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Introducing Meldrew’s Disease

June 26, 2022

One of the joys of growing old is cheerfully succumbing to various mental conditions. They excuse all your bad behaviour.

Hypochondria, also known as I Told You I Was Ill Syndrome (per Spike Milligan’s tombstone), is one of them. Every ache and pain – a headache here or a chest niggle there – is the harbinger of a fatal affliction. A heart attack or a stroke, promising imminent death. Or some nasty little cancer that’s likely to have spread around your body before you know it. Yes, we oldies like to keep the doctors busy on the grounds of “just wanted to check”.

I wouldn’t say I’m a frequent flyer at my local surgery, but I do take the view that having paid my taxes over all these years I’m entitled to check occasionally whether I’m about to die. Not that our COVID-ravaged National Health Service will be able to do much about something that comes stealthily in the night and takes me away in short order. Not when you need to wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment and hours for an ambulance. One of the best insurance policies is to be married to a medic, which I am. But still, I don’t complain to her about a symptom unless it seems serious, such as when I find myself writhing on the floor in unbearable pain. It’s the little things that I keep to myself which let the hypochondriacal worm invade my soul.

Then there’s paranoia. A state in which everyday occurrences acquire a sinister hue. Refusing to open innocent-seeming links on emails or text messages for fear of being ripped off by a Russian hacker. Wondering whether berating a rude guy in a restaurant is going to result in a knife in the chest. Taking conspiracy theories personally. Are the aliens about to abduct me? Will Putin send the novichok merchants after me because I was rude about him in a blog post? Worse still, wondering if my wife’s beady eye is watching me for signs of incipient dementia. She has good reason occasionally. Frequent arguments with door frames in our ancient house are quite possibly turning my brain to mush. Outbursts of sweary frustration at software that doesn’t work, at apps deigned by pimply adolescents, at sheep-like audiences who applaud the demagogues on Question Time, as if I give a monkey’s what they think about anything anyway.

I can only say in my defence that my disinhibition is nothing new. Back in 2016 I was in a hotel during a golf tour in France the morning after the Brexit Referendum. My fellow breakfasters were somewhat taken aback when I let out an enraged diatribe at Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and all the other liars and charlatans who had so deceived the British voters. I was lucky not to be escorted off the premises.

But is this tendency towards disinhibition getting worse? I’m not sure, though I do worry that I might get in trouble on the rare occasions when I try to re-landscape my local golf course in fury at yet another incompetently-executed shot. And my wife sometimes has to restrain me when she sees me teetering on the brink of expletive-filled rage at some dumb jobsworth at an airline desk. Swearing at the telly? Guilty as charged. And for many other expressions of outrage at the stupidity of human beings, myself excluded of course.

Nobody these days can be considered a complete package without some real, imagined or threatened form of mental illness lurking in the background. What was once a tendency to drink from a half-empty glass is now depression. Forgetting what you had for breakfast is a sign of incipient Alzheimer’s. Believing that a burst bag of flour vaguely shaped like an arrow outside your front door is a sign that you are about to be burgled is paranoid schizophrenia. Going on a tidying-up binge after our grandson has given a passable impression of a Goth sacking Rome is a manic episode. In fact, any kind of binge is pretty suspect – a sign of an addictive personality.

But it’s not just us oldies, is it? Two hundred years ago, regardless of our age, a tendency to frighten the horses might have been enough to have us be locked away in Bedlam, and even twenty years ago we were reduced to quiescence by chemicals and kept our mouths shut about the reason. These days, though, we feel almost inadequate if we can’t cite some interesting condition on our Twitter bios, or if we can’t find some spectrum to be on.

Now don’t get me wrong. Illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and dementia are genuinely debilitating conditions. Autism presents many challenges to those who live with its many forms. But it seems to me that the more we are aware of mental illness, the more we are search for those conditions in ourselves and use self-diagnosis as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Mental health has also become a cudgel with which to attack those with opinions opposed to one’s own. Universities try (vainly) to protect their customers (once known as students) by declaring safe spaces. Unfortunately there are no safe spaces to protect us from Brexit, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s army of vacuous zombies masquerading as a government. Nor, unfortunately from crimes of the mind: racism, phobias of all kinds (which aren’t really phobias but hatred). They exist, and attempts to wrap people into institutional wombs are counterproductive and doomed to failure. One person’s safe space is another person’s battlefield. Better to teach resilience and critical thinking.

Yet the most potent accusation one person can level at another, short of physical injury, is that the person’s behaviour has endangered another’s mental health. As if negative emotions such as fear, envy, loneliness, anger and the occasional bout of gloom are in themselves mental illnesses.

I refuse to use the word woke, because that in itself has become a political cudgel. I also refuse to submit my quirks to close examination, and find reasons from my past to explain my behaviour in the present. All in all, I reckon I’m a reasonably balanced individual, though I leave that assessment to others. And anyway, thanks to my age, I myself couldn’t give a damn either way.

However, I will admit to one condition that hasn’t yet found its way into the database of mental illnesses. I call it Meldrew’s Disease, after Victor Meldrew, my great hero in adversity in the BBC’s memorable sitcom, One Foot in the Grave.

Like many sufferers, I have a catch-all response to all the disasters, stupidities and inanities that trap us in a web of obfuscation and frustration. I use it when I get a ticket for straying into a bus lane in a town that has more road signs per metre than a pine tree has needles. I use it when my phone has forgotten the password for some unnecessary app that I’m forced to use because nobody works in customer service anymore. I use it when the elaborately-constructed tower of junk in my garage collapses into a heap of crap that should have been disposed of in a car boot sale decades ago. I use it when I fall asleep in front of the telly and the cup of coffee I’m holding tips over into my lap and soaks through the armchair beneath. I use it after every act of stupidity on my part for which I can blame fate, an act of god, a natural disaster, Brexit or those bloody politicians. Anyone except myself, of course. For am I not infallible, a paragon of reason and good sense?

The catch-all is Victor’s anguished shriek. I DON’T BELIEVE IT! Which, once uttered, sends me effortlessly into my realm of alternative truth. If I don’t believe it, it didn’t happen, right? Or if it did, it’s someone else’s fault.

To quote Roger Waters, another icon of a bygone era, I’ve become comfortably numb.

From → Social, UK

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