When I was 22 in 1989, I had a job restoring Old Master Paintings, I was in love with the man I worked for and life, on the surface at least, was good. On my return to London after a trip to India, I discovered that he wanted to end our relationship, and was seeing someone else.
I was devastated. I began to experience a great deal of anxiety, which turned into deep depression, leading to an attempt to end my life. Before this, like most, when I heard about suicide I felt for their loved ones. What a selfish act. How could they take ‘the easy way out’ and leave behind such a terrible mess of guilt and grief?
To experience this personal apocalypse is to never again judge the suicidal. Easy way out? Selfish? No. The will to live exists somewhere in selfish. All there is is pain. Real physical pain from the stress of feeling this way, and indescribable emotional pain. Thankfully, I came out of that depression and after some travel, returned to London the morning after the Marchioness tragedy.
Helicopters were flying over the houseboat where I lived, and the river we loved had turned into that cold, dark, watery grave for so many, out celebrating the birthday of a highly talented young guy. Having escaped death at my own hand, this terrible loss of life so close to home tipped the balance. From being so recently as low as it’s possible to go, my mind took flight.
My family was informed, doctors became involved, and I was forcibly removed from the boat, bundled into a police car, then cell, then acute ward. After a bid for fresh air, I was pinned down, my trousers ripped and roughly lowered in front of a mixed ward. I was injected in the backside with an extremely powerful and dangerous anti-psychotic tranquiliser, bumped up the stairs and left in a tiny room with a locked window and no toilet.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I suffered terribly with the side-effects of medication; the tardive dyskinesia, which is extremely distressing, both to experience and witness; short-term memory loss; splitting lips; lactation; sensitivity to sunshine; you name it, I had it.
Initially, I could accept lithium as a mood stabiliser after discharge; but its side-effects weren’t great either: the shakes; the horrible metallic taste; the weight gain; the fact it could damage my thyroid gland; the extreme fatigue; the sapping of my creativity; my inability to read. Suddenly, it seemed that everything I needed not just to feel good, but to be me, was prohibited. Whose sort of health is that? When I asked how long I would have to take it, I was told, ‘Maybe for life.’
I didn’t believe in my diagnosis; I knew there was nothing inherently wrong with me, but there were things wrong with my life, and that could change. After a year or so, I threw my pills away. I read everything I could about diet: the impact of essential fatty acids on the brain and about other supplements that could help me; how I could try to stabilise my hormones, and that exercise was vital. I got a dog and walking him every day was unbelievably therapeutic. The only time I experienced severe depression again was recently, when facing cancer treatment; the very idea of toxic medication and medical treatment re-opening those old wounds.
When I left hospital after four months, I looked back on the ward, feeling sad to be leaving my fellow patients. I cared about them and wanted to tell their stories. And although I felt desperately ashamed about it, I also wanted to tell mine. Writing House of Bread was narrative therapy for me, and incredibly healing. It also helped make my experience more understandable for my family and friends
Why can’t you have a bipolar episode, then move on? Instead, you are bipolar. Labels might be useful in a society that stigmatises the emotional distress that leads to behavioural disturbance, but they can inhibit personal development and damage self-esteem, while their treatment seriously damages physical health. I believe we need to challenge these limiting diagnoses. Those wishing to come off medication should have the option of doing so, under a range of therapists, offering psychological, physical, emotional and nutritional care and advice, tailored to the individual, with time spent healing a human life out of balance – not its symptoms.
What would I say to someone who has just been sectioned, maybe clinically depressed or experiencing a psychosis as the mind flees its pain? That life can change, and they can become the people they want to be. That they are worth loving. That the world we live in isn’t always sane: neither are we, and that’s OK.
First published in the Huffington Post here