Just as Jews have a special license to make Jewish jokes — they always know the best ones — those who are or have been ‘Mentally Ill’ (Madness is not an illness; it is just madness) are allowed to make jokes about it.
I soon got the hang of it in my first mental hospital. We would surround the shy, nervous new admission in a friendly way: ‘So. D’you like it here?’ ‘Oh. Yes, yes…’ they would reply eagerly. ‘Then you must be mad’ and we would all fall about in the special cackling laughter one hears in such places, in which they would usually join. Only very rarely would they burst into tears, in which case we would of course comfort them, if not with apples, then with the tea and sweet biscuits which are always in endless supply in mental hospitals.
Mad people are usually neither stupid nor wiltingly hypersensitive. On the contrary, madness tends to affect the above-averagely intelligent, and you’ve got to be pretty robust — mentally if not physically — to survive it.
Some doctors and even psychiatrists seem not to know this, but nursing staff always do. When I was in the psychiatric ward of a large general hospital in Southend (don’t ask) but was allowed out provided I didn’t stay away too long, I used to tell the nursing staff ‘I’m going for a walk to the end of the pier.’ (pause for effect.) ‘When I get to the end, I plan to turn round, and walk back here.’ They liked that.
One day while I was in that same hospital the blood-donor van came and set up shop next door. I went along to give my half-litre and the nurse who was taking it asked where I lived. ‘Well, just at the moment, in the psychiatric ward next door.’ ‘Oh, what for?’ ‘Suicidal depression. But don’t worry, I’m not about to kill myself right here.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I don’t mind if you do, because then we could have all your blood.’