My dad died six years ago, at the age of 47. If you want to know how that happened, you can read this post.
Ah, he would have found it funny.
I hate this time of year. Father’s Day often used to fall on my dad’s birthday and I would be so grumpy I’d have to buy him two lots of stuff for one day. How I wish I could do that now! I am stupidly jealous of people who still have their dads, and more jealous still of the ones who don’t but whose dads led wonderful lives, and of whom they have brilliant stories to tell about. My dad led a pretty awful life. Five children weren’t enough to make him want to live. When someone’s life is as sad and terrible as his, you don’t think they’ll die- they will of course, have their breaking point and turn it all around. Live to be an old man, to see his children grow and get married. I had this image of him in a chair with our children on his leg, letting them fall, fall towards the floor…then jook! He jiggles his knee and they fly up again, like he did with us when we were children. A man of savage potential, of natural intelligence, deserved a better life than he had. Sometimes it is hard to accept you were part of that life, and could not save it.
But he died anyway. And he’s not here, and I will be having my wedding day without him. As will my siblings. Sometimes that thought floors me. All we have now is memory and we have to search pretty hard for the good ones. The bad ones are the ones that make me wake up at 3am sometimes, images and vignettes I have to squeeze away, rub my eyes and look around, touch something real and present and soft. I find it hard not to be bitter sometimes. But they are there, small and fading, taken out and hugged so often they are frayed at the edges, and distorted due to my mum but still there. Such as:
(Long pause as I try to remember)
I remember my communion day, when I didn’t know whether to give him a hug or kiss or something. He kissed me on the cheek- very dry and stubbly- and said he didn’t do it a lot. He didn’t, and he looked awkward and shy and very sweet and proud.
Toasted toppers on a Sunday
The time when mummy was in hospital and he didn’t drink for a week. He made us go to school and made dinner every night- with white bread on the table, all buttered, and sweet tea for each of us.
Kicking open my door when I was watching a documentary on Kate Bush and bellowing the lyrics to, “Babooshka” before shutting the door again and laughing.
Telling people in work that I was, “on TV” when I got letters printed on Teletext! And his unfortunate finding of me on Google and ringing me, addressing me as, “little miss Clara” before howling with laughter and passing the phone to my mum. Scundered.
Taking us to work and playing with the frequency machine so our ears would split open when we annoyed him. Or for a laugh.
His often, “THAT’S NOT REAL MUSIC” when I listened to Manics (he often conflated their name to show his disgust). Listening to David Bowie with him. Watching comedy with him. His insistence that David Sherlock didn’t deserve a boyfriend as beautiful as Graham Chapman.
Coming downstairs in the middle of night and seeing him with the dog he professed to hate under his legs, being petted.
That the Muppets Christmas Carol was one of his favourite films, which he’d watch in July.
The memory of him, when I was 12, in a black dress with a white stripe down the side, getting ready to go to America for 6 weeks (it was a disaster). He told me I looked like a woman and his eyes filled.
BUT THE POINT IS…
the point is…
More than the memory remaining of my father is his children. My siblings and I are in his image. Not just his eyes and chin, and shortness and one sticky-out ear. Fundamental things about us we have inherited from our flawed and funny father. Our sense of humour, our resilience and compassion (even though it was a compassion borne out of witnessing suffering, of our own suffering. But you understand and accept an awful lot about people when you grow up like we did), our left-wing politics, our love of reading (he started us very early, and would take us to the library and leave us there with books while he did the shopping), of learning and of questioning. He taught us to teach ourselves and would give us the tools to do it. My enduring love of seeing how things work, of, as I call it, “fucking around”, came from the chemistry sets he nicked from school for us to play with. He is partly responsible for the many computers I’ve pulled apart and looked inside, of my fascinations with medications and trickery and how the body works, of being a bit of a smart arse know it all who likes to teach people things. He’d bring us home pencil cases full of pens and blocks of paper to write and draw on. More than anybody else in my life, my dad encouraged me to be a writer and completely believed that I could be. I am proud of the people my siblings and I have become, when we could have become broken people lost to bitterness and pain. And we haven’t. I have never met anyone as compassionate and strong as my siblings. I am incredibly proud of my family. I hope he would have been of us, too.
So, thank you, daddy. I love you, we all do, you silly bastard. Oíche mhaith.
What is it about psychiatrists which make you a) forget half your own history and b) turn you into a nervous wreck? I have a substantially different view of psychiatrists now due to my work. Whereas before they were something akin to gods floating richly on massive clouds formed out of all my psychic shortcomings, now, having sat and had tea with them, shared my biscuits with them, having had them ask me my opinions on stuff and tell me stories from their childhood, they are FUCK ME! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?! people. Same goes for psychologists, one in particular who was incredibly funny and humane, and who likes Care Bears more than is really sane.
Still. Yesterday I had an appointment with THE CONSULTANT whom I’d never met before. And two extremely charming medical students who were asking me questions that made me smile. I watched the busy little hamster in their brain, run, RUN! hamster, going down their imaginary assessment checklist… “We have to ask everyone this- any illicit drug use?” I smiled because I have assessed patients and recognise the minute long silence and scrunched up face of trying to remember what comes next. Still- nervous I. Patient I, and unused to being a patient now. I picked my cold sore while I was there and got blood on my fingertip. I did it out of habit and nerves (god, I love picking scabs) but know it will be written down as (because, c’mon, I would have done the same) as, “interfering with healing”.
He asked me how many times I had been with the crisis team (about 4, I think) and I completely forgot the massive 2008 overdose. It wasn’t a deliberate omission, it was four years ago and it was in a headspace I can barely relate to. I hope nobody thinks I didn’t mention it on purpose or was trying to hide it- it was a big thing to me then, but I don’t really think about it now.
They asked me about my family history of mental illness (AHAHAHAHAHA) and how I was doing at uni. I said I found it stressful and my sleep it out of whack due to shift-working but I am managing and doing well (I am- I got 80% in my last essay and have had glowing reports on placement).
Anyway, he agreed with me that I don’t need to be on a long-term antipsychotic, particularly on a dose that basically helps me sleep. It is not a sleeping pill, and the health risks that I already suffer from are too great to use it as such. So the plan is, I’m almost finished uni so this is a good time to stop taking it. Cut it down by 25mg at a time for a few weeks at a time until I get to 0. I am worried about not being able to sleep. They asked me a lot about my sleep and I didn’t articulate properly why I have trouble sleeping. I don’t have insomnia- it’s not lying awake. It is partly not having medication which means I can’t sleep, but it is largely that I do not get sleepy at the same rate as most people. I can quite easily knock out 24 hours awake as my natural way. It’s just the way I am, I like being awake and doing stuff so getting natural sleep is tricky- my naturally sleepy self is out of whack, and medication enforces sleep. But we’ll see.
Lamotrogrine is being hoiked up gradually to 200mg and I have been advised to keep an emergency stash of Seroquel in the house for manic stuff, which I always intended to, it does the job.
So, it was quite a positive meeting. I am kicking myself for stuff I didn’t say, but that’s the way of nervous appointments, especially when you haven’t had one in 18 months. They said they don’t need to see me again (hooray!) but will keep me open so if I have any trouble or get unwell, I don’t need to be re-referred and can be seen quickly. I’m glad they don’t want to see me again as I was a bit concerned they would try to. I don’t need CMHT input, just advice.
So hopefully getting off the life-vampire-yet-helpful-Seroquel will go smoothly, and I’m glad I have some support. As I left they said good luck with the wedding, and I bloody need it. We have approximately bugger all organised.
Well, this is the end…almost, anyway. In around two months (I am still on placement, and this entry is an eyebrow raising procrastinating from essays distracting itch) I will no longer be a first year mental health nursing student. So, what have I learned? Here it is in handy bullet point form.
1) I no longer believe in the medical model.
Some of you have been reading this blog since the very beginning. That was, holy shit, 2007! In 2007, I was a faintly dogmatic twenty one year old who had been newly diagnosed as a mental. Before I started writing this blog, I had been flip-flopping wildly in terms of where I stood on mental illness. Eventually, I swallowed the medical model whole. I believed I had an illness, I needed medication, and anyone who argued with me on that point got their head snapped off. Now, it’s by the by that I rarely ever took that medication. But my beliefs were firmly in the camp that bipolar disorder was a chemical imbalance that had nothing to do with me, and woe betide anyone who disagreed with me on that.
As time has progressed, my views have changed considerably. The point where I started to recover from mental illness was the same point in which I accepted that maybe I was not a passive victim of my illness and that just maybe there were a couple of things I could do meself to help. I stopped seeing medication as the cure and started seeing it has a helpful aside. (Albeit a very helpful one indeed- I do still take medication, almost seven years later).
This back and forth is natural. You get sick, have to enter the sick role, but as a mentally ill person you can’t keep up your side of the bargain. You don’t want to recover as soon as possible because sometimes you don’t understand or accept you have anything to recover from. You can’t just swallow the pills and- gulp, what an awful word it is- comply because the pills in themselves throw up a whole shebang of shit that is almost worse than the illness itself. And taking pills at all is a tacit agreement that you have a problem, one which I was so very resistant to.
Being so entrenched in the medical model of illness means that I ignored a lot of the things that were not helping me. I buried my grievances and grief, I repackaged them under, “mental illness” and not human experience, I replaced my language with their language, I buried all suggestion that I had some sort of control over my illness. I didn’t believe in sleep hygiene or the fact that stress sends me doolally and perhaps I needed to have a handle on that. I didn’t believe or accept those things to begin with because my illness had led to be places so exquisitely painful and destructive that I simply could not face those things at the time. Had I, from the onset, accepted those things, I would have collapsed under the weight of the terrible guilt and shame that still assails me as I fall asleep even to this day. But knowing these things helps me to minimise the damage this illness does in my life now. In that, these days, it does very little because I am aware that taking medication is not the end of the story. Not by half.
So as a student nurse, this is the attitude I have towards my patients. Not in the slightest against medication, but aware that there are a host of factors that are not medical that can make someone’s experience of their illness worse (or better). That a failure is not a failure of medication, nor the patient, but a failure of us in not understanding, not seeing someone as a person but as a disease to be medicated and cured. I no longer believe that. So on that note…
2) I don’t want to be a nurse.
Sadly, this is what this year has taught me above all else. I do not want to be a nurse. I want to work with people who have mental health problems but I am not comfortable giving people medication in acute settings and I am not comfortable in general with the paternalistic nature of psychiatry. But never fear- I am using my degree as a means to an end. I want to go down the graduate psychotherapy training route. Hopefully. One day. And maybe have enough time to write, which I don’t now.
3) Shifts kill me.
I am, at this point in time, dissolving into dust particles from exhaustion. My shifts are: 7.15-3.15 and 1.30-9.30. Now, one of these shifts all week would be good. But nope, I do them both, and it’s going to get worse because next year, I’m doing nights.
It is absolutely messing with my head. On late-earlies, I cannot take medication because I WILL sleep in. It takes me a long time to wind down after a shift so right now I am mostly operating on about 4 hours sleep a day, if I sleep at all, and it’s showing. I am not entirely sure that I will be able to manage another two years of this. It’s partly the reason why I want to go into therapy- more regular hours. Shifts are categorically bad for my mental health and it’s a big pile of bollocks. (This is also partly why I don’t want to be a nurse. I genuinely can’t do the shifts, I am breaking).
4) The shitty attitudes towards personality disorders in the system? It’s true.
Sorry. But it’s not true of everyone, if that helps. Or of me, either.
5) I love the patients and I love mental health.
I thought I’d be bored by now of talking about or thinking about mental health, but I’m not. It is still the most fascinating thing in the entire world and I could talk about it all day. It is definitely my area of interest in life- not just from a personal perspective but from an academic one. Hooray for mental health!
I also love working with patients. My biggest issue in this regard is that I still identify more with patients than with the profession, but I’m a first year, and I expect this to change. But I do find it incredibly rewarding speaking to patients, helping out, even if it’s just doing something small and silly.
6) Anyone who thinks nursing is a, “soft” degree needs to go fuck themselves right in the face.
I worked full-time this week in a place so busy that I genuinely have blisters on my feet. I do insane shifts on no sleep and spend my days being constantly scrutinised by patients and professionals alike. One thoughtless word can land me in the shit or upset a patient. When I’m finished work on no sleep I come home to do one of my two 3000 word essays due in 3 weeks. The essays are not titled, “Cuddly Wuddly Nursing Woo Woo” and, “How to Wipe Arses”- they are, “Social sciences”, so I am writing a patient narrative and linking it to sociological theory like that of Goffman, Parsons, Marx, etc, and, “Professional Values, Ethics and Law” in which I discuss a case study from ethical, professional and law perspectives. Also, we get four weeks off. Two, if you’ve failed your essays.
7) Some people are really fecking stupid about self harm.
On this placement, I have had to confront my biggest horror- wearing my sleeves up in public. I’ve written about this many times before, but for infection control reasons, I have no choice. So far, two people (not patients), have grabbed my arms and shouted, “OH MY GOD, WHAT’S THAT?!” I don’t think there was any ill-meaning in that, but I am flabbergasted anyone thinks it’s okay to grab a body part and exclaim in such a way. I find it intensely stressful wearing short sleeves but on the plus side, walking down the street with my arms out is no longer frightening to me because it can’t get much worse than the context I’m in.
Seriously though. Silly buggers.
I am moaning a lot about my course at the moment because I am very acutely feeling the pressure I am under. Shifts are really fucking with my head, and I am struggling. I am getting married and I am going to have a family to support- I have to qualify in order to earn some money to do that. Due to being in the wilderness for so many years, I have no qualifications and no other options. I could write, if anyone actually wanted me to write for them, but right now that isn’t paying and I am mercenary. If (well, when) I lose my DLA when I am transferred to PIP, it is most likely game over for me- it is literally the only way I am financially surviving this course. Ah well.
Some of the moaning here may also be first year blues! HURRY UP AND BE OVER SO I CAN ACTUALLY PLAN MY FECKING WEDDING!
Now back to essays. I’m, “working” tomorrow, i.e going to placement for the princely sum of £477 a month to live on! Yay!