To calm my nerves about the fact that the replacement IB50 form has not yet arrived which means I may be money-less on the 4th, here are two pieces of writing about mental illness that I penned for elsewhere, but which were never published. They were difficult to write, so don’t want them to be in the ether forever. Hope you like them. They are a little melancholy, really. Because they’re not written for this blog they don’t count as a new post, no, not at all, I am not, in fact, a complete flake, it is not I speaking to you, I am in the ether…
PS: In terms of the education thing, my wanting to study English was in part due to my desire to be a writer. Now I’m (trying to) pursue that without a degree. If everything goes tits, I think I will do an Access course and go to university. But who knows. At the moment, I’m focusing on other things.
Anyway! Cheerio, I’ll just leave these here.
The Bedside Divide
It’s now commonly believed that mental illness runs in families. Whether it’s nature or nurture responsible for that particular heirloom is up for debate. Most people have a “mad” relative, be it the aunt who streaks at midnight or the great-uncle whose very name choruses hasty “ssssh”s across a room. I’m lucky. I have two mad relatives. They’re my parents.
My dad suffered from depression and alcoholism. The latter killed him in 2006, at the shamefully young age of forty six. My mum has what I like to call, “Mentalism Unspecified”, a veritable rag bag of psychosis, depression, mania and general oddness. From a very tender age indeed, I thought nothing of finding my mum’s suicide notes stashed in the strangest of places. Sometimes they were in the boiler, or a top drawer in the kitchen, hiding amongst dried up old pens and crumpled receipts. Eventually, I learned just to put them back where I found them. Living in our house, you grew accustomed to certain sounds; my mum hoovering at four in the morning, my dad crying, and the hiss of a can being opened the moment he woke up for work.
I didn’t realize that my parents suffered from mental illness until I reached my teens. To me, they were just my parents. Okay, granted that visiting your dad in a mental hospital isn’t really part of the “normal” childhood experience, but it was in our world. My siblings and I were used to hauling our dad off the floor, soothing our mum’s
worries about rats living in the bath and listening to her somewhat tall (extremely tall, giraffe on stilts kind of tall, Stephen Fry up acrane kind of tall) tales. We tried to cope- and care- as best we could, while, of course, being subject to all the ordinary, “IT’S NOT FAIR!” door-slamming adolescent rages.
It was undeniably traumatic at times, but I don’t feel hard done by. I love my family and we are all incredibly close and supportive of each other. In turn, my family had to cope with my own encroaching mental illness. Because they knew, in some sense, what to expect, I was spared the jaw-dropping horror, the hysteria and the confusion often meted out by our loved ones when our marbles are missing. There was often tension, annoyance and frustration (case in point; my mother bellowing that she was sick of me and my “marnick depression” and my “pills” when I was sixteen, but she was still the same woman who didn’t bat an eyelid when I found myself on the acute ward of the local loony-bin) but crucially, after a little while, there was acceptance and support. I have been on both sides of the electrified security fence. If I printed up business cards, the words, “TWENTY FOUR YEARS EXPERIENCE” would be garishly embossed above a photo of me giving two thumbs up.
So you think I’d be good at it. You think I’d know what to say and what do when someone other than myself is in a mental health crisis. After all, I’d done it before.
Recently, a friend of mine took an overdose, which landed them in hospital. In 2008, I spent a similarly charming afternoon vomiting and having fits, before rather lazily passing out on my living room floor. I was discovered a few hours later and given the VIP nee-naw treatment. I endured a barely-remembered evening getting acquaintedwith a little cardboard bowl that would have made a fabulous hat had I not insisted on throwing up into it every fifteen seconds. My then-boyfriend stroked my hair, tried to make me laugh, and friends filtered in and out, with me too adrift to truly appreciate their presence, or their pain.
One year later, and there I was, the numb and dumb one by a hospital bed for the very first time my adult life. I wanted to be there for myfriend, figuring that I’d be good at this. I’ve been there. I’d beenthe one with the vomit-soaked sheets and I know what helped me. I’d say the right, insightful things. Be witty and wry, but sympathetic. Show him that I cared, and, importantly, understood. And, given my inappropriate behaviour at times, maybe cheer him up with a spot of daring Vaudeville tap-dancing.
But he looked so small, so shockingly childlike, fists folded like a dead bird’s claws, eyelashes slick with tears, with no heed to the runny nose and horrorshow hair. He drifted in and out of consciousness, waking only to spasm and sicken, then would descend once more into the sarcophagus of starched white linen. I had dismissed my own trip to the emergency ward as shenanigans, because that was me, and that was normal for me. Although that was my first time in hospital for a suicide attempt (the rest were just retching days off school, bleeding wrists tucked into pockets, ligature marks hidden by high necked jumpers, private, banal), I didn’t die, it wasn’t that bad, and it can’t have been that traumatic for those around me.
But stood there, awkwardly pawing at my friend, realizing I had absolutely nothing useful to say, with my heart twisting in my chest, I thought, “This is not right, and nor should it be”. Just because so many people- my friend, my parents, myself- experience these things, doesn’t mean that it should be what we accept for them, or dismiss, or even think we can fully relate to because we’ve “been there”. Because when we’ve been there, we probably felt we were there alone. But in those moments, when we don’t know what to do or say, we
should remember that they are our parents, our family, our friends.
In some ways, I find that being the one in the bed is sometimes easier than being the one by the bedside.
How Diagnosis Changes Everything
When I was a teenager, my best friend lived in Dublin. Every so often, I’d take the two hour journey from my home town of Belfast and spend a few days with him. I loved wandering through the wide, windswept streets, secretly reveling in the tin whistle siren songs to the tourists trickling by. But my favourite place in Dublin was Trinity College. All I wanted was to study English there. I imagined myself as a louche Donleavy-esque character, burrowed amidst fusty, loved tomes in an expansive library, happily ensconced in the dual worlds of academia and alcohol. I would stand outside and run my hands across its historic stones, and wish. I even printed out a photo of it and blu-tacked it to my bedroom wall. And as ambitious as it was, everybody had faith in me. I was one of those effortlessly brilliant and ambitious students who’d never got a B in her life.
Instead, I became very unwell. I missed six months of school, scraped a few GCSEs and was then gently dropped from my A-level courses with the humiliating declaration that my “mental health was more important than my education”. Then, on an impulsive whim I ran away to London. Seven years later, I’m still here, still ill and have, of yet, been unable to reattempt education.
Throughout my teenage years, it was assumed, despite the fact I’d suffered severe bouts of mania, depression and psychosis since the age of twelve, that I was just an attention seeking adolescent. Anybody with a “teen” in their age isn’t ill. They can’t be ill. At sixteen, there was some vague hand-gesturing regarding a, “mood disorder”. I was prescribed a medication that affected my balance so severely that I spent a good few months living on the hall carpet after yet another tumble down the stairs. I stopped taking it and there were no follow up appointments. Even as I dropped out of school, nobody took my alleged illness seriously, and eventually, that included me. For the next four years, I was too afraid to see a doctor, convinced that I was wasting their time and that they would dismiss me. During those years, I deteriorated. I developed the difficult-to-treat rapid-cycling (in which a person has four or more episodes of illness a year) and it caused untold problems in my relationships. I lost countless jobs, I had to perform the famous, “moonlight flit” due to the fact I couldn’t pay my rent, I self harmed severely and I began to drink heavily. At the age of twenty- psychotic, jobless and bleeding from the throat- I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was only then that I began to receive help for my mental problems. By then, it had been eight years since I became unwell.
What happened to me is not unusual. There is, on average, an eight year delay in diagnosing bipolar disorder, in which time the damage in a person’s life may have already been done. It can also be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or depression, so the person may not be receiving the right treatment. In fact, using antidepressants to treat bipolar disorder misdiagnosed as depression can be downright dangerous, triggering mania in some patients.
Mental illness is often not diagnosed until a crisis point has been reached. It can be for various reasons. A person can lose insight into their behaviour and refuse to see a doctor, or, in the case of bipolar, they may experience hypomania which can cause someone to feel not only good, but great. Or, like me, they can think that they’re just flushing NHS hours down the toilet by bothering a doctor. Or, as revealed in a recent survey of psychiatrists, doctors are simply not recognising the symptoms of mental illness. And obviously, they’re somewhat easier to recognise when you’re bad enough to be hospitalised.
Finally getting a diagnosis can be a relief. When I finally received the less-vague diagnosis of bipolar disorder, once I’d gone through the prerequisite period of, “You’re wrong, I’m fine”, I was thankful, in a way, to knew that something ailed me, and I wasn’t just, er, going mad. It explained a lot. But it was also a harrowing experience. I had kind of hoped that the doctors of yore were right and I was going through a teenage “phase”. To be told, with all the characteristic tactlessness that the psychiatric profession is renowned for, that it was likely I’d have to live with this for the rest of my life (ah, the “rest of your life”- a particularly frightening prospect for the barely-lived in twenty year old) rendered me as flat and amorphous as a dinghy with the air let out. That this too would not, in fact, pass. Yes, it had messed up my life. But it it had a hand in my personality, my behaviour. Some people liked me the way I was. And I wasn’t sure who that person was anymore. If they would even exist anymore.
I had an image of my future. I wanted to be carefree until I was in my early nineties. An elegant writer, well-studied, well-traveled. Quaffer of wine, that kind of thing. Taking medication that would change who I thought I was, living a life relatively free of stress, avoiding alcohol, my main confidant being my social worker and being forever saddled with the stigma of mental illness hadn’t figured into it. Simple things I previously believed would be joyful experiences- such as having a child- were suddenly terrifying. I’d have to take medication, and even then, only certain medications because others could harm the child. There would be the grave possibility that I would experience post-natal psychosis, since I am prone to psychosis. And there is increasing evidence that some mental illnesses are hereditary. So great was my worry that it contributed to my decision to have termination earlier this year. There were other factors, but it was a position I never imagined I’d find myself in, and sobering reminder of the realities of living with a mental illness. I’ll never fully adjust to it. And forgetting it comes at a high price- in my case, when I stop taking medication, I start to become ill. I need to be aware to be well. Ah, fantastic. All the pep-talking statements that mental illness only changes your life as much as you let it isn’t true. You cannot be well by wishing alone.
In a way, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Not being diagnosed leads to not being treated, and being diagnosed leads to a whole world of change. Whereas I’m glad I didn’t have, “MENTALIST” stamped across my head when I was fifteen, I do sometimes lament what I lost. I don’t regret where my life has taken me. But I’m sad that I never made it to Trinity. Things are different now