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




17 thoughts on “Is Mental Illness Ever A Gift?

  1. “I’m an intelligent person, I could have done a lot more with myself.” A sentiment shared by so many of us. And yet as I say in a poem I just recorded:

    “That ten years ago the sky fell in
    That the room fell in
    That I became fallen
    That, risen, I fell again, and again
    That this continuation
    This that had no sense
    The failure
    The escape
    I had not found
    That I sought
    The only quest I knew
    That which had no goal
    No outcome(s)
    Has yet brought me love…”

  2. Thankyou for sharing, Jeremy. ‘the sky fell in’ makes sense to me, the continuation. I feel with you that you have found some peace and are comfortable with the illness as a part of who you are. I have never made it there. I might be wrong (do correct me). I look up to you because you can access that creativity and tune in. I have to work at it now. It’s not easy. Love to you x

  3. Mel, thank you so much for your writing, for all your writing. I’m not sure what to say here, you make your point so clearly, so well, so poignantly, so directly. I don’t even understand how anyone can ask the question about mental illness being a gift. I was so lucky never to have experienced any even slight issues until a few years ago, when I started experiencing anxiety, and I wouldn’t wish just that on anyone at all. It hasn’t added to my life in any way, it’s something to try and get over, not to celebrate. But perhaps this question and the reaction it’s provoking are important so that these issues get talked about, are not hidden any more, there is no shame. Sending you much love. xxx

    • Oh thankyou for reading Tania. It always surprises me when I hear people say they would not want to give up their illness, that it has made them who they are and has been a gift, and I wouldn’t want to argue with that it that’s how they feel. But like you, it is not how I feel. I wouldn’t wish anxiety on anyone either. Mental illness needs to be talked about, I was really happy that 4OD were showing these films, I think that it is an interesting question and will always provoke varied and unusual responses. You can watch them online btw in case you fancy it. Much love xxx

  4. Thanks M L-H. Yes, I feel I have somehow reclaimed myself. This does not mean I am ‘recovered’, ‘well’, etc. It means…I am Jeremy. I don’t really see myself as ill. I love everybody I am. I am not proud of the side of me that can cause myself and others chaos, pain and confusion, but I love it. I must. Indulge me and read my poem and note the final two lines, for those expecting me not to…be.

    Winter begins
    in the Kingdom of the Ghosts
    Those we hold dear
    Whose vaporous flesh
    I wear
    dressing me a handsome ghost
    In my skin
    Why don’t you take me
    To the race of incarnation?
    These shy ghosts
    With their jokes
    Will push me from the nest
    I ate the requirement to love
    Its endless demands
    There is not enough of me
    To answer your questions
    Whoever you want me to be
    You are.

  5. As regards suicidal ideation and suicide, there is a fascinating book the title of which escapes me, which collects several dozen suicide notes. The strange thing is that in many of them the authors profess not knowing why they want to or intend to kill themselves. There is a real line to cross from ideation to action; once across it, I think you are in an unknown country and the magnetism of death overcomes that of life and you may be helplessly drawn to it.

  6. Thankyou for the poem J, I’m glad that you have found this balance in yourself of acceptance and love. Would you want to be without the illness or has it fully become a part of you? I imagine that you wouldn’t want to be any different, from the things you say. That amazes me, and I am very happy that you feel that way. I don’t think I’d want to read the book, I have written so many of them myself. I have experience of knowing people who professed to not knowing why they wanted to commit suicide, on a few occasions they were going through a mixed episode. Like you say, the magnetism of death can draw you in, but I don’t believe that people ever commit suicide for ‘no reason.’ I can’t believe it. I send you much love, M xxx

  7. Mel, as GBS once put it, this would be shorter if I had more time! I didn’t see the Channel 4 programmes and have only a ‘lepers squint’ view of what you have been or are going through. From my own experience – a first ‘treated’ depression 15 years ago and very mild medication for anxiety/depression for the last few years – I only wish treatments had so nuanced 30 years ago, since with hindsight I might have benefited from treatment then rather than shrugging and saying to myself ‘this is just me’. My med, which I take every day like an asthma sufferer takes theirs, makes me drowsy sometimes, doesn’t make me ‘happy’ and yes, has probably reduced the occasions of heightened experience, those moments when you feel as if you’re looking at the world through ‘day-vision’ goggles. In creative terms, those moments tended to be like match-tricks in the pub rather than a real fire anyway. Would I trade them in exchange for letting people down less often because of paralysis, fear and self-absorption; less loneliness; less boredom and above all so much less wasted time? Definitely.

    I’m afraid of heights, but these days my chemical helper (escitalopram) enables me to keep walking across that wobbly suspension bridge without stopping so often to look down into the gorge beneath.

    So much of what we experience comes down to asking the right questions. I wonder if we can retrain ourselves to ask them even when they no longer seem instinctive, in the same way stroke sufferers relearn speech?

    Does this make sense? Probably not. But Mel, you can be enormously proud of everything you’ve overcome thus far. And your best years are yet to come …

    J xx

    P.S. This is the equivalent of me ‘coming out’. Not sure how I feel about it!

  8. Jeremy,

    I’m never sure how I feel about it either, writing here, for people to see and judge. But I feel it is essential, to use what ability I have to write about things I think are important maybe for others as well as myself.

    I think that your post was immensely admirable and I hope it came with a sense of relief.

    Escitalopram is quite a strong drug and very effective, I used to take it but it sent me high, but in the interim period it really banished the depression and anxiety. But yes, there are side effects with any medication. That dulling of heightened experience is harsh. I feel very strongly about this. I have little emotional range these days. But I do feel also hopeful that my best years are ahead of me, thankyou, that made me feel better. I feel better reading your post full stop. We have to reach out, take risks, be exposed sometimes, and be vulnerable. If we can’t share our experience then the experience is hardly worth having. And it is important that we share our suffering, so that we can ask the right questions and heal and retrain ourselves to make good of what we have got. And leave the past behind and look forward.

    I’m not sure I’m making any sense now! I seem to have a lot to say for myself except when it’s needed.

    Take good care of yourself and keep in touch

    M xxx

    • Thanks Mel,
      It’s a very mild dose (10mg) and it doesn’t completely obliterate my symptoms, just helps me deal with or ignore them! On the continuum it’s very much at the ‘common-cold’ end of things.
      Take care. xx

      • Hi Jeremy,

        There is never a perfect balance with medication, and for now I’m pleased that it is helping you to some extent. It’s the same with mine; if I start running about and doing too much I will have ‘breakthrough’ symptoms, It’s all about management.

        It’s really lovely to hear from you here. xx

  9. Jxx is not me, ML-H 🙂 Some mysterious soul! Yet I shall respond 🙂 It is essential, above all, to love oneself. Also, to be authentic. Not to live from the lie told by oneself to oneself about oneself: “I am weak, I am ill, I am worthless, I am inferior, I am afraid.” It will not always be possible to avoid speaking to ourselves in this way and acting from same, but there must be a growing awareness of and acceptance of oneself that is unconditional. Fierce, almost. You have to appreciate that the person, the idea of a person, you are…is not your absolute nature, it is a conditioned and cluttered and even contaminated construct. Love all you are. Be Melissa. 🙂 xxxJSG

    “That which you are, your true self, you love it, and whatever you do, you do for your own happiness. To find it, to know it, to cherish it is your basic urge. Since time immemorial you loved yourself, but never wisely. Use your body and mind wisely in the service of the self, that is all. Be true to your own self, love yourself absolutely. Do not pretend that you love others as yourself. Unless you have realized them as one with yourself, you cannot love them. Don’t pretend to be what you are not, don’t refuse to be what you are.” – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

    • I hear you. I’m not a very spiritual person, and so my version of getting by is not as bold and visionary. I don’t love myself absolutely, I have always found it challenging to accept myself. Though I have, and I am settling down into my stride these days. But I don’t love all that I am when it means I am ill. Then I don’t feel like a whole person at all, I feel torn apart. It is the hardest thing, is it not, to accept oneself.

      Thankyou for the lovely quotation too xx

  10. No, its not a gift, if it was Id send it back. Its exhausting, unpleasant and you wouldnt wish it on your worst enemy. Though thinking about it Id be pleased to send “the gift” to every member of the Con-Dem government who are busily planning to make life even harder for everyone with health/disability issues.

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