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The Bullet by Tom Lee review – a complicated inheritance

The Bullet by Tom Lee review – a complicated inheritance

The year 2008 “should have been a good time in my life”, the novelist Tom Lee reveals in this memoir. He was a new father, homeowner, and his first book was imminent. Instead, he was in emotional freefall because of acute anxiety. “I had forgotten how to be,” he writes.

The bullet of the title is mental illness, one he felt was heading his way, because of its impact on his family. Both of Lee’s parents were institutionalised at the now defunct Severalls hospital in Colchester. Here, he shows how, having dodged their fate into adulthood, his collapse into bedridden stasis made him panic about whether he would ever recover. He’s subtle in detailing his cautious self-medicating with Ativan (“more suburban than subversive”) and dawning realisation that ill-health tracked him long before he was aware. Later, he suffered another illness, acute respiratory distress syndrome (Ards), which proved nearly fatal. He was placed in an induced coma and labelled by a consultant as “the sickest man in London”. He refers to Ards as an “invader”, unlike anxiety, the enemy within.

Severalls hospital’s closure and transformation into flats, which Lee views, is the book’s other focal point; through it, he offers a historical account of the revolution, and counter-revolution, in mental health treatment. His thoughts on “the great confinement”, which produced a proliferation of asylums, are as balanced as his account of the mistrust that triggered the demolition of such establishments.

While a history of neglect leaves Lee aware he “should not lament” Severalls, he is cognisant of how psychiatric hospitals once offered ethical, if flawed, versions of help. “I was lucky,” he notes, having recovered enough to tell his tale, in contrast to the thousands for whom care never arrives. The book ends hopefully, noting that alongside “the bullet”, knowledge of how to cope, and family who offered a lived insight into his illness, were equally part of his complicated inheritance.

Source: theguardian.com