The Bedside Divide/How Things May Have Been Different

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

25 Responses

  1. You may still make it to trinity. they have a writer in residence.

  2. Loved these writings.

  3. Before I get lost in your writing and forget to say, can I point this out: that a degree in English can be as much a hindrance as a help to anyone wanting to become a writer… It can make you far too self-conscious!

  4. I was supposed to be going to oxford & doing a million A-Levels when I made my first suicide attempt. my mentalism proceeded to destroy the next 5 or 6 years of my life. I just about managed to scrape together the bits that were left & make something new out of them when it hit me again.

    I’ve never been on the other side of the cheap, starchy hospital sheet but I’d imagine it’s pretty horrible. My mother’s face still haunts me.
    I remember they gave me this horrible, thick charcoal drink that turned my poo black. If I drink a lot of Guinness I’m reminded of it the next day.

    Anyway I digress (quite a lot).

    I think that you’ve probably written enough material for several books & a lot of people think that this is one of the best mental health blogs (me included).
    Surely someone would publish a selection of the best bits?

    Hope your benefit bollocks gets sorted out.

    Ta ta for now.

  5. I read ‘heirloom’ as ‘hellroom’. How appropriate.

  6. I had ‘Mentalist’ stamped across my forehead when I was fifteen. Something to do with refusing to eat. But, in the end, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Good to see you back.

  7. PS: I quite fancied UCD.

  8. your writing is great x

  9. better than mine

  10. I’ve put forward a hypothesis connecting psychiatric disorders (including bipolar) with the Earth’s magnetic field. My ideas may have practical benefit for some people suffering from these disorders. For a limited time I’m offering free consulting. Check out the details at:

  11. Seaneen,like your good self i have been on both sides of the hospital sheet.To say that i felt better in the bed then outside of it says a lot for the man i am.I didnt have a clue what to say and i felt like a t**t i didnt feel i was there as a friend just someone in the way

    Take care


  12. I hope you are writing a book about your life. Come on, you definitely should do, it would be such a good read 🙂

  13. I love your writing, i can feel your emotions as if they were mine. keep up this very important work. i was locked up for 46 days and given a diagnosis of being bipolar and now I am judged with that label, whatever i do! i have to say, though, that for me, it was not easy being the one in the bed, as i was fine and had been locked up forcibly by my father, while my husband and 4 kids watched… india is a strange place.
    stay sane in this insane world,

  14. I find universities somewhat parasitic. It’s easy to idealise them; until you actually go there. You might also find that the lecturers tend to be tossers. You are a young woman, but are probably more mature than most of the undergraduates and so the tosserliness is likely to be more visible. If you find it difficult to concentrate while reading: this will also make studying for a literature degree difficult.

    Don’t wish to sound discouraging. Quite to the contrary. Your metier seems to be writing. I wouldn’t necessarily advise going down the institutional validation route.

  15. I have a mad aunt, who surprised me last week and on a night out KOPPED off with someone… I was gobsmacked she’s 54! She’s just how I remembered her as a kid… I have a cousin with Paranoid Schizophrenia in Ashworth, so there is a history of MH problems in the family, it’s also said my Great Grandfather hung himself because of his recurrent depressive episodes when my Grandma was pregnant with my auntie, as a result my Grandma pretty much was debilitated with Depression most of her life, but I clearly remember her often being in ‘Happy Moods’ where she would be the most energetic person and fun to always be around, but when the depressive periods were upon her you wouldn’t seen her appear from her bedroom for weeks at a time and I clearly remember my auntie being the crazy auntie who I adored for her whacky colourful life but also the sad aspect of frequent hospitalisations and suicide attempts.

    As for me well I always initially said I had Bipolar Disorder only to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and now my diagnosis has been changed again by the psychiatrist who knows me properly and who has treated me for the past twelve months to Bipolar II, now I’m working on the NHS to amend my diagnosis.

    As for you considering an Access Course, go for it. I started one in September last year and I absolutely love it, it’s been a fantastic experience and I have my place now to start university in September on my Mental Health Nursing Diploma, I feel like the worlds my oyster at the moment!

  16. Great blog, by the way.
    Bipolar (Manic-Depression) run rampant in both sides of my family, and if not that disorder, then one similar (depression, addiction, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, ADD, etc…). It’s nice to see someone out there in the public eye telling others about life with a mental illness (or two). Hope to see more of your writings.

  17. I loved your writings!

  18. Your writing is great… but what you’re saying is oh so much more important, however you write it. Sometimes I think people forget to listen, to just be there.

    I’m bipolar, but have been an expert at hiding it for most of my life; from myself and my family, but when I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer and all my madness was laid bare for my loved ones to discover, I was so ashamed because my whole adult life was one lie after another and I’d been found out. I didn’t want to believe the truth and I sure as hell didn’t want anyone else to know it either.

    Being hospitalized and mentally ill in the States is a different experience then what I’ve read about in other parts of the world. Maybe it is because I am in Northern California, but I don’t think there is the stigma here that I’m sure adds to the level of stress and shame.

    My friend and I are able to joke about our mental health trauma drama, but recently I had to be there for her through her suicide attempts and it was so difficult knowing what to say or do. I just kept her talking until her husband could arrive home for her and their children. I told her there’s no shame in getting help when it’s needed, and it was time to go visit the “crazy girl’s spa”. She did finally agree and asked for me to tell her husband. She feared his “look” more than anything else. We all know that look that our loved ones have when we are beyond the normal realm of our craziness. Just the fear of that “look” was keeping my friend from asking for help while she was trying to overdose while her young girls watched a movie in the other room. She made me promise not to call 911, and I couldn’t rationalize with her that it would be less traumatic to her girls to have an ambulance drive up to get their mother than to find her dead and foaming at the mouth. She thinks they would be better off and she is worried that her girls will end up being bipolar also. SO in the midst of her darkness, she had that twisted rationalization that every one would be better without her, all I could do was keep her talking, talking, talking, about anything and everything. She probably won’t be able to remember any of our conversations, but I know that she is alive and in a hospital right now, so there’s that.

    There is a point where you know that rationalizing with a mentally ill person in the midst of their madness does no good. I think just being there and listening has to be enough sometimes. I think that is why this blog is so amazing, because it is brutally honest besides for being incredibly well written. Even if you can connect with one other person out there that understands, it can save your life.

  19. […] the excellent blog The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive because the author is so damn perceptive. Here she publishes two pieces that weren’t originally intended as blog entries. In the first, she […]

  20. and was then gently dropped from my A-level courses with the humiliating declaration that my “mental health was more important than my education”

    Fuck, you are me! For me it was humiliating and utterly rage-making because – as I only properly realised years later when I was finally able to process the fact properly – they were writing me off without attempting to give any real help, and had been doing so for two years (conveniently, despite me being quite batshit since starting there, the only time they asked me to see a doctor was about two weeks before they kicked me out – and I did so thinking, as they’d told me, that they’d give me a second chance if I did. Ah – yeah right.)

    One day – not sure when, but one day – I’m pulling everything together and approaching Young Minds to press them to run a serious campaign and schools and colleges to help under-19s with obvious mental health problems. Not just call ’em someone else’s problem or remain ignorant of the signs of mental illness in the first place. And the world will get slightly, oh-so-slightly better.

    • (don’t know why there’s an ‘and’ instead of a ‘to’ in ‘serious campaign…schools and colleges’, sorry)

  21. I did the university thing at fifty five. MSc in IT management FFS. (Peice of piss, keep your head down, don’t miss too many classes, do the assignments early (just in case) = certain pass). Been bugger all use to me since.

    Some 14 year old lecturer asked ” Anyone remember shopping in supermarkets before scanners?” was answered with “I remember shopping before bloody supermarkets!” Tutors are seriously discomforted by anyone with significant life experience (that includes you BTW), it’s the one thing they all lack.

    You have time girl, yes, you have. But make your own mind up as to whether you want to. As distinct from need too. AND what you want to do, don’t do it because it will be useful, do it because you CAN’T NOT do it. (And if you do IT Management you can have my assignments, free gratis and for nothing, it will be bugger all use to you too!)

    I wish you all the things that you wish for yourself on your best days. The rest can take a FF.


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