Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Locked Ward

Dennis O`Donnell
The Locked Ward

Jonathan Cape, 2012

The author of this book, Dennis O`Donnell, is a former hippie, an English graduate, a short, balding man. Not a fighter, as he says about himself. Not a fighter he is, in the sense that he has never fought and doesn’t and can’t fight. In fact, because he is not a fighter, O`Donnell never thought that he would work as a nursing assistent at the intensive psychiatric care unit. But when position is opened, the work is offered to him. "I don’t need fighters. I need people who can listen listen", says the Charge Nurse to Dennis.

And Dennis agrees. The author of this book had enough experience. When he was a student, O`Donnell worked in a mental hospital in the summer, helping the staff. The work was physically very hard. 13 hours on feet, constantly in motion, because the patients are always in need of something. And because patients often can’t do anything themselves, the staff must help them get dressed, feed them, wash, clean up after them, lay sleeping.

After that summer O`Donnell for 30 years worked on some work, adding only that in the end he hated that job, so why he decided to go into psychiatry. He’s taken position of a nursing assistant in a Psychogeriatrics ward. He’s worked with elderly men whose memory is gradually fading, at first short-term - up to a certain point in the past. Every day for such patients is no different from the previous one. As the author notes, “They were living Groundhog Day”. The work has been exhausting: 13 hours per shift, continuous client care, as they are known nowadays. Dennis, vicious by nature, yet always found common ground with patients, he knows how to listen. The author continues his gallery of characters. Anyone whom the author remembered, he describes the way that even the most incidental character on a certain amount of time becomes the protagonist of the book.

Nevertheless, Dennis takes the position of a nursing assistent at the intensive psychiatric care unit. After a course of Control and Restraint, O`Donnell starts work there. He gradually becomes acquainted with his colleagues, both men and women. The job at the new location has its pluses and minuses. In Ward 25 mainly young people are treated, men and women, there are no frail elderly people here. Among the disadvantagesof new work: the aggressiveness of the patients. An elderly man who can’t walk without help is not a threat, in contrast to the 30-year-old thug who suffers from schizophrenia and passionately does not want to take his medicine. In a Locked Ward you can’t relax at all. Any omission may result in a series of unpleasant events. These unpleasant events filled the second half of the book.
Actually, O`Donnell’s book is not only a gallery of characters, always colorful and memorable, but also the history of diseases. A story about one of the patients is accompanied by a description of his or her illness. Whatever the disease is, the author never allows himself to coarse remark against some of the patients or the mockery of a patient. The author not only doesn’t allow this to himself, but he doesn’t write about any cases when someone from the staff abused a patient, no matter how many problems this patient delivered. "Do not forget, he is sick", often nurses say to each other.

The absence of ridicule on patients does not mean that «The Locked Ward» is a book written with a grim seriousness. Quite the contrary. There is no such chapter which would not have caused a loud laugh. Sometimes, even while reading you’re risking tore your stomach, so ridiculous situation O`Donnell writes about. The reason to this is the author’s ability to notice small but important details that make a character alive. For example, the author describes a patient named Gilbert, a 50-something-year-old man, a schizophrenic, who considers himself a lord, and asks to call him only as Lord Gilbert. To show the true nature of this "Lord", O`Donnell shows Gilbert in conversation.

”"Gilbert! Teatime!
”Lord Gilbert, if you please. And if you insist on addressing me simply as Gilbert, you odious little cunt, you shall kick your fucking shitpit in.
”Okay, your lordship. Tea or coffee?”
”Tea, please. Do you have any Darjeeling?”
”Sorry, no. Sweeping of the factory floor in teabags only.”
”Well, my boy, you know what you can do with that effluent. You can stick it right up your fucking hole. Toodle pip.”"

The book is full of such gems, like the dialogue, you can quote pages. The sense of humor does not leave O`Donnell even in those situations where it is supposed to be no laughing matter. When two police officers have brought in a schizophrenic named Robbie, he refuses to take medication. Dennis at the mere sight Robbie is sick: "When he looked at me, my sphincter puckered so far into itself that, if I’d stuck a straw up it, I would have emptied a pail of dandelion and burdock via the back door." The O`Donnell’s colleague has gone somewhere, and only Dennis and two police officers have left, three to one, Robbie, handcuffed, and they do not feel safe. After all, now becomes a moment when you have to remove the handcuffs and put a drugs shot into Robbie, and Robbie refuses to accept "this poison." Dennis has already imagined tomorrow's newspaper headlines: "Meek hippie grandad killed at work," "Devout coward slain by madman," "Garotted with his own underpants."

Humor here is situational (and truly there’s no end to funny stories here) and verbal. O`Donnell is able to insert the desired comparison, to answer with a joke on an awkward question, that’s why it is often patients do not like him and his jokes.

The author is an English graduate and it’s visible to the naked eye. Each chapter offers an epigraph from the classics, whether it's Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Coleridge, and so on. In describing himself or the patient the author can insret a literary comparison: «Like Shakespeare's Don John, I am not of many words», «So far as looks went, he might have been Dylan Thomas ...» O`Donnell sometimes read the work of patients and finds their literary endeavors very talented.

O`Donnell without didacticism debunks myths about mental illnesses and the mentally ill people. He seems to be saying: there are ill people, there are well people, everything in life happens. We learn about the true nature of disease and the true nature of the patients.

O`Donnell did not hide the fact that after seven years he had made friends with many patients and that this work, no matter how hard it was, brought him satisfaction and joy. «The Locked Ward» is an incredibly funny book about human nature, about the thin line that separates healthy and sick people.

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