The Essential Handbook…

I was in the library the other day and I picked up a book on display, something like The Essential Guide to Bipolar Disorder. It was white with rainbow coloured text and was quite thick. It looked like some light reading, like a cookery book. I had a look, of course all the usual details were there, symptoms for depression and mania and advice and medication etc. and I felt quite annoyed by it. This is something I feel a lot of the time, so bear with me. It looked sterile. It was a handbook, like you can buy a handbook to go to Rome but the experience far outweighs the facts a handbook can offer. I thought that people reading the book could have no sense of what it is like. Of course, having these kinds of books may help some people to get a better perspective but I also think that if someone can’t empathise, then they never will. Some people just don’t have it in them, and no book will bring them round. There is a new glossy magazine out now called Uncovered. It deals with issues around mental health. I think it’s a good thing to raise awareness but then I also hear from people working within social services that they are overrun with people trying to feign mental illness for benefits. I think that things like Uncovered can work for example with Post-Natal illness and Anxiety and Depression because it often takes a bit of a wake up to realise that you do need some help. But frankly, if you have bipolar or schizophrenia, you certainly won’t need a magazine or a book to tell you there’s anything wrong, or tell anyone around you, it will engulf you. 

Books don’t help me. They would however help younger people being diagnosed, struggling in school and needing psychiatric care. That’s when children can’t understand, and feel abnormal. I don’t believe mental illness should be normalised, how can you normalise something which clearly isn’t normal…but kids need it putting out there so they know they’re not alone. A book helped me when I was fifteen and had been given a diagnosis, nobody in the family bothered to read it.

What really gets to me is all the stuff that people don’t see. What it’s like on a psychiatric ward, the noise, the aggression, the sadness, the tears, the threats, the apathy, the suicidal, the self-harm, the drugs, the degradation, the humiliation, the bullying, the relationships, the madness, the psychosis, the dirt, the pain. And all the many millions of pills and injections. That’s why I back chipmunka, people should read about these experiences, these real experiences, not handbooks. We should encourage kids to write about their experiences, to put them into words, to shout out loud.

Nobody can write about despair in any way which other people can imagine. Despair goes along in silence, it atrophies, it corrodes. There is no language for it. When people talk about the 1 in 4, normalising mental health problems sometimes I wonder what kind of an image that creates. Is it really one in which people can be more tolerant. At the clinic I go to for my depot there is a big board with posters up of famous people and successful people and there are quotes…and they all look so well, and are we to believe then that everyone should be able to for example be a boss of a company or a celebrity and also suffer from severe enduring mental health problems. It is not possible for everyone to find a level where they can continue to work or find gainful employment and still manage their symptoms. Some people are not ever well, through no fault of their own. Some people find the answers and the strength and the insight after many years of suffering and can make good of it. I am well for the first time since I was about ten years old and I’m getting to a place where I can achieve and I can go out and I can speak out. When I see the patients waiting in the depot clinic reading the posters, then staring at their feet and shuffling their legs and wringing their hands and trying hard to stay awake, I think, there’s nothing pretty about this, and I think that these are the people they should be putting on posters. I think, what must it be like to have these people that haven’t been slashing their arms all their lives and haven’t been sectioned and haven’t been on smack and crack and drinking their livers to mush and failing at relationships, friendships, life, love…what must it be like when you’re that down you don’t know what the next day will bring and you live with a severe enduring mental health disorder and you have these people shoved in front of you, Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry. I know that the majority of people reading this will think I’m wrong, and cruel and not appreciating the huge awareness campaign there’s been over the past few years. I just want it to be real. Not glossy magazines, not handbooks. Not posters, not glaring out at misery.

If anyone reading this is suffering, write it down, someone one day will want to read it. Be real. Be loud. Don’t be sterile.

I suppose there is a balanced way of looking at it, that there is awareness (even though I don’t believe awareness ever affects the people who need to be more aware but helps those who want to try and understand) and that being 1 in 4 sounds less lonely than you being the only person you know. There are conditions that people need to feel confident about approaching their doctor about, like anxiety disorders and depression, which are common and which can be treated either with medication or other support. I think it’s especially prevalent in men not to seek help and suffering needlessly. I believe that if there is something wrong and you can take something for it then you’d be stupid to go on suffering when it’s available to you. Awareness is helpful. Awareness probably saves lives, people who are so alone they commit suicide, awareness and support does save lives. I think I just wish that people knew. I mean really knew. How I’ve survived this long I’ll never know. I hope Uncovered is a success and that handbooks continue to explain all the things that they are capable of explaining for family and friends. But I still feel that the stigma hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just getting shoved around the room.



I was in the local shop today when some women burst in saying ‘wig-witch, you know that wigwitch, that woman with the long straggly blonde hair who sits at the bus stop all day, you know that weird one. She just walked down Queen Street in her pyjamas and nothing on her feet with a kitchen knife in her hand.’

I found this distressing. I found it primarily distressing that the woman had a particularly nasty nickname that other people were aware of and used. Wig witch. I was hoping that nothing bad happened, I was hoping she was safe and being cared for. One reason that a vulnerable person might take a knife outside with them is because they are scared. Another is because they are vulnerable.

It might seem that I’m being a little bit daft in my thinking, but I’ve been in mental health services most of my life and I have met so many people. There have been virtually none that I felt afraid of or that I believed would harm someone, and I have met far more ‘sane’ non-service users that have given me reason to be afraid of them. Mostly, you hear about mental illness in the papers when someone gets killed or commits a crime but that gives a misleading representation of people with severe enduring mental health problems because I am sure that there are as many if not more people commiting crimes without having mental health problems.

I see the lady the women were talking about, all the time. She sits in a bench near the bus stop in the centre of town, she talks to people, she has a bag of chips, she smokes her roll-ups and she wears bright clothes. I know her as someone with mental health problems. She brings something to the town, she is colourful and eccentric and must be going through it to have gone out in her pyjamas this morning. I feel protective of her. We’re all in this together. That’s how I see it. It’s sad that she will have been gossiped about all over town today and that the name wig-witch will stick.