SMOKE: How Mad Is Mad?

Originally published: 19 October 2005

A few months ago - according to a Reuters report - a 77-year old man in northern India called Machal Lalung was released from a remote mental asylum where he'd been incarcerated for the last 54 years.

He was released because an investigation about his mysterious disappearance all those years ago - carried out by a nephew who'd never met him - led the National Human Rights Commission to find Lalung and declare that he was never insane in the first place. He merely suffered from epilepsy.

Lalung was 23 years old when he was taken away and locked up for the rest of his life, when all he had was a couple of epileptic seizures.

Being wrongfully imprisoned is bad enough, but this guy had to spend every day of the next 54 years living amongst lunatics. Genuine nutters.

He reckons he begged and pleaded in the first few years to be released but nobody ever listened, and of course his epilepsy was never cared for.

Eventually he forgot his family as his senses became dulled from living with mad people. He forgot his tribal dialect and even the food he once liked.

Now he's a shrivelled, wizened old man who does not much more than carry around a sack of betel nuts to chew on, and in his own words he's "waiting to die."

The worst part of all - despite the fact that his entire life was taken away from him by ignorant swines - is that those swines will never have to pay for what they did. They're long gone, along with his life.

Records of his are missing and he doesn't even know who it was who took him to the asylum in the first place. His entire life before the asylum has been erased, from records and his own memory.

The state has apologised. That's it. No compensation or anything like that. As though any amount of compensation could make up for that horrific life.

I simply can't begin to imagine something like that. I just can't. The horror of such a thing is too immense. Knowing you're sane but not being able to convince anyone of that. Sharing a room day in and day out with loonies who burble and behave dangerously.

I've always been terrified of wrongful imprisonment, as I see it as the ultimate denial of freedom. Being imprisoned for something you've done is bad enough, but being imprisoned for something you haven't is a mental mindfuck.

It's why I don't and never will support the death penalty. People will be wrongfully imprisoned, innocent people will be put to death.

How a society can live with itself when that is the case is way beyond my comprehension. Way beyond.

On a lighter note - when asked if he'd ever considered marrying any of the other inmates Lalung said that despite there being numerous women he hadn't.

"Who would want to marry an insane woman?" he asked.

Heh. Who indeed?

The whole sad story got me thinking, though. I have my own "Man rescued from clutches of asylum" story - the man rescued was my father. The rescuer was my mother.

I'm a little hazy on the details but I do know that in the late sixties/early seventies psychiatrists and the like were big fans of electro-shock therapy, and one of them deemed my father - himself scarcely out of his teens - mad as a march hare.

He wasn't, of course - he just had his troubles like anyone else.

He was put away in an electro-shock facility and they got cracking on hotwiring his brain, and my mother - realising or sensing that it simply couldn't be good for him despite what the doctors said - went into the hospital in the dead of night and literally carried him out. Over her shoulder, like a sack of potatoes.

She reckons my father would have ended up a nutter if he'd stayed there much longer. Then the Good Doctors could have shaken their heads sadly, said nothing on Earth would cure him and packed him off to the nuthouse for the rest of his days.

All because he was slightly depressed.

I've known plenty of folks who at some stage or another have been locked up in asylums (yup - I attract loons, I'm afraid), and very few of them have struck me as mad in any way. None of them in fact.

They're usually just really intense people who went through a bit of a bender when something bad happened, but who - with a little support and guidance - would have come through far quicker than it took them via the nuthouse route.

Progressive thinkers in times gone by were often labelled insane and I wonder how many brilliant minds have been lost to humanity over the centuries because of it.

I just wonder how mad is mad. I've always wondered whether I'll know if I'm mad or not if I do go mad one day. No mad person ever thinks they're mad, of course. The day someone claims they're mad you know they're not.

I would hope the modern day judgement of insanity is based purely on medical fact and not on subjective opinion. I know there are lists of criteria psychologists have when determining insanity for legal matters, for instance - are these guidelines accurate, firstly, and secondly are they applied to all patients undergoing mental evaluation?

Or is it enough to simply rock quietly back and forth and not answer questions in order to be deemed a fruitcake? How much true effort is put into rescuing someone before locking them away forever in an asylum?

The word "mad" is an extremely dangerous one, because it's very rarely seen as positive. People confuse "mad" with "eccentric", for example, or just plain "different".

In my world both "eccentric" and "different" are positive things - not negative. Yet people can never seem to accept nor understand that.

The story of Machal Lalung is basically one of human prejudice - the desire to shut down that which we don't understand. That which is different. That which makes us uncomfortable.

It's so basic.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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