written by me
at Edinburgh University
& in London
“I have a mental illness.”
Would you be able to say that to someone?
Imagine sitting across from a University guidance counsellor, the one who does routine check ups on your academic progress, and also partially your well being, and saying that sentence. Imagine saying it on more than one occasion. What might that result in? What kind of emotions?
Yet, somehow the most draining aspect of that whole process of making this ailment known to others is the deep-seated fear. It is almost always fear. Fear of not knowing what it says about you, fear of not understanding what it is you’re saying, fear of being perceived as crazy, fear of how many more times in your life you might have to say it.
“I have a mental illness.”
What does it mean? What is this illness that cannot be seen? Why aren’t you coughing or sneezing, covered in red spots? What do you mean you’re sad?
There are a lot of questions. And the most vicious truth is that most often those questions are rhetorical – as in, they are asked with no real desire to know. They are mocking, or they are sarcastic. Because let’s be honest, a mental illness is not real. It's just a fashion statement. Everyone seems to be mentally ill these days. Being on anti-depressants is like the new cool thing, the new MDMA, basically like an alternative party drug. And doesn’t everyone get sad? Like seriously, there are people dying in wars, and in the hospital because of cancer. Some people don’t even have clean drinking water or food to eat. I just think it’s an excuse. Like, I don’t want to do my assignment, I’m sad. I don’t want to go to work because I’m depressed. I don’t want to take responsibility, I’d rather give up. Who said anyone has any right to give up?
And that last thought, or question, is probably the only relevant thing in the entire previous paragraph. The rest is condescending, downright awful, cruelty. It is the kind of discussion and language used by people with a colossal lack of concern not just for others, but even more insidiously, with wanting to understand what mental health is at all. It is a grave, violent, denial of an experience had by so many people in global society, that the result of that attitude is their loss. In other words, a lack of understanding on mental health is most often the cause of suicide. There was a book I read a long time ago, which asked an important question about the ethics of suicide. Is it right? Is it wrong? Does it take courage? I will never claim to have answers to these questions, because the feeling of losing someone you love, or admired, or even just knew, or the actual act of ending your own life, are not experiences one can or should objectively analyse in order to arrive at a moral universal conclusion. To do so would be inhumane and futile. No one knows why anyone arrives at that decision, or whether or not it is a decision. The point is, it ought to be prevented. Perhaps collectively we can agree that unnecessary loss of life is undesirable.
It is painful for someone who has been in those circumstances to admit that they have been in them. Of course it is. But what is not painful, and what is incredibly important, is coming to an understanding of what that pain is. What that suffering is. Why it is taking place, what it is that makes someone feel in all senses of the word, unable, and unfit, to carry on with their lives. Why that mental block? And it is important to ask such questions without the patronising sarcasm and presumptuous attitude that has been outlined above. Of basically not allowing the condition to be considered a condition, because mental illnesses, such as depression, are far greater than the sadness one feels at losing a valuable possession, or even the grief experienced by the loss of a loved one. It is an illness. And it is of utmost importance to acknowledge and come to the acceptance that it is an illness, to then begin a conversation leading to greater understanding on what makes it an illness.
As someone with first-hand experience of having spent years struggling with mental illness, at the age of 23, which is when I'm writing this, nothing is more important to me than to confront it, and discuss it publicly, because the illness itself was not what was ruining me. Far greater was the shame of having to admit it. And that shame, like shame in general, is never created by the individual. That shame is about perception. And more often than not, that shame is about telling the truth. And no one likes the truth.
The truth, the real, whole, complete truth, is terrifying.
So, I choose not to get into any such deep truth-telling. I simply want to combat and contribute to the already alive conversation on mental health because it is an immensely important conversation, and I do believe the more people contribute to it, the more progress can be made towards removing the stigma that results in shame and loss of life. I have spoken about sexual assault in the past, and that occurred at a time when it became apparent in my recovery that I must confront that particular incident, alongside other issues. But I no longer want to discuss personal truisms here. Sexual assault is traumatic. Done. What I want to discuss actually is the truth about illness, and what its clinical experience is like. I would like to take you on a step by step journey of that process, of what it is to recognise that you are experiencing a mental health condition, to then seeking help, to what that help looks like, how helpful it actually is, and finally what happens when things get really bad. And of course underlying all of this is the important and endlessly perplexing concept of diagnosis. In order for me to do this, I have to actually relive a lot of my own experience, which in all honesty, I would prefer to not even think about, and which I cannot even say I remember entirely. Yet, that’s the most important part. Let me tell you why.
I was intuitive enough to know that what I was experiencing was not normal in that the feelings, and their routine reoccurrence, suggested that they were out of my control. They existed in a different place. Their root cause was dubious. Certain things could be pointed at to explain general feelings of distress, but this was something deeper. All encompassing. Overbearing, overpowering, and debilitating – this is clinical; this means I am actually sick and need medical attention. But where does this sickness begin and where does it end? What is its root? What is it called? How do you know? Why is it called that, and not the other thing? What are my symptoms? What medication will I take? How long will I take it for? Will this heal me? Promise me, I won’t feel that way anymore. I’ll be happy again. Just these pills, how many times a day? It’s normal right? I mean, it’s ok, right? No one will judge me right?
This is what an initial diagnosis feels like. Finally, after the nightmarish realisation that you need help has been put on the table, one normally meets a professional, who asks all the questions that need to be asked, to reach all the conclusions that need to be reached. Before you’re an adult there are no surveys or medication involved. After you’re an adult there are some jaw dropping surveys, and lots of medications to choose from. The questions get more interesting, and abrasive, as do the answers. And the diagnosis is revised.
A common treatment for manic-depression and bipolar disorder is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy alongside an initial prescription of anti-depressants. Most often when this occurs within a University life scenario the patient is likely to not identify as a patient, and cease to continue with treatment as prescribed. Why? Because being 19 and in college does not mean you want to admit that you need to take a pill every day for your mood, especially when other people around you are not. The moment you start to feel better you stop. I know I did.
And what happened? I relapsed.
Same thing happened a year later. And the year after that.
Then finally something much more strange began to occur. A few dramatic changes in life led to a sudden feeling of elevation that no drug can ever put you on. I was soaring. Life was everything it was meant to be, my purpose was so clear, my goodness, I never knew I had so much energy, and why was I ever even unhappy? There’s so much to do. I need to gather up all this new brilliance I feel and channel it into all the things I’ve neglected. I mean, this is not just positivity. I can feel the passion pulsating, and I'm determined to make things different. I am going to achieve everything I have ever wanted. Wow, what a feeling. Life is great - fantastic, actually! I feel like I’m finally succeeding as an adult now. Waking up at 6am, working the whole day. I devote so much time to all the things I'm so passionate about and I am learning so much all the time. No one can stop me now. This exhilarating drive is just incredible, and it’s coming from me! Me! I am just so thrilled I can’t even explain. I hope this never ends, because this rush, this excitement, God - I feel invincible - like I'm on top of the entire fucking world.
But then it’s 12pm, and I didn’t wake up.
I don’t think I’ll be able to turn that assignment in on time.
I don’t know I guess I’m just not feeling up to it?
I don’t feel good.
I need to get some more sleep.
I’ll eat eventually.
It’s fine; I’m not really that hungry.
I’m really not drinking that much.
Honestly, this isn’t even drinking.
I can’t remember what happened last week.
Why did I go to that party?
I don’t know, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
I know it was in London and I’m in Edinburgh.
I just thought it would be a good idea to go.
No, I haven’t really been hanging out with anyone.
I am not obliged to talk about drugs.
Thing is, I think I need to go home.
It’s been five days, and I haven’t wanted to leave this room.
I can’t write these essays.
I just can’t do it anymore.
And just like that, I’m wondering, what the hell is happening to me?
Where did my energy go?
Where did my positivity go?
How did I get here?
The thoughts keep racing, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Everything. I can’t see clearly, the bath is warm, but I don’t even know if I’m in it. Why am I thinking about something that happened so long ago? Why can't I stop thinking about those same words? That same situation? That particular day? Why am I crying right now? I don’t get it.
The pill I just took is going to make me sick. I need to go to the hospital.
I probably haven’t slept because I overslept so much. I just don’t need to overthink it. It’s not the first time I've gone without a night's sleep. I'll be fine tomorrow.
I’ll definitely fall asleep soon. I’m exhausted from not having slept last night. Anytime now. Maybe a little later. I mean, I am really tired. I don’t want to think about all that I just need to get some rest. I will fall asleep soon. In just a few more hours. I just need to relax.
I don’t know if I’ve never slept for 48 hours straight. I’m sure it’s happened right? Tonight I’ll fall asleep, I mean, I am beyond tired. I need to let go of all these thoughts, I can’t keep thinking about it all so much. It needs to settle down. My mind will calm down, it will get quiet. It’s only a matter of time. I can’t keep obsessing over these same ideas and hurt feelings, it’s not good for me. If I don’t get any sleep tonight it will be the third night in a row that I haven’t slept. I can’t let this happen. I will fall asleep.
I need help. Something is seriously wrong. I am losing my mind. I can’t fall asleep and I don’t know why. I need to sleep.
Please, I need some sleep. I just need to go to sleep. I am calling you to tell you that I have a serious problem, I need to go to sleep. No, I’m not dosing, I’m not on any drugs. No, I'm not lying. I'm not on any drugs right now. I just can’t stop thinking about these issues - yes, I’ve told my parents. I need to just get some rest. Just some rest, even an hour of sleep. How do I do that? It’s been too long. I don’t feel well, I’m starting to feel like I’ll never sleep again.
PLEASE HELP ME. I WILL DIE. I will die if I don't get some sleep, I can’t do this anymore, please, please help me. I need to sleep. Tell me what to do, I don’t know why this is happening. I already threw up. I can’t keep my mind still. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I need to get some sleep. If I don’t sleep I’ll die. I know it. If tonight I don’t get sleep I’ll die. I’ll die.
I’m going to die. This is it. I don’t feel anything anymore. Maybe I’m already dead. I don't know where I am.
Day 8 to 10 to Whenever This Is Declared An Official Mental Health Crisis.
I think I'm speaking but I have no idea what I'm saying I keep repeating myself over and over again and I'm on the floor and then I'm up and now I'm asleep and then I'm talking again and I have no idea what I'm saying and I think I'm saying it over and over again and I can't possibly go to sleep when I'm talking so much and thinking so much and the thoughts won't stop and my words won't stop and I don't know what the time is and I don't now where I am and I don't know who you are and I don't know who I am - I don't know if I'm alive.
Finally rushed to the hospital, and into the room – "What’s wrong?"
"Sleep deprivation is a form of torture."
After saying everything that needs to be said, and the gut-wrenching process of seeing your parents in as much pain as you, you finally knock back two pills that promise to make the flashing images, and the racing mind, go to rest, and you finally, finally, are promised you will sleep.
And you do sleep. You’re hospitalised now, but you get to sleep. You will be visited by a team of doctors, who will come every day, morning and evening, to aid your recovery. You will be on sleeping medication, and you will take these anxiety pills, throughout the day, the maximum being three pills in a day. The doctors will bring you more medication. This will go on for several months. We need you to come back to reality and confirm that you will not be a threat to yourself or others. Once we see you're able to function somewhat normally, and that you're able to speak once again in coherent sentences, we will also be arranging a meeting and consultation with a psychiatrist.
One of the doctors said to me, “I know you think this will last forever, but I’m trying to assure you that it won’t.”
Some of them even spoke to me as if I was never going to be able to come out of all this. As if there’s a special place and path I now must take. Life after this will be challenging and tough, but it’ll be ok, I mean, I’ll be ok.
It was like being slapped in the face over and over and over again.
I was none of these people they were talking about. I never give up. I’m not afraid. I am not weak. I am not in need of saving. I am strong enough to handle the world. I have always been that way, so what the hell are they saying? I fall down, I get back up. That is the way I am. Recovery college? I go to one of the best Universities in the world. I don’t need recovery college. I will never go to any such place.
It becomes an issue of pride, but more importantly an issue of honesty and faith. The illness, once acknowledged as such, takes away so much that only in retrospect is it possible to fully acknowledge what it is that happened. In all honesty, the manic and depressive phases of bipolar disorder, once felt in their entirety, and when left untreated, are life threatening. They take you so far away from who you are, by making you relinquish control of your entire mind. A complete sense of detachment, of a deep and hollow nothingness, and a continuous feeling that you are just clinging, just about, and at anytime you might free-fall, and if you do, that’ll be it. All the things that mattered to you, are almost surprising, because you completely forgot they existed.
Where did you go?
Where did I go?
And that is why I said it’s so important to note this fact. Of not being able to remember what exactly happened, or why – because it was that chemical – that much an internal process that it existed behind my eyes, not in front of them. I just wasn't there anymore, which is terrifying. To put it another way, the experience of heartbreak is lived and memorable. The memory of it reveals the residual emotions, and that ability to recall is the confirmation that the experience occurred. That you were there within that time, and your actions were present, and your emotions were felt, and you had control, to an extent, of what your reactions would be. Same with sexual assault, or any form of violence and trauma. You are able to recall what exactly was going on, which is what causes the lasting impact.
But what does it mean when you can’t remember? When you don’t know why you didn’t sleep for seven days straight? Why you ended up being hospitalised? Why you went from having endless amounts of energy, to no energy at all? Why you went from feeling so happy and limitless, to being unable to wake up, eat, or remember why you wanted to ever do anything at all?
Why does that happen?
What is that called?
In my case, it is called Bipolar Disorder. And I say it proudly, because I survived, and will hopefully continue to survive. And as much as I have at times wondered why? Why me? And felt real, true anger for all that it took away, I can't deny everything it has taught me and that is has made me who I am today. That’s the most beautiful aspect of life-threatening mental illnesses. They are an irrevocably true aspect of your personhood. I choose not to see it as “this is me, and that is my illness.” Of course, having recovered multiple times, I am never going to claim my illness as who I am because it has taken me so far from who I was and am and continue to become. I certainly don’t wish for it to be “an excuse” for anything. It is what it is. If I had a choice, I probably would opt out, because being recovered - or recovering - is not permanent. I have relapsed enough times to know that this will continue.
It's a nightmare, yet, it is a part of who I am. I can try and deny it, or I can live with it, and by doing so live better, and hopefully longer, more honestly, and with a sense of liberation.
And I will always choose liberation. For myself, and thereby for others.
I will choose it as many times as I have to because this illness has no cure, and sadly it's not in my nature to forgive, which means anyone, including me, who triggers any aspect of this illness usually receives no mercy.
I have to live with that difficult and stubborn part of my nature, because as I said, and will continue to say, this illness has no cure.