- Posted May 11, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
I was an extremely shy and nervous child. I had a chaotic upbringing – my mother was an alcoholic and my father a gambler. My father was also a very volatile character, and extremely verbally abusive. I found school very difficult – academically I excelled, but socially I was completely at sea. My only happy childhood years were those I spent at boarding school, but I had to leave this school prematurely because of lack of funds.
I fell into bad company and bad habits as a teenager, and became extremely unhappy and isolated. I left home at sixteen, lived in various bedsits and smoked a lot of cannabis, but managed to win a place to study Law at the University of Southampton. I found though, that with no social skills whatsoever and with very low self-esteem, I soon floundered at University. I had a breakdown when I was nineteen, was sectioned (forcibly detained under a section of the Mental Health Act) and spent three months in a mental hospital, St Ann’s in Poole, Dorset.
The treatment I received in hospital was brutal. Forced medication should in my opinion be outlawed, or saved for the most extreme cases— those who have been violent or suicidal. I was neither. The emphasis in hospital was on containment, not understanding, and this amounted to an inhumane system, notwithstanding the good intentions of some members of staff.
When I finally left St Ann’s I was keen to get on with life. I stopped taking medication gradually, under the supervision of a psychiatrist whom I saw as an outpatient. I went back to University and gained an Honours degree in Law. However, I was still extremely nervous and insecure. I found it almost impossible to relax in company, although I longed to be more sociable. I felt like an outsider. By the time I graduated, although I was academically qualified to do a professional job, I knew that such work was out of my reach.
Instead I took on work as a waitress and cleaner because it was all that I felt I could cope with. Over time my mental health deteriorated; I started to smoke cannabis again, and before I knew it I was sectioned once more and back in St Ann’s.
This time I did another three months’ stint. I hated everything about that place – the forced medication, the atmosphere of fear, the mixed wards, the humiliation of finding myself in such a situation once again. But by the time I left I was still very weak mentally, and when a psychiatric nurse visited me at home and offered me the opportunity to attend a day hospital, I accepted through lack of any other options. At least this way, I could claim benefits to pay the rent on my flat, and so I would survive.
I was now twenty-five, and it was at the day hospital that my life changed. I was told that schizophrenia had first been diagnosed when I was nineteen, at the time of the first breakdown, but that it had not been thought appropriate to tell me then. Apparently the condition was confirmed by my second breakdown. Although I was confused at the lack of proof of the illness – there was (and remains) no physical test – I was told that there was no chance of recovery unless I accepted the diagnosis. Then, in a room filled with psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health nurses, I was told that my life was effectively over. That there was no chance of recovery anyway. They spelled out that I would have to take medication for the rest of my life, and that I would get worse as I got older.
I believe now that this dismal prognosis was the thing that most hindered my recovery. I respected medical opinion, and I believed what I was told. In the day hospital I started smoking cigarettes again (whenever I was mentally unwell I smoked; when I was better I stopped. For me, smoking is a major marker of my mental condition). I ate constantly – meals were free and plentiful and my weight and general appearance seemed to be completely unimportant in the context of the fact that I was now a SCHIZOPHRENIC.
I gave up hope. For a long period of time I travelled to the day hospital daily, took my medication dutifully and basically vegetated there. To be fair, there was some effort made towards education; we patients were told that schizophrenics are more of a danger to themselves than to others, for example, and that there was no element of split personality to the ‘disease’ that we suffered from. However, nothing detracted from my fear of what I had become, and what I might do as a SCHIZOPHRENIC.
After two or three years of this, when I finally began to recover, the impetus came from somewhere within myself. Somehow, I decided that I had had enough. I didn’t want to live like this forever. I knew that there was more to me than this. I didn’t want to be fat any more, so I began to control my food intake. I didn’t want to be unhealthy, so I gave up smoking and started exercising – I walked to the local pool where I swam every morning. I was then lucky to be offered a flat by a local Housing Association – the wife of the manager was a receptionist at the day hospital and she put in a word for me. This gave me some self-respect; I now had a decent home at a low rent, somewhere that I could be proud of and where I felt safe.
I began to work again, as a chambermaid in a local hotel. It was menial and poorly paid, but it kept me active and was as stress-free as a job could be. Eventually I found a better job, working for an insurance company in a call centre. Here I sent in an article to the internal newspaper, which resulted in some work setting up a newsletter for the home insurance department, and writing some internal communications documents for the call centre manager. I realised my vocation – I was a writer.
It took a while for things to settle properly. I met my husband, and we had a child, but I had my third and final breakdown after she was born. I was under considerable stress – my longed-for child was born a month early and was taken directly to the neonatal intensive care unit. But the breakdown was bad – I was sectioned again. It was a huge shock to my system and was regarded by everyone, including myself, as final proof of the schizophrenia.
I could not give in to the illness though, as I had done before, because I had my child to think about. As soon as I was released from hospital my husband returned to work and I assumed full care of our daughter. I looked after her diligently – played with her constantly, took her for long walks, and to mother and toddler groups. I was determined that my child should not learn to be shy, so I forced myself to start and to share conversations with other mothers at baby groups and on other excursions. And it worked! My daughter grew into a perfect little child, and my husband and I decided to cement our union with another. Fortunately this pregnancy and birth was straightforward, and I remained well afterwards. Two years later we had another child, and eventually our fourth and last, and still I did not require medication. I gradually became more confident of my ability to cope with life.
You can find more information on my blog at http://schizophreniaattheschoolgate.blogspot.com<http://schizophreniaattheschoolgate.blogspot.com/> or in my book ‘Surviving Schizophrenia: A Memoir’.
#Schizophrenia #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness