After the Asylum: ‘I loved the severe physical pain. It was better than the mental pain'
Rory Doody spent years in and out of psychiatric hospitals and institutions. Today, he helps others in the community
Rory Doody has had mental health issues. He is now married with a family and works as a recovery development advocate with the Bantry-based Home Focus team, helping people with mental health problems. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien. See aftertheasylum.com for more photos and video
It feels sometimes as if he wasn’t there at all. It’s as if he was a spectator watching scenes in a movie of his life, played by an actor. Here’s one: Rory Doody in the kitchen of his home. His eyes are tormented. He has a knife and he’s cutting himself to let the pain escape. Now, five gardaí have arrived in stab vests, to take him away to the locked ward of the psychiatric hospital.
“I could hear voices in my head,” he says. “But I couldn’t differentiate them with the reality around me. They were exceptionally overpowering . . . I was feeling enormous pressure from events that didn’t exist. I wanted to escape. I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”
Looking back, he says he tried to cope in different ways. He recalls getting up at about 4.30am one morning, going downstairs and making tea for six people.
“There weren’t six people coming for tea,” he says. “There were six voices in my head.” Another time the din of conversation was so loud in the back of the car that he pulled over and ordered the voices to leave.
“When I look back to those days, I see that I couldn’t cope,” he says. “I couldn’t differentiate what was going on in my head with the reality around me.”
Doody lost count of the number of times he was admitted to various institutions or hospitals over a 20-year period. But what he remembers with startling clarity is the sense of fear, shame and loss of dignity that followed being hospitalised.
It felt as if the system had given him a life sentence. He was told he would never have a full-time job, that he shouldn’t get married or ever have children.
“When I cut myself, it was a way of letting the pain out, but no one seemed to ask me that. I was sick, undoubtedly. But there was a lack of a connect between what I was doing and the response to it . . .
“A lot of things got lost during those admissions. There was a loss of self-confidence, trust and dignity . . . I felt isolated and alone, never knowing if I’d get through what I felt I was going through . . . it was just an incredible feeling of not knowing.”
There are many people who carry hurt and suffering from past experiences in asylums or psychiatric hospitals
The old granite and red-brick buildings are closing. But shutting the door on a culture which often ignored the voice of patients isn’t necessarily as easy.
“While many improvements have been made in recent years, the need for a more humane, person-focused service is still the consistent message from the many people we consult across the country,” says Orla Barry, director of the campaign group Mental Health Reform.
“Although many people have positive experiences of mental healthcare, we regularly hear about those who feel they cannot get their voice heard within mental health services and are not given the choices they should have over their treatment.”
Groups such as the Critical Voices Network and Mind Freedom – which includes many service users – say many people still feel marginalised and have little meaningful say in their own care.
Surveys by the National Service Users’ Executive – a group established by the HSE to give patients a stronger voice – indicates that an increasing number of patients are happy with services. But significant numbers feel they don’t receive sufficient information about the medication they’re given, while there is also frustration that communication with doctors is too often “one-way”.
The government’s mental health policy, A Vision for Change, published in 2006, was to be implemented by 2016. It envisaged a departure from overly-medicalised, hospital-based services to modern, multidisciplinary, recovery-focused and community-based mental health services.
Now, seven years into the policy, it remains an unfulfilled promise. Staff are being recruited and progressive projects are flourishing in parts of the country. But mental health services are still staffed at at least a quarter below the level recommended in the policy.
There is a gnawing frustration among psychiatrists and other professionals who want to play a greater role in promoting recovery and working with patients in the community.
“There has been an active dismantling of community mental health services and specialist rehabilitation and recovery services,” says a spokeswoman for the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland.