from Asylum - a magazine for democratic psychiatry volume three, number 1 - Summer 1988

Eric Irwin Pieces of Ourselves - A Tribute

To Eric [Irwin]

By Frank Bangay

I first met Eric ,in the Autumn of 1980, when I attended a conference at Conway Hall in London. The conference was organised by an anti-psychiatry group called PROMPT.: (Protection of the Rights of 'Mental Patients' in Treatment). Eric was an active member of that group. My interest in attending the conference came from a poster entitled "Do you get it? It could happen to you'. It showed someone entering the psychiatric institution with a face and identity, going through the psychiatric procedures, and coming out the other end totally faceless. I found out later that Eric had chosen the design. Although at that time I hadn't grown to understand the political implications behind psychiatry, the poster related a lot to my own experience, and the struggle to win back confidence and self-respect.

After the conference I decided to start attending PROMPT meetings and grew to know Eric more until we became very close friends.

We worked together, and he has enriched my life with his knowledge, wisdom and insight. Although he wasn't easy to get to know, Eric was a very easy person to get to like, and from time to time he would tell me a little about his life.

Eric was born in Belfast in 1924. When he was young his family life was very unstable. He was adopted by an aunt, and he often said that he lived with the constant fear of being abducted. The anxiety this produced led to his early experience of psychiatric institutions in Ireland, Australia and England. 17 different institutions, to be precise.

He often talk about harrowing experiences - like seeing people chained to radiators, or how he narrowly escaped from a psychosurgery operation. This was before the 1959 Mental Health Act, when it was a little easier to fight back against these things.

He got himself together before it was too late, only to be told by the doctor: "I wish you were psychotic, Mr Irwin, so that we could experiment on you".

Eric also talked of having ECT before they used an anaesthetic. Some people smoked two cigarettes at a time while they were waiting, because of the fear they felt. It caused epileptic fits and broke people's backs. Eric's own back was damaged by these experiences but he was still suspicious of people who would say that ECT is a lot safer now because they use an anaesthetic. He would say that it just makes the oppression more subtle, which he saw as being in many ways worse. The long-term memory loss continues.

He talked about particularly heavy times in Cane Hill Hospital, which he referred to as "Cane Hell". He talked about a man who ran away from there when it was snowing, caught frostbite and had both his legs chopped off. Eric would often remark "Who would believe such cruelty?" because most people think that stories like that are. just made up. Eric talked about his experiences there in a padded cell, wearing just a nightshirt.

The cruellest thing of all was probably that Eric was left to suffer from tardive dyskinesia - the result of spending many years on major tranquillisers. He often felt very hindered by that. It made him very angry and very sad. He often had trouble feeling he couldn't fit in, but he also showed great concern and compassion towards others who were struggling with major tranquillisers, for fear that they too would end up suffering from tardive dyskinesia. Eric was well aware of the scaremongering forcing people to take their medication. He often spoke about it from his own experience, quoting one doctor who used to say that their drugs "opened up new channels in the brain".This scaremongering is something that so many of us have experienced.

Eric had many talents. He wrote very good poetry and played the violin. He took a great interest in classical music and also in wireless and electronics, things he once studied. Due to his experiences, though, he was unable to follow this through. However he read a lot and gained a great deal of knowledge and insight. Through this he helped me and many others.

In 1972 Eric became active in the anti-psychiatry movement in this country. His first involvement was at the Paddington Day Hospital, where a sit-in took place. In 1973 he became involved in COPE, a group that had crisis centres in the Notting Hill area of West London. They produced a magazine called Heavy Daze, to which Eric often contributed. Along with another man and two women from the Mental Patients' Union, in 1974, Eric helped produce the first draft of what is now the CAPO Manifesto. This was then known as the Fish Pamphlet. The spider' s web symbol that CAPO uses came from that period.

The anti-psychiatry movement is made up of people who through personal experiences as recipients of psychiatry dismiss the psychiatric "theories" of "bad genes", "unbalanced brain chemistry" and so on. Instead we try to understand the struggles in our lives that cause us to suffer mental distress, and therefore try to provide support away from the restraints of psychiatry. We have always believed that psychiatry cannot be reformed, so must be abolished.

Eric's involvement continued through PROMPT, a group that ran a crisis phoneline and publish­ed books on the many issues of psychiatry, and, through a petition, campaigned on the streets of London against psychiatric oppression Eric often used to say how back in the 1950s nurses used to always wear uniforms and carry whistles, so that if a patient got out of hand they could blow the whistle and other nurses would come running to their assistance, and how at least you knew where you were, then. I have always felt that that is true: the more things get glossed over, the more subtle the oppression, the more dangerous it all becomes.

It was during 1984 that I first began to get to know Eric well. We talked together a lot and I felt inspired by the things Eric had to say. I learnt a lot from our conversations and this helped me articulate the struggles that I have been through in my life. In return I feel that I inspired him. Eric talked with much pride and dignity, and was very knowledgable on the subjects he talked about. He also had a sense of humour, which would quietly come out in the things he said, and he was able to lighten any heavy topic he felt need to talk about. Despite his early life, having left school at the age of 14, he could show how wrong and futile is class prejudice. When I looked back on my own past, having left school at age 15, I gained much confidence from seeing Eric's ability to break through these barriers.

In 1985 we achieved a lot together. In March of that year we changed our name to CAPO - Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression - so we could free ourselves from the "mental patient" tag, and with the help of a few others we started to win CAPO some credibility. During the summer we attended, uninvited, the Mental Health 2000 conference in Brighton. It was there that we met the Dutch anti-psychiatry movement, invited over by MIND. They helped us a lot, and we brought to MIND's notice that no British recipients had been invited to MIND's conferences, yet there were many professionals talking about the "mentally ill".

Throughout the year we worked together, organising many successful fund- raising benefits of poetry and music, most at the Troubadour coffee house in Earl's Court, London. This was the main way of raising funds and it helped us also establish CAPO. The year ended with a successful workshop at the MIND conference. We titled the workshop: "Who are the Consumers?", putting forward that the consumers are those who benefit from having someone psychiatrised,whatever the reason might be - workplaces, schools, families, the army, and so on. We said that we didn't choose to consume psychiatry. Eric said he felt as much a consumer of psychiatry as a woodlouse would consider itself to be a consumer of Rentakill services. We suggested "recipient" as a more neutral word, but sadly the point wasn't really understood, as we are still often described as the "consumer movement". However, we did at least create an impact with our workshop. Eric liked the poetry I wrote, often quoting lines from it when he wanted to drive a point home. At conferences I would start by reading my poems about psychiatry, and then Eric would give a speech. Then we would open the workshop out into a discussion with the audience. This is how we worked together and inspired each other.

1986 saw the birth of some new survivor groups who took a reformist approach. CAPO suffered a lot from communication problems, and we found ourselves on the receiving end of much criticism that seemed unfair and often quite cruel. We took the point of view that we would only get taken seriously if we proved that we could organise ourselves and speak out for ourselves. We found this often got misunderstood and we became seen as a threat. As a result we felt quite isolated from the other groups.

We didn't reject well-meaning professionals, but experience taught us to be cautious. The caring side to CAPO that helped others in their struggles seemed to be forgotten about. We carried on and still managed to achieve things, but both felt hurt by the criticism. There were times when Eric seemed really upset, and we both felt a sense of rejection. On the one hand we were called "elitist" and on the other we [were?] laughed at for being a small group. We were both angered by people who while being "non-sexist" and "non-racist", seemed "classist". Our Manifesto came in for a lot of criticism for being "too heavy" and "too political", but how could we change something that had grown over years of struggle? There were those who still supported us, but, though there were happy moments, things weren't quite the same. Eric was deeply hurt by some of the comments made, like when OPENMIND magazine described us as "people with poor mental health". Eric felt these people wanted to humour us, and didn't want to take us seriously.

During 1986 Eric first started to get pains that led to his illness. He was troubled a lot by the pain, but was unable to get an examination. There were times when I saw Eric seeming to be very anxious and angry, but he felt it difficult to explain what was wrong. I kept in touch with him and visited him outside meetings. He also had a few other friends who supported him, but a part of Eric was very lonely, and, sadly, it was difficult to reach through that. The last time I remember seeing him being happy was last March when we held a successful workshop at a conference in Nottingham. The people from Nottingham MIND, who organised the conference, were nice and very helpful people, and it was good to feel wanted.

Last Autumn Eric's pains got worse, but he was still unable to get an examination from his doctor, and was told it was all in his mind. Then, after a few weeks of being unable to eat properly and suffering a lot from stomach pains and headaches, Eric collapsed and was rushed to hospital. A couple of weeks later, after the tests, he was told he had cancer. I remember seeing him just after he had heard the news. I arrived late in the afternoon and he asked me to stay with him a while. I stayed until 10.30, and we chatted a while. Then I asked if he minded if I was quiet for a while as I couldn't think what to say. He said he didn't mind, he just wanted my company. Although I felt great sadness, a part of me felt glad for the fact that we had kept trust in each other, and that we still valued each other's friendship and that my visits helped Eric at this time of great distress.

After being looked after by Dr Steven Ticktin of the Network for a week, Eric died in St Joseph's Hospice in Hackney. He left us just before Christmas. It was very sudden, but I would like to feel that Eric has found peace. It seems a shame that during the last years of his life he had to struggle, coping on a pension. He used to have to worry about keeping his flat warm in winter. He often used to say he feared he would be one of those pensioners who would die of the cold during winter. He deserved a lot better. But there were times when Eric was happy and smiling. His face would have a youthful, almost boyish look on it. I hope that as time passes I will be able to remember him for those moments, as well as for the struggles we had keeping CAPO together, often against great odds.

Eric Irwin achieved a lot in his life. He left behind much wisdom for those of us who care to value it. I hope we will be able to show that his struggle was not in vain, but was the groundwork for so much of what the survivor movement is trying to do these days.