“This book is dedicated to mental health nurses everywhere -the unsung heroes of psychiatry” – Dylan Evans, “The Utopia Experiment”

“The Utopia Experiment” is the story of Dylan Evans’ attempt to create an 18-month experiment in post apocalyptic living, in a remote part of Scotland. It was only after I finished reading it that I discovered I had heard of Dylan Evans before  (follow the link to find out why). “The Utopia Experiment” was the first time I had been genuinely impressed by an Amazon “You may also like…” recommendation – up to then this much-hyped feature (only Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” had heretofore impressed me) had always seemed to me quite banal, simply recommending books very like what you have already bought.

Anyhow, “The Utopia Experiment” is an interesting and absorbing read, with much to ponder on on the nature of progress and our hidden motivations . A relatively small part of the book deals with his time in a Scottish psychiatric hospital. Evans unravels over the course of the eponymous experiment, ultimately being admitted involuntarily (although, contra the impression gave by the blurb, he returns to the commune for a time after discharge)

Evans writes, early on:

A psychiatric hospital is a blunt instrument for treating mental illness. You take someone whose life has disintegrated and put them in a building with other lunatics. Once or twice a day you give them some medication, and once a week the doctor pays a visit. That’s more or less it.

This matter-of-fact, rather deadpan tone conveys much of the account of his admission. In his early days in the hospital, he found “my imagination conjuring up all sorts of fearful images of evil psychiatrists and brutal nurses”. The reality he describes is more mundane.

“This book is dedicated to mental health nurses everywhere -the unsung heroes of psychiatry” we read on the dedication page. Ironically enough, while there are three named doctors in his account of the hospital, but no nurse is named (even with what would presumably by a pseudonym) The consultant, Dr Satoshi, comes across as a sympathetic character who takes the trouble to read Evans’ online manifesto and steers him towards the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski on “positive disintegration.”

A typical sample of Evans’ account of hospital life follows the description of the hospital as a “blunt instrument” above:

 

It’s probably necessary to have some time for just resting, for not doing the crazy manic stuff that is likely to make things worse. But since mental illness often involves the loss of any daily routine, it is also important to rebuild some kind of structure. The nurses did their best to help me construct a rudimentary timetable, prodding me out of bed in the mornings, and taking me for occasional walks outside the hospital.

One time, a nurse spotted me pacing frantically around the courtyard, and came over the see if she could calm me down.

‘Don’t worry, Dylan. Things aren’t so bad. What’s the worst that can  happen?’

Perhaps the nurse thought I would conclude that the worst wasn’t all that bad after all, and cheer up. But this isn’t a good question to ask someone who has spent the past year worrying about the collapse of civilisation. It immediately prompted a cascade of rich visual images, culminating in a picture of me suffering a particularly horrible death.

For Evans, his focus on civilisational collapse was ultimately a manifestation of a previous depression, and he is strong on the misanthropic narcissism that underlies an awful lot of we-are-doomed rhetoric (from all parts of the political and cultural spectrum). There isn’t – or shouldn’t be – any necessary reason that an appreciation of the natural world (and a sense that our lives are often out of kilter with our true selves) should lead to apocalyptic fantasies of the destruction of (the rest of) humanity. Evans learns, in ways, to accept the mundanity of life and our (flawed) civilisation and (flawed) institutions. His description of life in the psychiatric hospital, a relatively small part of the overall narrative, is in ways a microcosm of his overall journey – from a media-mediated sense of apocalyptic dread to an appreciation of the “unsung heroes” of everyday life.

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