Harry Dorrell (B. 1903): Illness, Health & Disability – Writing Lives

Harry Dorrell (B. 1903): Illness, Health & Disability

‘Living, is for me a daily battle to be fought against this terminal illness and so very far from the terminus.’ (Prologue)

A section from the memoir's epilogue in which Harry uses a poem to relate to his depression.
A section from the memoir’s epilogue in which Harry uses a poem to relate to his depression.

In his later life Harry suffered from depression and anxiety, in fact it seemed to completely consume his life for a time. The beginning of his illness, in the memoir at least, was when he was given the job of ‘Industrial Relations Communications Officer’ (124) which he saw as a ‘pretence’ (124) created only ‘to weaken the Industrial Relations Manager’ (125) by removing Harry as his support. In this role, which did not even have a job description, he felt like he had no work to do, a thought that must have be hard for Harry who had worked all his life. This then led to a ‘loss of self respect’ (125) and identity. Harry began to stay home on working days and attend ‘local committees’ (126) to try and fill his time. He seemed to be lost without much to do because all his life he had been so heavily involved with unions and different causes. He became ‘increasingly lonely, desperately depressed’ (126) while trying to maintain a public face. When asked what kind of job allows him to be at home so much by a neighbour, he joked saying ‘you don’t see me the times I arrive home at midnight’ (126). The apparent pointlessness of his job left Harry feeling empty. On top of his he was also suffering from ‘increasing anxiety of being found out and dismissed’ (136). This put a lot of strain on him because his ‘family, with two children at school, and an unpaid mortgage, were more than (he) could put at risk’ (127).

Harry subjected himself to the job that made him depressed for the sake of his family, although as a result they suffered a ‘totally undeserved share of my mental strain’ (127). The illness affected the family deeply, because it caused him to be so aggressive and suffer from ‘outbursts of ill temper’ (133). Harry’s writing at this point is full of guilt and pain. When he talks about the effect on his family, he says that at this time ‘laughter was leaving out home’ (133). He writes about ‘the awful moment’ (133) when after an outburst his daughter asked his wife, ‘Mummy, are you and Daddy going to get divorced?’ (133), and his ‘world shuddered to a dead stop’ (133). He goes on to say he has still never ‘had the courage to ask her’ (133) what this did to her and that he still sees in her ‘that sadly bewildered, questioning child’ (133) before seeing her as ‘the capable woman she now is, with her two young children’ (133/4).

Harry was treated with drugs for about six years although they gave him side effects of ‘dizziness’ (137), ‘loss of vision’ (137) and did not really help with his illness. What he felt did help, though, was the ‘regular visits to my doctor’ (137), who he was able to find solace in. After he finally left BEA he was able to undergo electroconvulsive therapy and hopefully ‘look forward to living again’ (141). During the treatment he suffered ‘loss of memory’ (143) to the point where he could not identify objects such as a clock. This is a common side effect of ECT. Coleman et al. (1996) reported that ‘the severity of patients’ depressive symptoms was strongly correlated with patients’ reports of memory impairment’ (Coleman et al. 131). We can see how severely the ECT affected Harry’s memory of even the most familiar of objects. His ‘memory returned triumphantly’ (144) after a few weeks and he said that ‘the effect upon my mental sickness was miraculous’ (144). He talks about how happy he was that one evening, rather than going to her room as usual, his daughter ‘sat with us that evening, reading awhile’ (144) which to him was a ‘small miracle’ (144). Unfortunately, after about a year he was back in his ‘original sick state. The cure had failed, the joy was gone.’ (144). After this he again had drug treatment and found solace in regular visits to the doctor. However, his doctor then retired and he had a couple of seemingly unsympathetic doctors, until finding one who understood because she had suffered depression herself. The drugs he was on at that time helped with his depression but they had serious side effects which damaged his vision and caused him to trip and fall constantly, so he stopped taking them. It is at this point that he ‘realised (he) was not cured’ (156) and and says ‘for me there is no cure.’ (156). In this later stage of his depression he no longer suffered ‘the more violent raging symptoms’ (156) but was under a ‘strange sadness’ (156).

Harry always kept his illness private, telling only his family and later a couple of close friends, and this added to the weight of it for him and also his wife Joan. Something that stands out throughout the memoir, and particularly when Harry speaks about depression, is Joan’s unwavering love and support. After one outburst he heard her crying in the next room and went to comfort her, and she said ‘Harry, despite it all I love you.’ (140) and again encouraged him to leave his job saying ‘I’ll fight for you’ (140). He also writes that when they were on holiday, he had an outburst and Joan went into a shop and ‘bought a hand carved paper knife’ (135) for him. He says;

‘My rage dissolved, evaporated by that tiny, but to me at that moment, healing act of love, of loving patience and acceptance. I have the letter opener now, all these years later. It is mine to remember I was not rejected’ (135)

Harry attempted suicide twice, and in fact he begins the prologue of the memoir with ‘One of the more memorable days in my life was when I tried to kill myself.’ (Prologue). He ‘decided it was time to go’ (137) and took ‘capsules that would end it all’ (137). He is interrupted however, by Joan coming home early. After this Joan makes him promise he will never try again, however, he does years later, almost without knowing it. This ‘second and horrifying attempt at suicide’ (138) happens when he is crossing the road. He says ‘I deliberately stepped in front of vehicle after vehicle with a maniac determination not to be injured but killed.’ (138). He made it to where Joan was at the other side of the road without injury and ‘grasped her hand, breathless and unsteady’ (138). He goes on to say;

‘She thought I was upset by the narrow escapes in crossing that traffic congested road. Until this moment of writing she has never known the truth of it.’ (138)

In the epilogue of the memoir Harry seems to have come to terms with the fact that there is no cure for his illness. He thinks mostly of his family and, although he is still suffering he does not want to die. He wishes to stay with his ‘loved and loving family’ (161). He finds solace in music and continues to fight the ‘daily battle’ (160) against his illness. He fondly remembers the happy days before his depression but says;

‘I have no wish to live on happy memories, for I have love in my heart, although more recent bitter memories of those who have defeated me will stay and where there is love in a heart there must also be hate- each supporting the other- and I shall hold on to both. And look to the future.’ (160)


Coleman et al. ‘Side Effects of Electroconvulsive Therapy’, Depression and Anxiety 12:(2000) pp130-134 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1520-6394(2000)12:3%3C130::AID-DA4%3E3.0.CO;2-C/pdf)

Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.