My Father died when I was 11, and my relationship with my Mother was strained.
I worked successfully as a broadcaster, and then moved into Public Relations. As I moved up the corporate ladder each role brought more stress and pressure. My work ethos had always been to not only succeed in everything I did, but to do it perfectly. I would always beat myself up even if I succeeded with a project even beyond everyone’s expectations if just one aspect of it didn’t work out perfectly. I realised I was a driven perfectionist, but to me, at that time, that was just normal.
In the run-up to my illness I had an extremely high-powered, high-pressured job with an unsympathetic boss in a corporate culture that heaped a massive workload on everyone and expected long hours to achieve it. For around a year I had no idea what was happening to me, why I felt depressed, why panic attacks were a regular occurrence, why I wasn’t sleeping. I regarded my wife’s parents very much as my main family, especially her Father, and it was during this stressful time at work that my Grandmother died, and my Mother-in-Law died after a long and unpleasant battle with cancer. Within weeks my Father-in-Law was also diagnosed with cancer. Then, on Friday June 13th 1997, while I was away on a business trip, my mind reached overload point, and alone in my hotel room I was on the verge of suicide. I rang the Samaritans, and without being dramatic, I can safely say that phone call saved my life that night.
I was diagnosed with severe depression and placed on long-term sick leave. There followed the inevitable counselling, but nothing seemed to do the trick. If anything my depression deepened, as I couldn’t really believe the diagnosis. Even though nothing made sense I suppose I fought against the diagnosis, feeling that I needed to be stronger, and that I should simply be able to snap out of it.
My wife is particularly strong and loving, and was extremely supportive, even though she couldn’t understand what was happening to me, or why my work and her Mother’s death were affecting me this way. My children were too young to understand what was going on. My friends appeared sympathetic and were quick to offer advice about taking a less stressful job, if I couldn’t cope.
As it turned out, that decision was taken out of my hands. My company decided that as I had a mental health issue they were no longer prepared to employ me. At my next counselling session a few days later, Wednesday September 10th, the experts decided I needed to be admitted to hospital, and I became a voluntary patient at a private psychiatric clinic. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to cope with the situation, and that I was “going crazy.” And the stigma heaped on me by the company I had served loyally upset me considerably. It made me feel that everyone was staring at me and talking about me behind my back, pointing at the “crazy guy.”
Settling into the routine of meals, medication, gentle activities, and consultation with psychiatrists, I appeared to be progressing. I made new friends, and we swapped stories of how we came to be there, and I felt a great sense of camaraderie with fellow patients. If anything, the support we gave to each other was equally as effective, but in different ways, as the professional medical support we were getting. The empathy we had with each other was like an unbreakable bond, and is something I had never experienced before, but can recognise instantly when I’m talking mental health issues with sufferers today.
My wife helped me through those days, and brought my children to see once a week. We all thought I was progressing, but my time in hospital then took a very dark turn.
By now my wife’s father was seriously ill, so she not only had to contend with me being in hospital, looking after our children who were then aged 6 and 4, but she was travelling a round trip of 240 miles each weekend to be with her Dad. Having seen my wife’s Mother suffer so much with cancer I was hoping he would not suffer the same way. He suddenly took a turn for the worse and died. This knocked my already broken mind further into the abyss as I blamed myself for his death. I explained to my doctors that I had killed him, as I had wished for him not to suffer. Voices were telling me that the only way to atone for my sin were to cut my throat and kill someone else so their spirit could accompany me to hell. It was at this point that I was diagnosed as being psychotic, and sectioned for 28 days.
My life was at rock bottom. I never thought I’d work again. In fact at one point I never thought I’d leave hospital. Being sectioned under the UK Mental Health Act meant I no longer had a choice about being in hospital. I was detained there against my will. I have no memory of the first two weeks of being sectioned -- according to the psychiatrists it was my mind’s way of blocking out the demons that had sent me over the edge, and apparently I managed to run away from the hospital twice in that first fortnight. I appealed against the section order, but lost the case. During the whole time I was sectioned, and for a couple of weeks afterwards, I was “specialed,” meaning a nurse was assigned to never be more than six feet away from me. I was heavily medicated all the time, one of the drugs being lithium.
While the treatment initially involved breaking down my conviction that I was responsible for my Father-in-Law’s death and that I needed to kill myself to atone for it, the psychiatrists discovered I had suppressed memories from my childhood which became repressed (or was it the other way round...I can’t remember now?) It had all begun when my Dad died just days before we heard I had passed the 11+ examination to go to Grammar School. Also, it had been decided at that time that I was too young to go to his funeral, so I never had the chance to say goodbye to him.
With everything in the open I was on my way to recovery, both from the psychosis and depression.
As mentioned above, my boss and my company were totally unsympathetic. It was through them that I experienced the worst stigma. When I was first admitted to hospital, my company’s medical insurance paid their bills, which were £2,000 a week, but my boss and Human Resources Director insisted those payments would stop a month after I was dismissed for my illness. However, when the Group MD learned of the severity of my illness, he arranged for the company’s private medical insurance to take care of the private clinic’s bill for the entire duration of my stay.
When I was discharged, the community care was terrific – I had round-the-clock access to mental health professionals, and a weekly visit from a mental health social worker. As a result of my experience I have supported this cause for 18 years...indeed, I am currently working with my local branch of the Mind charity on creating a new fund-raising event with them. And I have recently started to promote mental health awareness on the internet, in particular on Twitter, which is a terrific way of raising awareness.
Recognising the signs of a developing mental illness is vital. So is doing something about them. Accepting that you need help is the first step towards fighting the battle. In my case I struggled on with depression without telling anyone, for far too long. And by then it was too late for a simple recovery. My mind wasn’t simply damaged before I accepted something was wrong and rang the Samaritans, it was broken. Support is equally vital, both from health professionals and family.
Awareness and education is an ongoing process, and must focus on the fact that mental health is no different to physical health. Both have symptoms, both can be treated. Mental health charities, local government and national government should work together to end the stigma. It’s not going to be accomplished overnight. In the dim and distant past, people with mental illness were locked away in asylums, out of sight of “normal” people. This is where stigma surrounding mental illness began. The way to eradicate that stigma is for everyone at every level of both mental illness suffering and treatment to be more open and honest. Psychiatric hospitals need to open their doors to the media, in the same way that those suffering from mental illnesses are now becoming more open by sharing our stories.
Social media is proving to be an absolute godsend for this. It’s giving us all a platform to share our story and offer support to others. It is a positive, empowering tool, connecting us with others who can support us through the difficult times, by our first hand knowledge and experience. Yes, social media also has a darker side with people posting unhelpful comments. I used to care what people thought about me and what they said. But no longer. Simply ignoring negative comments works for me. And I believe that’s the secret, not only of handling how stigma is perpetrated by the darker side of social media, but coping with the stigma in the “real” world, too. You can’t make everyone see the truth. You can’t make everyone be kind. You can’t turn everyone into a decent human being. So don’t try too hard. Enjoy the successes you have, and your family, friends and online supporters. And ignore the ignorant.
In my opinion, once diagnosed with a mental illness, the best way to progress along the road to recovery, is through coping strategies. A good coping strategy means we can all better manage our day-to-day struggles without constant input from mental health professionals who play a major role at the beginning of our illness.
Once I was discharged from hospital my coping strategy became all about casting off the things I no longer needed in my life, including corporate success and the stress that comes with it. I returned to my first love of writing, and now work as a novelist and Public Relations writer, and I have my own fortnightly magazine column.
To me, coping strategies are highly personal, and you need one for every situation that can cause difficulty. For example, I realised that if I were to continue seeking perfection in my work and myself, I was destined to fail, and would likely face an even longer spell as a hospital in-patient. So my coping strategy for that was to accept compromise, both from myself and other people.
Whenever a deadline approaches I ask myself what is the worst that can happen if I don’t meet it? Occasionally I need to burn the midnight oil, but in the olden days it was a daily occurrence. For several years I have got on with my life and not consciously employed coping strategies, because they have become second nature to me. I’m actually using them all the time...it’s just that I’m no longer aware of them.
I hope my story will inspire and give confidence that there is hope. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve managed to build a successful new life from the ruins of my old one.
Stewart Bint MCIPR