An introduction to my own mental health experience. Although I hope you enjoy my LEJoG blog, you don’t need to walk all (at the time of writing) 809 miles in my shoes. Just this one mile is all I ask…
There’s no way for this not to come across as defensive, but I feel it needs saying anyway. I want to address two possible accusations before I start.
I think all of us who have experienced mental health problems realise that our issues can be perceived as self-indulgent. That they don’t compare to something like serious or terminal illness, or the loss of a spouse or child. And that may well be correct. The effects can be devastating, for example if mental illness leads to suicide. In my case I’m talking about a lost decade. But, luckily, no-one died.
The thing is, I suspect the greater proportion of sufferers are more sensitive than average. And therefore more likely to feel guilt and anguish about such “self-indulgence”, or the effect of depressive illness on those around them. It just adds to the shame and compounds the misery. As a recent tweet put it “crippling depression robs you of your ability to help others and you’re painfully aware of how solipsistic it makes you.” Furthermore, to suffer a severe mental health problem grants you absolutely zero immunity from serious physical illness and disease. Those ravages and tragedies might come for any of us one day.
All I’m saying is that my life – and that of many others – has already been muted, distorted or almost ruined by the effects of mental illness. You then have to accept that you’re going to die anyway, and that a fair proportion of us will suffer along the way. It is difficult to reconcile this fate with the abiding knowledge that even your biologically healthy years were blighted by something beyond your power, control or understanding.
However it may read, please bear in mind that nothing in the ‘Head’ section of the blog is self-pitying. It actually springs from deep anguish, emotional pain and inwardly-directed anger. There is no good reason to pity myself, either for issues I had before my illness, or for what happened afterwards. I still regard, and always have regarded, myself as a very fortunate man (you will see the word “blessed” in H3 for example).
I am aware that, unfortunately, some of my behaviour could be construed as self-pitying. It may have been a fair accusation at times before my illness, and that was due to a warped view of my place in the world. It has taken this shock, and years of self-analysis, to understand the reasons for that distortion. I don’t think it’s a fair accusation now; indeed a lot of my anger and anguish comes from wishing the younger man hadn’t spent so much time looking inward.
Finally, I don’t want anyone else’s fucking pity either. Don’t ever waste it on me, whatever I write here.
My mental health experience
It really is difficult to know where to start with this. For the ‘Foot’ blog it’s easy: Land’s End. But for ‘Head’? Where does a mental health journey begin?
- With the actual breakdown?
- The trigger factors in the year of the breakdown?
- Longer term factors in adulthood?
- My childhood?
- The history of mental illness on my biological father’s side of the family?
I also have to weigh up how much I wish to reveal here and how much I wish to remain personal. And my answer to that might change as the blog progresses. So this will be nothing more than an introduction.
My chosen approach is to use some of the material from H1: Walk A Mile In Their Shoes to illustrate my own experiences. Subsequent posts will elaborate on many different facets of the (cough) “journey”.
So first of all, the “moment that changed me”:
On 25th February in the year of my breakdown I received the following text message after devising and presenting a hugely successful event for my department at work:
“You were a star tonight. You have a special gift for making people feel happy and you did it to a whole department. And [insert dull profession here] at that!”
On 16th December the same man sent me a long text message quoting Marianne Williamson’s A Return To Love (see link). That day my mind was collapsing in front of my family. I can’t remember the exact timeline and don’t know whether he knew I was ill when he sent it. I certainly remember him being on the phone to my mother and her telling him I was not well. Years later I framed the full quote on my living room wall. His text left out the references to God, which strikes me as uncanny (see below).
I have never seen or heard from this man since. He was a genuinely good guy and a wonderful friend that year, and I miss him. I happen to know he’s now very successful and an exceptional role model. He was right about pretty much everything.
On 17th December I experienced an extraordinarily vivid day-long episode during which I genuinely believed God was about to strike me down. A sin I could not articulate, just as the anonymous writer (H1, article 6) put it. I was visited by a mental health crisis team and later admitted to a psychiatric ward under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Subsequently I was diagnosed with “acute polymorphic psychotic disorder without symptoms of schizophrenia”. It’s a real thing.
It does change you. Immediately and profoundly. It feels like there is simply no coming back. Ever. You know how Mark Renton describes heroin in Trainspotting?
“Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it.”
Well, if you’ve never experienced a psychotic episode and the overwhelming emptiness and self-reproach that follows, I would say this. Take the worst, most ashamed and disgusted you’ve ever felt about yourself, multiply it by 1,000 and you’re still not even close.
And while I’d excelled academically and had a blue-chip job, on a psychiatric ward you’re absolutely nothing. In fact, even once you’re off the ward, you’re not the same person. There is no cushion for the child of a working class family. There is nothing but the fathomless horror of knowing you had all this going for you and you still followed your father and paternal grandfather into mental illness. You’ve fallen, hard, and you don’t stop falling.
Hannah Jane Parkinson says you can’t talk about inpatient wards authentically unless you’ve been there. The early days in particular were the worst of my life. Such was my self-disgust I stopped washing and dressing. I felt like other patients were out to get me. One time they seemed on the brink of a riot, kicking walls and behaving like they wanted to hurt me. Like Sophie Reilly I thought I was the “anti-Christ” and other people seemed to know. Someone shouted “choke the prick in his sleep” and I was sure they meant me. I said I wanted to leave and a nurse said there was no way out “especially not for you.”
A middle-aged female patient called me “spidereyes” and a “fucking ugly dog”. She referred to my stepdad as “Tom Jones” and called my mother a “fucking whore”. I had visions of visiting family and friends being taken away on meathooks for cooking. I thought one Christian friend was in particular danger and told her she should go home for her own protection. A year later, when sectioned for the second time, I recall pissing myself in the corner of a room. Another patient said I wanted my head kicked in. Also a small gang of patients held me down and threatened to cut off my eyebrows.
For someone who, like the person who wrote article 6 on post H1, was “silent and shy” it was apocalyptic. Everything felt real and logical, even if when you write it down in black and white many years later it seems deluded and disturbing. And even when released, these things were stains on your soul that were more recent, and therefore more powerful, than all the good you’d ever been and done.
After the ward is when depression really set in. I believe that my psychotic episode did stem from deep depression and a sense of powerlessness. But that was infinitesimal compared to the depression and powerlessness that takes over when you confront the terrible everyday reality. A new reality of diagnosis, personal failure, lack of work, Olanzapine and weight gain, terror, guilt, shame, self-disgust, self-hatred, loss of friendships. Like Tim Lott says, it’s an “implosion of the self”, in which you cannot snap out of it or conjure your original personality. But on a scale hitherto inconceivable.
I’d been sad enough to seek counselling, like Sachin Nakrani, on two occasions in my past. But now that seemed trivial. This was a total loss of identity, confidence about the future obliterated. And, as you see how it affects the people who have to deal with you, the guilt kicks in as well. As Pete Cashmore writes, depression also thrives on solitude. I was off work for four years and very rarely saw friends in that time. Being able to travel around Europe by train for three months (two and a half years after my first episode) was the best cure. Yet in the year between that and returning to work I still found self-acceptance very difficult.
This is a big deal. To be brutally honest, it’s something I suffered from before my breakdown. I’d internalised a lot of negativity about my shyness and often found it hard to believe that people liked me as much as they did. I sometimes wonder if I had undiagnosed depression for much of my teenage and adult life, as I was frequently inhibited by unhelpful mental processes. That text message at the top of the page is a good example. I’d know what I’d done to earn such a warm compliment. But I’d struggle to turn that into real confidence that could get me what I truly wanted from life.
Self-stigma after psychosis and chronic depression, though, is a literally unbearable burden. Like Hannah Jane Parkinson, you know for a fact you haven’t achieved what you could’ve done as a result of this. In your darkest moments you feel you’re not just playing catch-up but that you never can. Your support network is torn to pieces. Some friends, who you expected to be your closest in despair, are gone. In one case, our entire friendship of 13 years and 6 months could now fit into the time which has elapsed since I last saw him.
And you berate yourself for things you said and did when your mind was clearly seriously disturbed, and wonder if that’s why you’ve never been forgiven. This is an extreme version of Sachin Nakrani’s sadness. He says that being grown up can be “boring”, but because of my father all I ever really wanted was a family of my own. It would be enough for me even if I didn’t see friends as often as I’d like. It would certainly be preferable to my life after psychosis, put it that way.
Even after full recovery I’ve walked around thinking I wouldn’t want to inflict myself and this history on someone. I have avoided potential relationships (or even just one night stands) because of it.
Eventually you do start counting them again. Let’s look at some of the points made in H1, piece by piece, and see what I have to be thankful for.
1 (HJP) & 7 (SR): I’ve only had two episodes, although they both resulted in sections: one month for the first, three months for the second. No police have ever been involved. I don’t feel like I have to wear the label – it’s historic rather than current. Although the long-term effects have been profound and inescapable, I have not had a relapse. I am lucky enough not to look at long-term patients and dread becoming like them.
2 (TBC): as the writer says, people who’ve been through this kind of distress and emerged from the other side can be stronger and able to see how vulnerable we all are.
4 (PC), 7 (SR), 8 (AB): I’m still here. I didn’t take my own life. I don’t believe I ever will, as I know my family would never recover from it. Sometimes I do have dark thoughts, even after 18 months or so in which I’ve felt my best for fourteen years. But I always come round to thinking that I still have the optimism and power to be happy again (see H3).
4 (PC), 7 (SR): In creating this section of the blog, I have tried to face what happened head on, not bottle it up. Though still embarrassed by and ashamed of what happened, I have to acknowledge and accept it as part of my life. I don’t feel comfortable admitting everything, but I hope my willingness to be vulnerable helps someone else who may come across this blog. I remain a person with “family, loves, cares and desires”.
8 (AB): Following on from the above, I try to be proud of my own atypical masculine traits of vulnerability and tenderness. I know they come from my mother and the circumstances of my upbringing and I know she would want me to be proud of them. However there’s no doubt that they’ve hurt me in the past, when combined with a fear of hostility, confrontation or envy, or awkwardness expressing my own more typically masculine feelings.
As for her father “not [being] defined by his ending”, see H4.
Of all* the linked articles in H1, it’s the Tony Slattery piece (no.9) which most resonates with me. What he alludes to near the end has never happened to me: I’d like to make that clear to begin with. However there is some deep-seated psychological trauma, related to my father, which I have never completely buried. And there’s a hidden rage and repressed anger about not having been able to do so. It’s a very large part of the reason why I find it impossible to accept that I became like him. Not in the way I wanted to, that is, to become a father and be a better man. But in the way I least wanted to, most dreaded, found most inconceivable: to be mentally ill, depressed and out of work.
So as Hadley Freeman writes, it is “hard not to measure the distance between what is, what was and what should have been.” This is why I started with the quote from the friend’s text message. There was huge love and potential there, and yet still the worst happened instead of the best. It was by no means the only wonderful thing said to me in the year of my breakdown. I could reel them off, but this isn’t the place.
Slattery describes laughter and applause as “two of the most addictive substances known to mankind.” I’ve never been in the Footlights or on television, of course. But I’ve made people laugh, sometimes till they cry. And I’ve been applauded for public speeches and events such as the one I started this post by recalling. On a smaller scale, I know of what he speaks. I really do miss being that person.
There should have been no stopping me. My grandad certainly thinks so, and so he’s perhaps the most hurt and confused by the sadness which encompassed me instead. Slattery “collapsed physically and mentally”. Disregarding my physical symptoms (which came later), at the time of my breakdown I collapsed mentally and spiritually. Three days before I was sectioned, it became clear that I couldn’t control my mind any more. I felt like I was about to die of a brain haemorrhage. What actually happened was that I grabbed my head and fell to the floor in Timpson’s key repair shop in Birmingham, making an incoherent, jumbled, babbling noise. A few seconds later I was shocked to still be alive. The first thing I said when I realised I was still here was “like a dog, no soul.”
My mother’s beloved pet dog had died three days earlier. For years, I had starved my own soul of what it wanted. All due to fear of disappointing or hurting people, or having to deal with the envy or hostility of others.
I didn’t believe in God before this happened. I didn’t even really believe in the concept of a soul. However my diary reveals that I used the term often, particularly in reference to it “craving” a certain person.
This may be the most fundamental change resulting from my illness. The only way I’ve ever been able to rationalise my experience is as a warning. A warning of what happens when you neglect and abuse your own soul over a long period of time. The next post picks up where this one is about to leave off, and begins with references to heaven and hell. I’m not religious, even now, but that is not a coincidence.
*I wrote this after linking the first 10 articles, so this does not include anything from no.11 onwards.
The picture? Yes it’s literally my walking shoes – Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX, 2019 vintage, size 12.5. I walked every mile after Edale in these. The picture was taken on 27 October 2019, which happens to be the first anniversary of the Castleton weekend (days 38 and 39 of LEJoG).