Bipolar Disorder, Mental Illness, Recovery, Secret Lives

A militant call for gentleness and empathy

One of the hardest things about living with a serious and enduring mental illness diagnosis is going back into the world after a period of acute illness. The re-entry to mainstream life. Recovery is a wonderful concept. It brings, however, a vulnerability as one takes steps back into normal professional and social interaction. I have recently had the fortunate opportunity of some writing and performing gigs. Utterly fantastic. I get down on my knees with gratitude. But the necessary corollary of all these opportunities is that I find myself going back out into the world.

A world I once rushed at and embraced, but which now feels like a cold unsafe place. I once had a life in that world. Although I had a bipolar disorder diagnosis I was lucky enough to manage that, single parenthood and a demanding career. But then around six years ago the wheels fell off. I have spent the last few years trying to get back to work, trying to rebuild a life, trying to protect my children from the realities of living with a severely mentally ill parent , trying sometimes simply just to leave the house. And yes, there have been periods of respite, but really only as punctuation marks to longer periods of acute mental illness. As a result, the life I had, has been eroded.

I have kept in contact with a fraction of my friendship groups, I rarely socialise. I have a tiny income and massive debts. I have amassed no professional credits to my name. A friend chided me that I no longer have an on-line presence; as if somehow I had done something immoral by having no professional persona. I disappeared from Google save for the odd embarrassing testimonial for my Polish decorator. I went from being an “almost somebody” to being a “nobody”. Most of all I lost or forgot some basic life skills. The ability to go out, socialise, network and meet new people. .

One of the hardest things I have found is having an answer to the question “What to do you do?” If I am forced, I say, “I used to be a barrister.” (Until I have more work published, in fact perhaps until I can make a living at it, I don’t think I can say that I am a writer.) I have found ways to deflect the next question which will be “But what do you now?” But sometimes I am not able to deflect. I still haven’t come up with some tight little soundbite that informs without embarrassing the questioner. And even if I did have a bite-size accessible way of saying that: I have been a psychiatric in-patient , a mother who is trying to make up to her children for years of inconsistent erratic and sometimes absent parenting, a carer for my own elderly and disabled mother- the answer would pain me. I am hard-wired to be a bread-winner, a contributor to society, to achieve. In formal terms over the past 6 years I have achieved nothing. I have, as a result, felt completely worthless.

And as all the recent responses to the tragic heartbreaking death of Gary Speed have shown, there are millions of people out there struggling with secret lives of “worthlessness”. Maybe one out of four people you meet in any day will have watched their life decimated by mental illness. But they will be there in front you, struggling to present a normal facade. And it is often impossible to tell. Impossible to tell what secrets they are hiding: the narrow escape with a bailiff that day because of debts caused by unemployment and chaotic living, the call from social services regarding the safety of their parenting , the painful side effects of a new anti-psychotic medication or simply the fact that they wept with terror in the toilets at the idea of being out and meeting new people.

Many I have met in hospital, have years before they will move back into the mainstream (if ever), but others are the “walking wounded”. A friend of mine discharged herself early so that she could return to work as a nurse the next day. I wonder how much she had to cry in the toilets so she could just get through a shift. The point is, you just do not know what secrets people are carrying with them.

So? Well… as I have started to go out again, have meetings, go to professional functions, book launches and the like, I have met some wonderful substantial people, whom it has been a genuine pleasure to connect with. I have, however, also met people who because I am a “nobody”, because I have no Google presence, because I cannot account for six missing years of my life, because I currently, perhaps, lack a little panache and confidence in my presentation skills, because I cannot help them in their own quest to be a “somebody” -who have patronised and dismissed me as an irrelevancy before I even had a chance to speak. They have literally not considered me to be equal to themselves. I know many people who espouse radical egalitarian political values. However, when actually presented with real flesh and blood human beings they have not treated them as equals.

Every individual has something to offer, a story to tell, maybe a sad, harrowing story. Most individuals are not coping to a certain degree. As equal individuals we all deserve empathy and gentleness, for our stories, for ourselves. The Mind and Rethink campaign, Time to Change is doing much to foster that attitude. (I sometimes wonder if TTC had been around, when I was working as a barrister, whether I would still have that life.) We can all, in our daily lives, do our bit. If we treated everyone with the same respect and a little human empathy there might be fewer people terrified of re-entry to mainstream life. Maybe a few more would be able to admit that they are not coping. Maybe even a few more whose lives would be saved. The next person you meet today is definitely a “somebody”, but may also be a somebody who is struggling to survive.

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