Is Mental Illness Ever A Gift?


4OD are showing a series of five minute films this week
posing the question Is mental illness ever a gift?, and it has prompted me to
answer the question for myself.

I’ve been asked this question before, very recently, by
someone who doesn’t have bipolar and said they found it hard to imagine what
bipolar is like. I think it is almost impossible for a person to imagine what
bipolar is like by explanation; I always feel like words are simply not enough,
you can run through the symptoms verbally but it doesn’t mean anything and if
you have never been slightly depressed or slightly high you could never imagine
how much worse being a manic depressive is.

So. I am a writer. I write virtually every day and have done
for the majority of my life. I’ve accumulated a lot of garbage and got rid of
most of it. I am happy with a percentage of my work, mainly my book A Body Made
of You which I wrote while experiencing a debilitating and life-threatening mixed
bipolar episode. Sometimes I try to pretend to myself that I was fine when I
wrote the book, that I just didn’t sleep because I didn’t need any sleep, and I
went into hospital because I was exhausted, not ill. But the reality is I was
off the scale and while most of the time this made it impossible to concentrate
enough to write, there were flashes of divine inspiration which I can read in
my words. Sometimes I feel that I
would do anything to have that back again, so I could write with that same
spark, but in reality without the medication that grounds me and keeps me
stable I might not even be alive never mind able to write good poems.

I am very proud of my book. I am proud that I have survived
and have written a book. I am proud of writing it under the conditions that I
did and it not just be a jumble and a mess, and I feel that it is the best
thing I have achieved.

But if you were to ask me if it was all worth it, for my
little first collection, I would have to firmly say no. And this is why:

When Dr. Prince at the child and adolescent psychiatric
outpatients unit told me I have bipolar I don’t remember at any point
understanding what he was saying. It meant nothing to me. I had been seeing
psychiatrists for a couple of years, hospital stays and being out of school
attending a child and family psychiatric unit. I was suffering, but I didn’t
know what it was. I thought it was all my fault, I thought I was being punished
for something or that I just wasn’t normal like everyone around me seemed to
be. Dr. Prince told me a few things. He told me that if I used class A drugs it
would take 48 hours for me to become addicted to them. He told me that I should
always swot up on science and maths lessons and be one step ahead of the
teacher and that I should become a doctor because it was the best profession
there is. He told me to always give a firm handshake. What he didn’t tell me
was that I’d end up pregnant at sixteen and in and out of hospitals until I was
28, losing people around me like flies and barely managing to stay alive
through it.

He didn’t tell me that I would get myself into situations
out of my control.

He didn’t tell me that I would have ideas that I simply
couldn’t realistically follow through.

He didn’t tell me that suicide attempts would do nothing but
hurt the people that love me.

He didn’t tell me that making it this far meant that I had a
far stronger survival instinct than I had imagined.

He didn’t tell me I’d waste a few of years of my life inside

I have a weak handshake, I’m not addicted to class A drugs
and I’m crap at maths, so nothing he told me really was of any use to me at

How can I say how bad it really is/was/might be? How can I
even say. I remember being drugged up to the eyeballs on a women’s ward for
weeks just sat shaking in the lounge room my thoughts and hallucinations just
humming around my head constantly, painfully, and me occasionally getting up to
smoke, and to cry and heave with agony in my room, and to take my pills. And one
day I just had a lucid moment, and I stood up, and it was raining outside and I
felt like someone punctured a hole in my heart and the bleeding wouldn’t stop.

I am struggling to find examples of the worst times because
mostly they’re too horrible for words and you really wouldn’t want to read
about them.

I’ve seen people devastated by mental illness. It’s more
pain than a person can imagine. I understand that for some people, the
creativity and the ideas and the passion and the motivation and the
intelligence and the daring can mean the world to them. I know that there are a
lot of people who wouldn’t come back without their illness.

But I would give anything not to have these regrets, these
memories, these scars. I regret my youth, I don’t have many good memories about
my past, moodswings were so profound in me that I struggled to cope with
everyday living. I feel like I have literally dragged myself through my life to
be here, where I can say that I am no longer manic, and I am no longer
depressed. I miss that tiny window of opportunity when I was high but not over
the edge and I could write, and boy could I write. Every week I wonder what it
will be like if I don’t go for my injection. I imagine myself full of life and
wit and inspiration and writing a new book. But in reality I would be
hallucinating, sleep deprived and suicidal.

So they can take my mental illness and shove it up their
arses, just for the record.

I know people who would argue that for the highs alone it’s
worth all the misery and the depression. But I don’t buy it. Even when euphoric
I wouldn’t give anything for a life of euphoria and elation. The highs damage people, if
not yourself then the people around you. You can’t function like that, you
become out of step with the world. I suppose with me the highs used to come on
so fast and when mania hit it wouldn’t be long before I spilled over the edge,
and my symptoms became mixed, which is worse than mania or depression because
the world can’t keep up with you but you’re in agony, not happy, not productive
just wild and suicidal.

If only we could take the parts that we like and if only our
medication would only medicate to a point and still allow for glimpses of
brilliance. But life’s not like that. Now I have to suck it up and take the
medication so that I can give me and my children a calm, structured and
wonderful life. I never want to be ill again. My triggers are stress and sleep
deprivation, so I take sleeping pills every night and I build my world around
the strong foundations of my family and dig my heels in. I’m a lucky girl, and
a stubborn one and I would not go down without a fight. But that’s what it has
been; a fight. I’ve won for now.

I used to say, I just want to be left alone, be ill and just
have people accept that that’s who I am, but you’re not allowed to be crazy,
even if you’re not hurting anyone. I was young, and I didn’t realise how much I
had hurt people. I often stopped my medication and I often became too depressed
to do anything at all. I thought that I was myself, that there was nothing
wrong with me it was all them. That
it was unreasonable for people to want to medicate me. I felt like this for
years and the price I’ve paid for it has been severe.

I know people and have seen people with their lives
completely ruined. So many people. I would hate to think that a message should
go out to people that people with mental illness have somehow more creativity
and amazing experiences and would want
not to change. To celebrate madness as though it were desirable, exotic in some
way. Because I believe that only a minority of cases would want to celebrate it.
Maybe I am wrong, I would love to know what other people think; not just about
bipolar. I’ve had this whirlwind life, full of drama and pain, and I wouldn’t
wish it on anybody. If I had to do it again without the illness I feel I would
have achieved more. Now there’s a deep dark well inside, which I’ve climbed,
and it has taken me years. But it’s still there, and I know if I slip I’ll fall
back in. All those years I’ve been fighting I could have done so much more. To
even imagine that at some point in the future I might have to go through it all
again is unbearable to me. It’s horrifying.

I don’t think it’s a part of who I am, it’s a separate
entity, a ghost, a shadow, it tags along sometimes, it trips me up. Who I am
remains more or less intact when you take it away. I’m sensitive, I care about
people, I love, I have compassion and empathy, I can express myself through
writing…I’ll celebrate that instead. I’m not a genius, or a high-flier or a
great success in life, but I’m here. Part of me still plays devil’s advocate: maybe
it has made me stronger, maybe it has made me more mature, more empathic, maybe
it’s given me the ability to write at all. When I look in the mirror I see how
the stress has aged me. I feel how the stress has aged me. What I wouldn’t give
to be young again without moodswings, able to enjoy my life. I’m an intelligent
person, I could have done a lot more with myself. It makes me sad.

I’d love to hear your story,

Thanks for stopping by x




What’s Hot What’s Not July 2011

Going Up


Carson McCullers

Carol at the clinic

Lukewarm beverages

Krzysztof Kieslowski films

Discovering Lucie Brock-Broido

Being Birthday Girl

Hospital dramas

football and flowerpicking

pedro almodover films

running races on the field track

skipping down the street

re-reading favourite novels

CD albums

anna calvi


old book shops

best friends

reminiscing albums


Writer Interviews

riverside walks hand in hand

new swirly dresses

Albert Camus

R.D Laing

homemade birthday cake

making wishes

new shades

spoiling children

big school

La Locanda in Gisburn


playing Luke’s World

pina colada

not sleepy after a glass of wine

family visits


lemon pepper marinated salmon

my hero




Going Down


Being 28

forgetting names

arthritic handwriting

phone hacking

floods of tears

scissors paper stone

fighting angst with angst


bad hair days

sleigh bells


dog walking strangers conversations

Keano Reeves

Hollywood movies

ironing piles

putting together new toys

cooking meat

general stroppiness

being too honest


early nights

tellings off

meeting old teachers

being caught in the rain in sandals

no good exhibitions


going out without me

sudden memories of Hard Times

not knowing what to say

moth infestations

bad dreams that the house is on fire


hair appointments


the smell of bug spray

microwaves exploding soup