On Sunday, 13th June, I attended a Books by the Beach Festival Event at the YMCA Theatre, Scarborough to hear Horatio Clare discussing his brave memoir about mental illness ‘Heavy Light’. The former Head of BBC Radio, Helen Boaden (the Festival’s Patriot) led the discussion and it was interesting that the repertoire and mutual respect between the two was tangible. They were relaxed in each other’s company and the audience warmed to the speakers almost immediately and felt very much part of the story Horatio had to tell.
Well, at least I did.
Horatio is a well-known travel writer and, diagnosed with bi-polar, this personal memoir tells of his journey through madness, mania and healing in a deeply moving and powerful narrative. Following readers’ reactions to his book, he is determined to campaign towards improved care for mental health patients through Open Dialogue.
‘Open Dialogue is a model of mental health care which involves a consistent family and social network approach where all treatment is carried out via whole system/network meetings, which always include the patient.’
‘But the star by which it steers is, in the end and above all, love.’ (Robert Macfarlane’s Review of Heavy Light by Horatio Clare).
On a personal note, I could relate to much of what Horatio discussed at the event on the subject of mental illness due to my family’s background of mental health issues and, not least, my mother’s struggles with the periodical ‘treatments’ of electric shock therapy in the late 1960s when I was in my early to mid teens. Each time she returned home from a session there would be part of her missing because the treatment was used to block out that part of her brain where her traumatic memories were preventing her becoming well. (It didn’t work by the way.)
During the long period of my mother’s incapacity, it fell on myself and my younger sister to take care of the household chores of cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking and caring for our younger siblings whilst my step-father worked long hours. We simply accepted it as being ‘normal’ and thought it was how every family lived. My ongoing memoir-in-very-long-progress addresses this to some extent throughout its storyline.
Last June, I had the misfortune of suffering a breakdown into psychosis with paranoia which, fortunately, became so evident that my husband intervened and contacted my GP for a consultation where I was able to receive the immediate help I needed. Following on from this initial treatment, various professionals enabled me to take the necessary steps towards recovery from what had triggered the episode. The experience was quite frightening because of the speed in which the illness took over my mind and debilitated me in every aspect of my life, both physically and mentally. At the forefront of my irrational thinking was the fact that I have a strong family history of Schizophrenia and I felt that’s where I was headed.
Thankfully, it was not as serious as that (though it was serious enough) and I recovered gradually to the place I’m at now through the invaluable support of temporary medication, professionals, a partner who loves me and a few close family members and friends.
I know this will continue to be a battle for me throughout my life as I have been dogged by depressive episodes since my teens, though I do manage those quite well (and without medication) through closing myself off from the world until it passes with the help of my journal writing practice. This technique did not work for the psychosis with paranoia but that’s how it was. My mind and body can now recognize the signs and symptoms when changes in my behaviour are leading me into a psychotic episode and I am more aware of these and therefore able to prevent it building up to the point of no return through the practice of various techniques I learnt during my recovery.
I agree with the statement by Robert Macfarlane about love being the steering star to recovery and feel this also applies to my experience because without the love of my husband, family and close friends, I would not have made it back.
When I was well enough, I revived several activities I had been a part of prior to my ‘absence’ and wrote the following short piece. It was in response to a call-out by the Scarborough Writers’ Circle (where I am a member) about thought-provoking shortages during the pandemic. It barely skims the surface of my gratitude.
THOUGHT PROVOKING SHORTAGES
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Life is short. It’s a fact. A fact that dominates my thoughts on a regular basis. Thus, I squeeze every last drop out of myself each day to achieve my goals.
That was until I suffered a psychotic breakdown towards the end of June (2020).
Almost instantly, the things that I felt needed completing each day were not important. All I could focus on was finding my way back to becoming ‘me’ again.
My recovery process helped me to appreciate and respect time by spending it wisely, being present in each moment, noticing the little things, enjoying the beauty of the world around me. Simply being still filled me, and keeps on filling me, with the joy of deep peace.
Being completely incapacitated for eight weeks enabled me to discover who I really am… and recognise who my true friends are.
They are the people in my life who offered a listening ear, posted encouraging notes through my door, made phone calls to check how I was, accompanied me on short walks as I began to find my feet again… and those who respected my request for privacy to allow me the space and time I needed to recover.
With these people in my life I have everything I need to survive.
I still cannot bring myself to talk or write directly about what happened to me though I have scattered several incidents from the experience within various short stories. I am currently collating these fanciful tales into a fictional collection that alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with all its connotations regarding mental health, which I am hoping to publish by the end of July.
It is important that anyone suffering symptoms of any form of mental illness seeks help and support from professionals. For me, where I’m at right now, writing about the experience is on a par with talking about it and I do feel a little lighter for having shared this blog today.
Thank you for listening.
With love for the journey,
Skimming the surface of life with poetic journaling