madness and recovery

by Arnold Thomas Fanning (Dublin: Penguin, £14.99)



Mental illness is a cruel affliction. There is hardly anybody who has not been touched by it; as a sufferer, or as family, friend or colleague of a sufferer.

Mental illness differs from physical illness; the problems it poses to its victims and those around them are quite different. It is good that we hear more about these. That they are publicly recognised helps all concerned. The more we know the better equipped we are to endure or help.

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s account of his madness and recovery is a significant contribution in this regard. He graduated from UCD and has worked reading scripts for the Abbey. A number of his plays have been produced. But this promising career path was soon overshadowed when he was affected by mental illness.

While the pain and discomfort of a physical illness can be hard to bear, the suffering self remains intact. It is otherwise with mental illness where the self is the source of pain.

Fanning gives a vivid account of how the self is disengaged from reality by a terrible, unremitting, self-consciousness pervaded by anxiety. Sometimes sinking into torpor, other times possessed and driven; in a prison without walls, cowering in a corner or frantically running to escape.

The major advances in medical science that began in the late 19th Century and continue today, have all been in the domain of physical illness. Because they understand what is going on in this or that disease, doctors can treat their patients with the ‘silver bullets’ provided by pharmacists.

While psychiatry may have the patina of science, it lags far behind other branches of medicine in its understanding of the illnesses that are its concern.

This is nobody’s fault, we just do not understand the intricacies of mind and body that condemn some of us to madness.

Psychiatrists do have a battery of drugs at their command and there are ‘talking therapies’.

But in the absence of any well-grounded understanding of what is happening and why, treatment must be a hit and miss affair.


This, of course, adds to the patient’s misery. Fanning tells a dark story, but it is a story of recovery. Therapies did work, eventually. Drugs did help unlock the prison and he was free at long last to find love and happiness. Friendships were important on the escape route.

Of all experiences, the experience of mental illness must be among the most difficult to recount. Mania, anxiety and despair all defy narrative.

Fanning manages to be both ‘outside’ and inside’ the course of his illness. He has the literary skill to tell it as a compelling story that does not betray its incoherencies.

All touched by mental illness, which I suppose is most of us, will benefit from reading it.

It will help us be better friends to the afflicted.

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