Here are some short pieces I wrote a while back around intended publication of my book. Hope they are of interest. Xx
Blog draft bits and pieces (late 2012/early 2013)
[nb there’s also one about checking my considerable white cishet middleclass privilege which I seem to have mislaid. Oh shit. So done freestyle at the end]
Intro and invitation
Do you have an embarrassing mental health story that you’d like to share with the world (or at least with the 3 people who might read this blog)? Is it as embarrassing as mine, or worse? Be a guest blogger by emailing me. I can’t guarantee I will put your post up but we can exchange emails, tweets, or skype.
The Social Model of Disability [link]
I am a disabled person, in the social model sense, whereby ‘disabled’ is used as a verb. But also in the sense that my judgement and cognition are or have both been impaired, and there are some things that society can’t get around that easily. I suppose. But it can still honour my FREDA: Freedom, Respect, Equality, Dignity, Autonomy; and treat me in line with the human rights principles of lawfulness, necessity and proportionality.
I don’t have to be honest if I don’t want to be. I decided to write about my experiences, not to take the witness stand. I’m not under oath here, although I suppose I do owe some explanation.
Everything here really happened, and all the thoughts and ideas I describe are genuine. All the text messages are real, although I took out abbreviations and added grammar – they are hard enough to decipher without being in text speak. The more obscure passages are generally transcribed from the notes I wrote while I was ill, although again I’ve interpreted and translated where it would otherwise be impenetrable shorthand. I left out a lot of my notes though because I simply couldn’t understand them. These ‘primary sources’ are as close as I can get to a contemporaneous record of the contents of my head.
Before I started writing this I thought it was going to be funny- because I was so very fucking witty when I was manic. When I got started it seemed like it was turning out to be more of a tragedy than a comedy. I kept thinking it was going to start being funny any second, but on the whole I was disappointed to find that it was indeed a tragedy (with a bit of farce thrown in). So I’m sorry it’s not really funny, although you should of course feel free to laugh if the urge takes you – at me or with me, I don’t care.
Most of the narrative text was written on the Notes app of my iPhone, often one handed while pushing a pushchair along the pavement (very safely, mum!). I collected vignettes on what happened as they occurred to me, collated them on the computer one by one, organised them in a timeline with the help of my text message records to locate incidents in time, and then gradually filled in some connective tissue to make the vignettes hang together as a whole. That didn’t always work because real life doesn’t have segues, and memory doesn’t preserve the spaces between events. And if it did, you wouldn’t want to read about it. My medical notes helped to punctuate the disjointed result.
There are areas where I simply couldn’t pin a day or time to an incident. I had to use my best guess to place these in the timeline of the narrative. There were times when I couldn’t figure out what came first – how the components of a delusion were pieced together and when a thought first occurred to me. I think in reality a lot of things happened much quicker than I’ve depicted here – my delusions were created in a matter of a couple of days rather than stretched over a slightly longer period. For the sake of structure I’ve divvied up the events over the course of several days to make it more digestible. So it didn’t happen exactly as I’ve written it, but it all happened.
My memory is gappy in places so not every incident is logged here. I can’t remember why I sat in a flower pot, to my 4 year old’s delight. I don’t quite know if I wet myself (with my pelvic floor muscles weakened by childbirth) – what a shame I can’t recount that story. Having said all that, I should admit that some stuff is left out – allow it to be missing. I have glossed over details to protect the innocent and preserve my relationships. I have been economical in order to be kind, to myself and others.
Then there’s the matter of names. I struggled long and hard with this question: should I be anonymous or should I stick my head above the parapet and be out there? I’m not sure I’ve made up my mind yet. On the one hand, is it a betrayal of everyone with a mental health issue to hide behind a pseudonym, validating the stigma that attaches to mental illness? On the other hand, there are a lot of weirdos around, who knows whether someone might get a fixation (well or just a weird thing) on me and find out where I live; could I even be putting my children at risk? But what does it say to the world (or the three people who will ever read this) if I huddle up in my bunker, lie about who I am and apologise for being ill?
I’ve enjoyed the fact that, as in a lot of the novels that I’ve enjoyed, I play the role here of an unreliable narrator/witness to my own life – or so you would assume. This is one of my favourite literary devices, except in this case it’s not literary, or a device, it’s just an intrinsic property of the piece. It’s just what I am. I can’t vouch for all of my actions, thoughts or motivations while I was ill, but in fact everything conforms to the record, such as it is.
So am I an unreliable narrator just by virtue of having been out of my tree in the period these events took place? Can I trust my own memory? Part of this text was taken from the account of my illness that I gave to a researcher while I was still fairly ill in hospital. I’ve changed elements based on the record of that conversation. What is more likely to be accurate – my memory back then, or my memory now? Should my word be doubted as the ranting of a mad woman, purely because I was a mad woman (a label which I claim with candour)? Do we assume that whenever I was fixated on an issue – my state of health, my niggles with the unit, my older son’s ‘anxiety’ – I was most likely not seeing things straight at the time? I don’t intend to provide an answer to that. The most treasured possession of a mad person is self awareness- insight. Maybe the extent of my insight is one for the doctors. Or maybe I’m being provocative.
Obviously my behaviour a lot of the time was entirely nutty. But most of the time it came from a core of rationality. I rushed around the ward like a blue arsed fly, knocking on doors, because I thought I had reason to believe my husband was there somewhere. I thought I was on the Derren Brown Show because – well, have you seen one of his shows recently? It reminds me of reading Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. She talked about hallucinating a tiger in the corner, and reacting to that tiger. If you see a tiger, hiding under a desk is a perfectly rational response – no matter how mad your behaviour seems to people not in your head. The madness comes from the misperception that prompts the behaviour; it indicates an impairment of perception rather than a failure of rational thought. Not that I’m claiming rational thought was all I did while I was ill. Sometimes the tiger disappeared, and reappeared some hours later. Sometimes it shifted shape, or I didn’t recognise it for a tiger. And sometimes I exaggerated the threat posed by my pet tiger(s).
Reading my medical notes, I recognise now how inconsistent I was. I was furious that the doctor didn’t go through the datasheet for my medication with me, but when a Nurse offered to explain my medication in more detail I accused her of patronising me. Am I really such a shit that I would turn my nose up at advice from the nurse rather than the doctor?
Despite these matters of detail, I wanted to believe that at no time would I have been deemed to lack capacity to make my own decisions. If that happened – going from a state of having capacity to lacking capacity – something would be lost in the continuity of my identity. Or so I once thought. But at times I’m sure I did lack capacity – I was totally loop the loop. Yet here stand I. Maybe it’s easy for me to say, now ‘I’ have come out the ‘other side’. But I wasn’t negated by being mad. It didn’t make me [an] invalid.
Being mentally ill isn’t much like breaking a leg, or having a heart condition, because there is something about our mental integrity that we value differently from our ability to walk or our general health (sorry that probably sounds awful to people who have gone through really awful physical illnesses or have other impairments). It grates to be told that what you thought was your rational, sensible behaviour, is actually symptoms.
Brian Adams, The Pits and the Pendulum: “Someone with a psychiatric illness or a history of psychiatric illness may not just be enthusiastic or disappointed or inspired or angry or determined any more: all emotional behaviour is seen as irrational and symptomatic of their illness – especially if they need to be kept in their place or discredited.”
To which may we add ‘hysterical’. Or, again provocatively, ‘having an untreatable personality disorder’.
Of the books I have read about post partum psychosis, or bipolar, most were written at some distance from the mania. They offer wry commentaries on the vicissitudes of madness, considered through a long view lens surveying months and years and decades of illness. Many of them describe exceedingly traumatic events. In my case, true mania was a relatively brief visitor, albeit one that hung round for a few weeks; and while it came to stay, I was ensconced in a safe place. It was a discrete episode, quite recent, and well documented by both my medical notes and my own scribbles and communications. The result is an account that is low on trauma and drama, and high on detail and the interiorities of mania. People with manic depression go out and buy speed boats or Ferraris, sink all their money into mad business ventures, or speed through traffic in a fast car. All I’ve managed is to nearly blow £119.94 on a nonsense, buy one measly lottery ticket and some records, and have paranoid delusions about my baby getting wet and my doctor giving me placebos, and run around in the hospital a bit. Sorry it’s not that exciting.
Why did I write this? Because I want to explain what it’s like to be, and go, mad. I want to provide an interpretation for my bizarre behaviour, and demystify it I suppose. By shining a light on the dark recesses of my mind, in a kind of self indulgent roll call of thoughts and feelings, I hope also to provide some sunshine to light up the murky tunnels of stigma and prejudice. I expect to confirm some prejudices about people with mental illness, and simultaneously to reject them – I may be a recognisably archetypal nutjob but I am also uniquely myself, like everyone else is uniquely themself, and my preoccupations and nut jobbery emanate specifically from my personal idiosyncrasies.
I also want to check whether or not I actually speak the same language as everyone else. Can I make sense of the insensible? Does my meaning translate to your meaning? I want to know whether I can successfully reach across the chasm of un-shared experience and explain myself. You know if you record yourself talking, when you listen back to it, it doesn’t sound like it does in your head? That’s a bit what it’s like reading back my own writing. It doesn’t sound quite right. I long to be proved wrong(?), to gather some measure of approval, or if not that, at least recognition. If I put into words what happened here, is there any chance that that experience so encoded, could be decoded by a reader and provide a reflection of the experience at the end of the process? If you play my voice back, will it sound like it does in my head, or will it be wrong, somehow? And what if I try to sing? Is it just me?
There is, as ever, a reflexive and paranoid reason too. If I can explain what was going on in my head in a way that can be comprehended by a sane person, that makes me slightly less mad, right?
I think I explained why I wanted to write this. The question remains, why on earth would I seek to publish it? With all of its colons and semi colons and dashes – littering the text like a graveyard of punctuation, and its feeble similies and metaphors, like a… whatever.
Writing about yourself is a self indulgence. I read in the paper recently that
“we all ought to know that only people who love us wish to listen to our dreams”.
Well it doesn’t matter because this isn’t published for the sake of the reader, it is published so that I can know I finished a thought for once. I can hear my friends telling me it’s ok to have an ego, to want my writing to be appreciated even in a small way. This is for my benefit, not yours- but please approve of me! It’s a form of self deceipt, this self deprecation. Other people will criticise plenty, no need to join in. But publication by itself is enough evidence of ego. I don’t know though, I’m the sort of person who reads this sort of thing, and I hope I’m not unique otherwise the effort of publication was a waste. I wanted to produce something in which I could take some measure of pride, and this is probably the best I can do.
So I tear out my heart and lay it at your feet.
Maybe it’s like when a pet brings you a dead bird- you don’t exactly want it, it’s very messy, but bless them. Laugh at me, discreetly move away like I’m the proverbial weirdo on the bus, despise me, pity me, stalk me (don’t stalk me).
I prefer to have a bit of doubt in the mix, that I’m not sure this is any good. In the unsightly and indignified game of being mad, self awareness is the ultimate goal. I can have my cake and eat it- put out a book with the miniMum level of self belief necessary to do such a thing, and at the same time I can deny it. My fear is of having my ego punctured by a reader indifferent to my attempts at prose- of being accused of hubris.
I’m not ashamed, though I may have a case for being embarrassed. I was batshit crazy then – ill- I can disown that person (I don’t, not entirely). But there again, as you may have spotted, I am kind of attracted to her. She was uninhibited. My BFF wasn’t sure what she thought of Me Uncut. She wrote in her ‘little book of her’ that she, wrongly, classified me as ‘other her’ rather than ‘my her’. Essentially similar, except ‘other her’ lacked reserve and inhibition. Or diffidence, maybe (echoes of a long ago unsuccessful application to the Civil Service Fast Stream).
It strikes me that when you write a book you’re not supposed to include a chapter apologising for it. But here we are.
Dunno. I’m finished.
 Talitha Stevenson in the Guardian (Review, 11/8/12)
The one where I check my privilege (2015, spring)
There are “worse” stories than mine, including those with histories of trauma as well as unsafe extremes of manic expression. Plus I have middle class and other privileges including the pointy elbows of my nearest and dearest ((who are fortunately many) to help me navigate the mental health system.
Dedicated to my Womynz