In recent years the National Health Service has suffered a seemingly unending series of cuts and strictures.
UK citizens of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s were able do depend on their society to provide housing, free and grant-supported education to third level, and health care. Why exactly it is the case that such provisions are now considered too expensive for the economy to support is a simple but fundamental question which is not sufficiently addressed.
National Health Service professionals are the front line in the maintenance of a healthy population, without which, any efforts towards creating a society or the economy to support it are rendered futile. The Service’s ability to identify health problems, refer patients to specialists and then provide long term aftercare and support is, without resorting to glib cliches, an example for the world to follow.
Regular Trebuchet contributor Richard Harvey recounts his experiences and in doing so, reminds us of the importance of destigmatizing mental health provision, and how crucial the referrals role of the General Practitioner remains.
It’s a start. A new beginning. There’s a lot more to do, and always will be. Still, it’s a start.
I heard this whole ‘it’s a start, a new beginning’ phrase a lot in my adult life. Frequently from my own lips, usually when I was trying to pull myself out of a hole, a depression, a manic moment, asking for financial assistance, or just trying to have someone not give up on me!
So let’s start in the middle, or at least towards the end of the middle, before the new beginning. Not at the start, or we;ll be here too long, and not at the end. As for now there isn’t one, at least the hope is there won’t be one for a long time to come, and the outcome of which is as yet very much unknown.
I have a chimera, or I am a chimera, or at least I share my mind with a chimera. A two headed monster, a being of two definitions, sometimes working individually, sometimes in unison, and most often,leaving me pretty much unawares of the chaos and mess it is causing. Mess in the short term, long term or both. Mess for me, for those who love me, and even for the poor souls who may just be passing through.
I am one of many who have this chimera. Some hardly show any signs of it, some have it much worse than I do, and I can only imagine the suffering that must cause them, and those around them, especially family and loved ones. Some quite simply don’t make it through at all.
Me, it’s fair to say I’m a good way over the middle. What does this mean exactly? It means I’ve been lucky to have not been committed at any point yet. It means I cocked up trying to be one of those who didn’t make it through at all. It means I have skills and gifts beyond those of many other people, and the facility to use them. Assuming I’m up. It means at times I barely function at all, and at other times, I barely cease to function. It means never being able to hold a job down for long, no matter how good I am or was at it. It means knowing the work I love doing/creating the most, and struggling every day to make it happen.
It means losing my home, going bankrupt, spending £1000 on a night out, drinking heavily almost every day for eight years. Losing loved ones, hurting loved ones, failed relationships, taking ridiculous risks and not caring about anything or anyone, least of all myself. Caring too much about things, people and too often the wrong things and people. Thinking and wishing that I would no longer exist, every day, for as long as I can remember. Calling my sister at least twice a week screaming that I wanted to die. Not asking for help or attention, but letting it out on her, as she was the one I trusted the most.
It means ripping people I loved and who love me apart verbally. It means being up one minute, so high that I had only one way to go, and falling down into a bottomless pit that I am still sure, even now, has no floor. It means giving things away that meant the world to me because at that time, it seemed like a good idea. It meant basically either caring and feeling too much, or not caring or feeling anything at all.
So far this is all about me, but let’s step back for a moment and look at the pain, hurt, suffering and anguish this then caused my family, friends, colleagues. The most important of these are family and friends. The people who will stand by you no matter what, until they are pushed so far that they break, leave, walk away, give up. Not all do, but those who can survive it carry scars for the rest of their lives. It will always affect the relationships you have, new ones and old. It affects how people look at you, see you, approach you and judge you. You may not be responsible for why, but it’s still you they look at and see.
I’ve been this way for most of my life, but really from the time I was 15. Since then, it’s been an every day thing, getting worse as each push happened. Therapy from 15-20 helped resolve some of that. But of course a life event triggers a reaction, and each reaction leads to a worse response. Years of things going wrong, events, deaths of people close to me, fights, breakdowns in family relations, just made this worse as each day passed. Albeit, not seen as anything new by family, friends. As always, I was just being me. Different, weird, hypersensitive, troubled. Richard.
I walked away from the thing I loved most, playing music, and started trying to be a grown up, follow a path that all wanted me to follow (I even believed I wanted that, but then I realised a while ago that trusting my own thoughts was not always the best idea). I started to work in a profession that was high in pressure, required a solid and ever growing skill set, put me around people all day, every day, some at the same level as I was, some company directors, some clients. Lots of places to fall over, make bad choices, push myself too far.
We worked long hours and hard days, we did the same after work with drinking and partying. Within two years, I was already pushing myself towards a fall. Could I see this? No. Did I care? No.
I fell apart every week. Sometimes I slept, sometimes I didn’t. I’d crash at least once a month and when I did, I stopped functioning on all but the most basic of levels. Eventually, a fight erupted during a party I was at. I stepped in to try and protect a friend. That didn’t work so well, as my friend still go hurt. There were fists, knives, no one died, but my friend was in hospital for three days. I came out OK: bruises, black eye, knife cut to back of neck. My father said: ‘Richard, you could have died!’. My answer: ‘What does that matter!?’. That was the point where he and family said I needed help and I went and got it.
Fast forward eight years. By this point I was 36, in therapy and doing well at keeping going, even though I was nothing but a mess. But things were getting out of control. I went back to the other passion of my life, photography. I’d lost my home, but managed to rent a studio and work a little. However, the drinking, the ups and the downs continued and got worse. I knew I was ill, I’d accepted that (I thought), but refused to even look at meds.
My family and friends did the best they could. I’m renowned for disappearing. Friends and family won’t see me for weeks. I’ll always answer a text message, but probably not a call. I hide. I may still go out and drink at my local every night, go clubbing with friends who are local, but then they may not see me for a week or two, even though they are 500 yards away from my home. And so my days would go on…. Up, down, up, down, crash. Someone calls, I ignore the phone, reply to text but am rude. Sit and watch a film, cry eyes out. Crash. Can’t sleep properly so wake up. Start going through files on computer, no clue what I’m looking for but fuck it, I just need to, so carry on.
I have no money except to by groceries, but change my mind, go out, meet up with friends, spend all the money I have drinking, have a tab at bar so if I need a little extra I’m good. Buy drinks for other people, go clubbing, meet someone, talk crap, end up back at mine, wake up next day, say goodbye. When she doesn’t call or reply to a text, crash. That was my life.
Eventually I ran out of money and had to move back into my mum’s house. My stepfather and I had a pretty bad moment in our relationship when I was 23, but after three years of not talking, we moved forward and found a good place. He was the buffer between my mum and I. They were giving me a home, somewhere safe. I would pay a little rent every month, they would give me a chance to try and start getting my life back together again. So I moved home, which broke my heart as I lost my studio, the only place at that point in my life I had felt of some purpose, and like I had a home.
I moved my stuff in, went for lunch with my stepfather, had a really good laugh. Then I needed to go back to my studio, go through it with the rental company and sign it off. I went to my local for a drink with a friend afterwards and at 6pm, got a call telling me my stepfather had died while sleeping watching TV on the sofa. He was 56, not well, but that wasn’t expected. My mum had gotten back from work and found him. If I had gone back for tea could I have saved him? Everyone says no, but I carry that daily, even now.
I had my 1st breakdown at 31. Work just pushed me too far. I moved to a new job from one I loved, but wanted to move up the ladder. This job was, I thought, the right step, but I was so wrong. I stuck at it for a just over a year. I drank more, slept less, spent more money, crashed more frequently, freaked my family out more, worried my therapist more, and cared less about myself than I had at any point up till then. Eventually I couldn’t take any more, a small work incident on a weekend pushed me to breaking point, and on the Monday, I handed in my notice.
I left the next day, and of course went out drinking to celebrate my freedom. Over the next 12 months I looked for work, had my dad help me pay my mortgage and bills, while ignoring me, drank heavily whenever I went out, or slept 12-18 hours a day, spent money on anything that came to mind (I had five laptops at one point). Most people had the impression I was wealthy, but I basically just didn’t care about tomorrow or consequences. Eventually it took its toll, and a week after my 32nd birthday, I tried to end it. I also cocked that up.
My 2nd breakdown was after I moved home and my stepfather died. It took about a year to really kick in, but when it did, it did with a vengeance. I was still drinking, still up then down, still a yoyo, but I could control my emotions, control the world around me, get through whatever I needed to until I could work out how to end it all. That was my final solution. End it all. Not fuck it up this time… practice over.
Then the day came where I got TOLD I needed to make a decision. I saw my therapist, and she finally said it’s enough. I couldn’t argue with this. We’d both avoided meds because until that point the first choice was always lithium and frankly it’s not a fun drug. It’s been the first choice since they started treating this. It works, so it’s a safe bet. However, I was never willing to try because I needed control of my illness, and yes, I am ill. Something I finally realised.
New drugs were being used though, oddly enough they found some anti-epilepsy drugs worked. So I finally agreed. She sent me to see an amazing psychiatrist. We talked and we worked out that I could go on newish meds. This drug is called Lamotrogine. It takes a while to start working, the first few months you feel a little more frazzled than usual. Eventually however, it starts to do the job it’s meant to and balances you out. For me, this meant that my ups and downs started to reduce. Over time, I started to see that I wasn’t a fuck up, it wasn’t ALL my fault. I was led by an illness, and like it or not, I had little control over that.
Now, here’s an important part; that is NOT an excuse. Whatever the case, you will still pay for everything you’ve done. You will see it and feel it every day, because it’s still you and your life that’s affected by this. It’s for you to come to terms with and accept. That took two years on meds. I watched The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (a clue there) by Stephen Fry. Suddenly I started to understand. When the programme finished, I went online and started reading the accompanying website. It had information on characteristics, behaviour, signifiers of this illness. About three days later I went to my therapist, sat down and proclaimed ‘I’m really ill aren’t I?’ to which she said ‘YES!’.
Time to make this clear. I have bipolar. I am type 2 with rapid cycling and mixed state. I have been ill for 27 years, and it’s affected every part of my life. I spent most of it thinking I was a fuck up, being told I was, and never seeing a solution to anything but no longer being here, also known as ‘dead’. There are people who are so much worse than I am, which leaves me speechless, especially when seeing they can and do make their lives work. There are those who don’t get the chance to make their lives work. We have one of the highest suicide rates of any illness, possibly the highest. One out of three will attempt suicide and most will succeed.
We can have the most amazing lives flying high on a manic episode, or the most unbearable suffering when depressed. Either of these for us is life, but impossible to explain to someone who is not bipolar. The best and worst for them is nothing compared to ours. We are our own worst enemies and best friends. We tend to be extremely clever and talented, but often to our own detriment and listening to others is not something we do easily or willingly. So many people look at us as different (which we are), like fuck ups (which we aren’t), and difficult, and frequently will just give up and walk away. People can only take so much and regardless of how much someone loves you, there’s still a limit to what they can take.
We have so many gifts, but they are almost always shrouded and controlled by our illness, and most of the time, we cannot control how our illness controls us (even though we believe with all our hearts that we, in fact, can).
We all fuck up, we all get things wrong, but eventually, no matter how hard we try, this will get the better of us. Something will push us that little bit to hard, and the control we believed we had will finally be gone. We’re human and in some ways, we’re more human than most. Whether we go up or down the end result is the same, we crash. We can’t change our illness. It’s not fixable (or at least not yet), but we can help ourselves to manage it. Therapy is always a good start, and sometimes enough. Medication is the next step when keeping it in check is just too much for us to handle.
As I said, we’re human and needing help is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and a great one at that. The most important thing to begin with though, is acceptance. Not for others to accept us (though that’s always a good thing), but for us to accept ourselves, our illness. We are what we are.
For me, I think that makes us special, a very unique and cool group. Yeah, we can be a little out there, but that’s not always so bad. For all the chaos my illness has caused, I wouldn’t want my life without it. While it’s caused some of the worst times I have had, it’s also responsible for my art, my passion, my friends and my understanding, even more so my compassion. The term ‘mentally ill’ can bring up so many negatives, adding ‘and I take meds for it’ just adds to that issue, but in all truth, FUCK IT! We need to make sure that we’re OK first, then we can try and let the world come to terms with what and who we are. That’s our 1st step, that’s our new start and new beginning.
I’m still fixing my life, finding answers, trying to find the right way to do things, and I’m still getting it wrong at times, right at other times.
That’s just life. I think slower than I did, so getting motivated can be hard, reading a book can be hard, but it’s better than thinking at 100,0000,0000 miles an hour constantly or not being able to function at all. I sleep and dream, something I didn’t manage to do till I was 36! That in itself is an amazing thing, and dreaming is cool. My temper is controlled (even if not perfectly) and I am generally very much more chilled out and at ease. Not always, and certain things still fire me off, but I am me. I am still ill. My meds help me to control things, it doesn’t fix or remove them, but it means that I am in control, and that, I like.
It hurts to look back at everything that’s happened in my life with a clearer mind. I cannot change the past but I can use it to shape my future. Do I like taking meds everyday? Not really. Would I stop? NO. They help me control what I need to, and that is worth the hassle. If I can make my life work again, it’s because I’m taking my meds and making sure I do things the best way I can. Coming off them will just make things go back in the wrong direction and I want the future to be good.
Nothing’s ever perfect and there will always be chaos, the odd mishap etc, but for the first time in my life I look forward to the possibility of what tomorrow may bring. Without accepting I am ill, understanding I need meds to help me control things properly, and giving myself a chance, none of that would be possible.
There is a LOT more to go, but it’s a start.